You may have to leave work early for this one folks, and it will be well worth the personal time.
Lyric Opera Chicago’s latest production, Die Meistersinger von Nurenburg, is a truly singular experience in the art world, not just in opera. It is one of famed composer Richard Wagner’s rare attempts at comedic opera. It was widely acclaimed and used in propaganda under Germany’s Nazi regime. And at a seat-numbing five and a half hour runtime, it holds the honor of being the longest opera currently in production. I admit it begs the question, “why see this?” and the simple answer is, because a furiously talented composer created a stunning masterpiece that is being performed by a phenomenal ensemble of artists in what I can safely describe as one of my favorite theater experiences to date.
Let’s get the whole Nazi thing out of the way first. Wagner typically told stories about heroes and gods; however Die Meistersinger is set in the very real city of Nuremberg and features very real and casually identifiable characters. The German is plainly spoken and the characters feel a deep connection to the traditions of German Art. That the work was so masterfully crafted only further strengthened the German people’s affinity for the work, and it became a rallying point for German pride into World War II. I was not raised to hold much regard for the tenets of National Socialism, but they certainly had good taste in music (though regrettably this causes some modern critics to view certain characters with anti-Semitic implications, which could in all honesty be legitimate but distracts from the work’s beauty).
Die Meistersinger tells a story of the Mastersingers, a guild of working class men who adhered to strict rules surrounding the creation of “Master songs”. Young nobleman Walther von Stolsing arrives in town and falls for young Eva Posner. Eva’s father Veit Posner sponsors a singing contest during Midsummer’s fest (St. John’s Day) and offers the winner Eva’s hand in marriage. Additionally he stipulates that only a mastersinger may win her hand. Walther decides to try to enter the guild, but his lack of training infuriates many of the mastersingers during his audition, the brassy and overly traditional Sixtus Beckmesser being his fiercest critic. The one mastersinger who see’s potential, the cobbler Hans Sachs, is deeply affected by the young noble’s passionate song. Despite being a legitimate contender for Eva’s hand, Hans Sachs nonetheless helps Walther compose a master song worthy of the guild’s respect but with the young nobleman’s passion. He also manages to thwart his rival Beckmesser from wooing Eva, and even creates an opportunity where the blowhard faces humiliation in front of the town. And hey, no one dies!
The richness of character of Hans Sachs (and the supreme performance by renowned bass-baritone James Morris) is central to the opera. His profound respect for tradition is challenged by a beautiful new yet untraditional musical expression. He bravely embraces and reshapes his qualification of Art, but at the risk of dishonoring his reputation. He loves young Eva but only in a way that reminds him of the love he once felt for his wife and child. The audience sympathizes deeply with Hans as he admits his shortcomings and begins to doubt his own credibility, but still manages to commit to having an open mind and humility with the art he loves so much. Perhaps when at his most vulnerable, the emotional arc culminates in the triumphant final scene where the chorus joyously performs Hans Sachs original master songs, showing that he is sincerely regarded in the town, only to be further validated as he introduces the town to Walther’s new musical style.
As deep and rich as the storyline for Die Meistersinger, the crowning jewel is in the music. Morris is joined by the commanding tenor of Johan Botha (Walther); the pretty and delicate soprano of Ryan Opera Center alum Amanda Majeski (Eva); and in a standout performance, the blustery and comically inclined baritone Bo Skovhus (Beckmesser). In some productions Beckmesser is played with such heavy caricature that no one could possibly conceive he could be a legitimate suitor for Eva, but the dashing Skovhus with his crisp tone and emotive phrasings make Beckmesser look more pathetic, because he scuttles his own chances. Another standout was David Portillo who portrayed David, apprentice to Hans Sachs, though his role is heavily auxiliary in the second half of the opera (which is in itself as long as some entire operas).
Though written largely in rhyme, a practice Wagner has notably criticized, the rhyme is appropriate and most of the time presented without irony. The score and libretto are both wildly elaborate and yet feel effortless and casual, peppered with folk elements and using pithy German language, a departure from the haughtier texts of Tristan und Isolde and its kin. The time really does fly, even though there are many points during the opera when even as an audience member it seems incomprehensible how anyone on stage or in the pit could have the stamina to continue. Indeed the brilliantly choreographed crowd scenes, including a hilariously raucous mob fight or a joyous festival, had outstanding musical cues directly from Wagner. The harmonies would rise effortlessly from a swirling cacophony of bodies, creating a wonderfully organized confusion and injecting both humor and energy at the perfect times.
Die Meistersinger is truly a marathon, but the pacing is never overly lagging or rushed. It’s perfectly paced and astonishingly engaging, with delightful principals and an incredible-as-always orchestra. Make sure you prepare for the sitting: bring money for snacks and drinks, stand and move at each intermission, and make sure the babysitter knows you will be home late. That said, you will not regret it.
For upcoming performances and for other Lyric Opera Chicago productions, visit www.lyricopera.org All production stills provided by Dan Rest.