Overture Opera Guides: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

MeistersingerCoverENO’s reliably good OOG series released Die Meistersinger guide last year and I finally got a chance to read it. (Thank you, Gary!) I also happen to have watched Herheim’s Salzburg production on DVD just the other day–my first entire Die Meistersinger, and an unusually cozy and gentle one for Herheim, very Dickens and the Grimm Brothers.

The guide contains a useful chapter by Arnold Whittall on musical themes and developments, which comes with the graphic guide with notation, and both connect very logically to the libretto and its translation. There’s also an insightful chapter by Tin Blanning on the “holy German art” business, in which Schiller plays a prominent part and which explains that the Sachs speech that today reads as nationalist was, at the time of its creation and first utterance on stage, aspirational more than anything else (Germany united as a country a couple of years after Die M had its premiere).

And now for some quibbles.

The first essay could have been more exciting, shorter and more focused, and altogether less reverential. The author John Deathridge, tasked with introducing the work and how it was created, leaves no mystification and (Wagner’s own) self-mystification behind. We hear at great length how the plot also works as an allegory about Jesus and John the Baptist, and Jesus and the Apostles.  Wagner and his second wife Cosima both wrote that seeing Titian’s painting “Assumption of the Virgin” was what reignited Wagner’s interest in his abandoned Meistersinger, so that statement is taken seriously here too, and a connection via Schopenhauer concocted between the painting and the opera. We hear in excruciating detail about an altarpiece from a Nurenberg church and how it may or may not have influenced Wagner. We hear a lot about the first version of the Meistersinger, which Wagner abandoned before re-embarking on the one we have today, and a lot of psychologyzing around the question of why Wagner changed stuff. There are almost two pages dedicated to the forced analogy between King Marke and Hans Sachs. There are interesting bits–the one on Goethe’s Hans Sachs, for ex–but those flights of critical imagination are buried amid all the deference to the biographical and the biblical.

Moving right on… There are people who argue that there’s always something inherently anti-Semitic in Die Meistersinger because 1) there are documents pointing out that Wagner intended an anti-Semitic resonance in very specific spots in the piece, and 2) of the history of reception of the work before and during World War Two–namely, the Nazis embraced it, as a matter of cultural policy, and used its performances as a unification ritual. Hans Rudolf Vaget’s essay at first looked like it wasn’t going to be one of those. Titled “The Beckmesser Problem”, his chapter is a multi-layered history of ascribing anti-Semitism to (finding anti-Semitism in?) certain parts of the Meistersinger. It also provides context to Wagner’s own manifesto “The Jewishness in Music”, which apparently stemmed from his professional jealousies toward Meyerbeer and the resentment toward one particular critic, Edouard Hanslick. Adorno’s contention that all rejects in Wagner’s operas are caricatures of Jews, and Beckmesser of the Meistersinger especially so, looms large in Vaget’s piece, though he reexamines it, together with a handful of other readings of anti-Semitic tropes, some finding baseless, others less so. He finds hidden in Walther’s Trial scene in Act One a wink to the anti-Semitic tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”– in a complicated way that I won’t dare attempt to reproduce here. This for him mars the piece permanently, constitutionally: by the end of the essay, Vaget comes close to the position that there are parts within Die Meistersinger that are inherently suspect and permanently offering an anti-Semitic reading. Because Wagner intended it, and because there have been audiences at a certain point in history–say, 1930s in Germany–who arguably found it and embraced it, it exists in the text itself.

Not only do I not subscribe to this philosophical view of how meaning is created–there’s no ur-meaning outside all contexts, not even dormantly; all of the meaning is in the contexts, and if the contexts die, so die the meanings… Not only do I not subscribe to it philosophically, but I myself am a living proof against it. Namely, if Vaget, Adorno & others did not point out to me that the figure of Beckmesser (or Mime in the Ring) was “meant to make fun of the Jews”, it’d never have occurred to me. Not in a million years, not in the productions I’ve been seeing. Nor was I aware of the wink to the Brothers Grimm tale in the Meistersinger (nor will I look it up now; I’m fine without knowing the basics of the tale “The Jew in the Thorn Bush”, thank you very much). I am not in the minority; we are a massive majority of opera-going folk who would never seek out–why on earth would anybody?–any traces of hidden anti-Semitic caricature any of the Wagner’s characters, or in any other opera’s, for that matter. And yet, we get urged to do so.

The crux of my point being: those writing about an “anti-Semitic Mime” and an “an anti-Semitic Beckmesser” as permanently hiding in the work itself are, perversely, keeping both of those tropes alive. They’re doing that by re-sensitizing the audience (of, say, Toronto, London, or NYC, A.D. 2016) that would otherwise be absolutely deaf to this particular call to prejudice.

Nothing in fact belies the spirit of Vaget’s essay better than the essay that follows it, Aine Sheil’s piece on the performance history of Die Meistersinger. The denaturalization of the piece started with the abstract sets of Wieland Wagner, but German theatre radically opened up the work and faced the past head-on with the productions by Neuenfels (Stuttgart 1994) and Konwitchny’s (Hamburg 2002). The Neuenfels production opens with Germany in ruins in 1945 and ends with the reunification at the Brandenburg Gate. Konwitchny, in his, stops the proceedings at the exact moment of Hans Sachs’ nationalist tirade and lets the singers discuss why and if this piece should be done at all. It’s Katharina Wagner’s 2007 Bayreuth production that probably goes furthest in its radical redress and innovation–in it, there is an added segment in which the Regie director and his team get pushed in the dumpster and set on fire by the conservative Sachs. While Sachs goes increasingly authoritarian, Beckmesser ends the production as an independent artist forging his own path.

Interestingly, the productions by the houses in the English-speaking lands tend to be more warm, pretty and straightforward, like McVicar’s Glyndebourne production and Herheim’s own, which was a co-production with the Met (never to be seen this side of the Atlantic, turns out). Richard Jones’s 2010 WNO production, reworked and remounted for the ENO in 2015, made more effort: it found a way to honour the centuries of German and Austrian artists and mould-breakers across disciplines without any of the accompanying ethnocentrism, as a group of people ultimately playing for the team Humanity.

Katharina Wagner’s production can be watched on Medici TV and is available on DVD. A review and another review.

meistersinger-kwagner-enriconawrath

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