~By Lynne Gray, PhD~
Saturday, March 28
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg ~ 4hrs and 49mins
Starring Annette Dasch, Johan Botha, Paul Appleby, and Michael Volle, conducted by James Levine. From December 13, 2014.
Arguably this is Wagner’s cheeriest opera – if not his shortest! – and this particular production is a musical and visual delight, full of tuneful songs and lighthearted hijinks. Designed by Otto Schenk with charming traditional sets, it is primarily the touching story of Hans Sachs, a cobbler-poet in 16th century Nürnberg with a heart of gold. Hans is a widower, a dedicated member of the guild of mastersingers and the community’s most trusted inhabitant.
As the opera opens, the young knight Walther von Stolzing is visiting St. Katherine’s Church and is immediately enchanted by Eva, the daughter of a wealthy goldsmith, Veit Pogner. Walther learns that Eva’s hand in marriage is to be given to the winner of a song contest being held the very next day by the Mastersinger’s Guild. After a quick lesson in the rules of the contest from Hans’ young apprentice, David, our hero declares his love for the lady and his intent to join the Guild. There is, however, a rival for her love – the pedantic town clerk, Beckmesser – who mercilessly ‘marks’ Walter’s errors during the qualifying round. Consequently, our hero fails to sing his way into the club of mastersingers who just happen to be the only ones eligible to compete for Eva’s hand.
The second act brings us a touching discussion between Hans and Eva, a frustrated elopement by our lovers, an unwelcomed serenade which leads to a serious altercation and ultimately to an operatic riot! By the third act, our hero has decided to crash the contest with the help of a more than sympathetic Hans. Hans helps him practice his composition, but it is surreptitiously stolen by the unscrupulous Beckmesser. Walter’s song nevertheless completely melts the hearts of his beloved and all of the townsfolk as well.
In the end, Beckmesser receives his just desserts, our hero triumphs in the contest, Hans is acclaimed for his wisdom and we are treated to a lecture on the holy nature of German art!
Sunday, March 29
Wagner’s Tannhäuser ~ 3 hrs and 51 mins
Starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, Michelle DeYoung, Johan Botha, Peter Mattei, and Gunther Groissböck, conducted by James Levine. From October 31, 2015.
And finally, for the last offering of the Met’s Wagner Week, we have Tannhäuser – or more completely, “Tannhäuser and the Minnesingers’ Contest at Wartburg.” The real contest in this Opera however, is not between singers, but between the women pictured above – Venus, representing profane love (sex!) and Elisabeth, representing sacred love (purity!). The one offers our hero unending sensual pleasures — the other redemption. Hmmmmm – let’s see who wins.
You might well be asking, since we had Meistersingers last night – what on earth are Minnesingers? Well, Minnesingers actually came first and were high-born courtly troubadours. They were often itinerant Knights who composed both words and music and performed for courtly gatherings. Meistersingers on the other hand were their bourgeois heirs – mostly from the artisan and trading classes, they belonged to Guilds and often trained Church musicians. Both Meistersingers and Minnesingers held competitions – hence the singing competitions in each opera – but while the Minnesingers tended to be free-spirited noblemen, lyric poets and composers, the Meistersingers were guild members, obliged to follow very strict rules of composition and subject matter.
So – Tannhäuser is a prominent Minnesinger in Wartburg. When he has a falling out with his colleagues, he takes off for the nearby Venusberg – a mountain suspected of containing Venus’ magical hidden grotto. As the opera begins, Tannhäuser is indeed in the thrall of Venus – a willing prisoner in her underworld paradise. A wild Bacchanal is in progress, and we (along with Tannhäuser, of course) are invited to participate. It seems that Tannhäuser has been enjoying the pleasures of the Grotto for more than an entire year now and is finally sated. He considers a break for freedom. Venus deploys her more than considerable charms to entice him to stay, but he is resolute. Upon uttering the phrase “My salvation rests in Mary…” Venus and her Grotto disappear.
Our hero now finds himself on the road back to Wartburg as Pilgrims pass reminding him of God’s love in their chant. A hunting party of Minnesingers approaches and recognizes him – welcoming him back into the fold. He is reluctant to do so, but is reminded by the long suffering Wolfram that his singing won him the heart of Elisabeth, the Landgrave’s niece, who still waits for his return.
After a joyous reunion with Elisabeth, a song contest on the theme of Love begins. Wolfram leads off with a solemn tribute to ideal love. Tannhäuser follows him but disgraces himself by singing of worldly pleasures and Venus. As punishment, he is sentenced to go to Rome as a poor pilgrim and beg the Pope for forgiveness. In a famously ungenerous judgment, the Pope declares he could no more be forgiven than the Pope’s own staff could bear blossoms and leaves again. Returning home without hope, Tannhäuser wishes only to find Venus. To see why the Pope’s staff indeed blossoms again, enjoy the final scenes of this mythological, Romantic opera.
Here is a link to the Mets streaming performances: https://www.metopera.org/nightly-opera-stream/