Richard Wagner • Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Opera in three acts
by Richard Wagner (1813-1883)
Text by the composer
With German and English surtitles
Co-production with the Opéra National de Paris
Print program (PDF)
Daniele Gatti, Conductor
Stefan Herheim, Director
Heike Scheele, Sets
Gesine Völlm, Costumes
Olaf Freese, Lighting
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Dramaturgy
Ernst Raffelsberger, Chorus Master
Anna Gabler, Eva
Monika Bohinec, Madgalene
Michael Volle, Hans Sachs
Roberto Saccà, Walther von Stolzing
Georg Zeppenfeld, Veit Pogner
Markus Werba, Sixtus Beckmesser
Peter Sonn, David
Thomas Ebenstein, Kunz Vogelsang
Guido Jentjens, Konrad Nachtigall
Oliver Zwarg, Fritz Kothner
Benedikt Kobel, Balthasar Zorn
Franz Supper, Ulrich Eißlinger
Thorsten Scharnke, Augustin Moser
Karl Huml, Hermann Ortel
Dirk Aleschus, Hans Schwarz
Roman Astakhov, Hans Foltz
Tobias Kehrer, A night-watchman
"Academy Meistersinger": Julia Helena Bernhart, Reinhild Buchmayer, Christiane Döcker, Katrin Lena Heles, Stepanka Pucalkova, Onur Abaci, Sascha Emanuel Kramer, Omer Kobiljak, Martin Mairinger, Amer Mulalic, Markus Murke, Angelo Pollak, Derek Rue, Sa, Apprentices
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
While Wagner was still working on Act Two of Die Meistersinger, Hans von Bülow, who was to conduct its first performance, wrote to friends that the nascent work would be Wagner’s “creative apogee”, “representing the very highest […] that can be conceived under the idea of a national flowering of art”, and would be “his most classical, most German, most mature and generally most accessible work of art”. The composer Peter Cornelius, who was a close friend of Wagner’s, stated shortly before the premiere in Munich on 21 June 1868 that in his opinion Wagner had written the “German national opera”.
Intended by Wagner as a comic work, Die Meistersinger was encumbered from the outset by assertion that he had composed “the eternal idea of Germanity in a concrete image of German cultural life” (Peter Cornelius). The opera’s later reception was to be correspondingly disastrous: whenever reactionary nationalistic values needed to be invoked Die Meistersinger was performed, and during the Third Reich Hitler notoriously ordered the National Socialist Party congresses at Nuremberg to open with an evening performance of the opera.
However, this kind of usurpation for political ends is based on a profound misconception. Die Meistersinger draws on historical models, but in a different way from that intended by this mistaken reception.
Die Meistersinger was composed in the context of the nineteenth-century rediscovery of the Middle Ages, when attention was turned to the great works of medieval literature in the search for a glorious German past. The German Romantics had been some of the first to set out on this path: Wackenroder and Tieck had discovered Nuremberg as a locus of longing, portraying this medieval city as an idyll, a city that had grown rich on trade, typified by its free citizenry with their appreciation of art, a place that was home to famous artists such as Hans Sachs or Albrecht Dürer. With its quaint half-timbered buildings and colourfully painted windows, it represented a stylized image that Wagner found congenial. It was this that he wanted to draw on when he conceived his intention of composing “a comic drama which in fact could follow my ‘Singers’ Contest on the Wartburg’ as a richly layered satyr play”.
Wagner had intended to compose a light, comic work that he hoped would at last bring him major success. However, Die Meistersinger turned surreptitiously into something quite different – into an exemplary piece on the role of art in a community. This is immediately clear from the fact that Wagner’s Nuremberg is a city without any political institutions and symbols. It is true that there is a city council, but it does not appear on stage. The estates that populate the festival meadow in the final scene are vocational, not political organisations. Neither is there any mention of politics; only the presence of a night watchman indicates that Nuremberg has a political body of authority.
In Wagner, wherever politics is absent, there is art. And thus Die Meistersinger is also a work about art and the making of art. This is clear right from the beginning. While David and his apprentices are getting everything ready for the guild meeting of the Masters, he explains the complicated rules of the mastersong to the unwitting Stolzing. The aim is to conform precisely to traditional rules without deviation, adhering laboriously to tradition as an end in itself – a daunting task for Stolzing, who only wants to become a master in order to win the hand of Eva. Wagner portrays tradition as the only possible basis for progress. However ponderous the meeting of the Masters may seem, a remarkable thing takes place: here free citizens gather together to practise their art. They hold art in such high regard that the wealthy Pogner promises the hand in marriage of his daughter Eva, if she so chooses, to “the singer who in the song-contest wins the prize before all the people”. After various twists and turns this comes to pass in the desired manner: Eva gets her Stolzing, because his prize-winning song strikes the right balance between tradition and progress and the people declare him the winner.
Die Meistersinger is a highly complex work. The plot has several strands: the love story between Stolzing and Eva, and also between Sachs and Eva, and parallel to this the love between Lene and David. Then there is the story of the Mastersingers themselves, the singing contest with Beckmesser and Stolzing vying with each other, and finally the people of Nuremberg, who play a decisive role at two points in the action.
Wagner interwove these different levels with consummate artistry, portraying in masterly fashion the individual characters, which never seem merely one-dimensional. Take Sachs, for example, highly esteemed “cobbler and poet”, primus inter pares, whose word is law. When he defends Stolzing’s first attempt at singing, his judgement is respected by the other Masters who had previously expressed their dissatisfaction with the knight’s efforts. But Sachs, who is above all things and is in fact the integrating figure, is intermittently occupied in considering whether Eva might not court him instead of Stolzing. Then there is the goldsmith Pogner, who – seemingly from disinterested motives – arranges the singing contest but in fact does so to boost his own standing. There is Beckmesser, purportedly an impartial Marker, who is actually looking for a bride himself and even stoops to stealing a song. And finally there is Stolzing, the knight who wants to become a burgher, but who in the end shies away from it, refusing the Master’s chain.
But all people and all things are held together by art. Art is the life-giving nucleus of the opera, and of Wagner’s Nuremberg. Its rules are the rules of life; to succeed in the practice of art is to enjoy social success; social rank is measured in artistic achievement. Wagner wrote in 1880 that he hoped for an “aesthetic world order”, something that is already anticipated in the Nuremberg of Die Meistersinger.
Translated by Sophie Kidd