One of the great opera productions that I have been lucky enough to see in a life of opera-going was Graham Vick’s award-winning production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger conducted by Bernard Haitink on the night that the old Royal Opera House, Covent Garden closed down for its epic rebuilding in July 1997 with a wonderful cast headed by two British singers, John Tomlinson, Thomas Allen and the late and missed Swedish tenor Gösta Winbergh. It was a great night and even though the new Opera House is splendid, there was a fin de siecle feel to that poignant summer evening.
I had always had mixed feelings about Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, the opera Wagner wrote immediately after Tristan und Isolde and before he finished his massive four opera Ring Cycle. I have always, I suppose, had mixed feelings about Wagner himself. Racist, nationalist, neo-Fascist, bigot, megalomaniac – you name it and you can pin it on him with little effort.
The trouble was, and still is, that the music is just so wonderful and, if you can ignore some of the horrors of his literary ramblings and look quite a long way down through the bombast of some of his language and the more superficial readings of his dramas, then there is a level of inspiration, intelligence and profundity in his work that is not found in many other operas that you may come across very often in the opera house.
I have recently been listening to the grand old opera again after a long time as I have reached the year of its creation, 1867, in my progress through the history of classical music and I have to admit that I had been dreading spending five and a half hours with the piece. It is a comedy of course and in German – not the most obvious temptation if you want a bit of fun. It has been described as “the longest single smile in the German language” and I did have to pinch myself in getting ready for that extended moment when the sun has been shining here in England and even the washing up seemed preferable.
I harden my heart to Wagner because of who he was and the terrible consequences that followed in his native Germany during the 20th. Century. For all the latent anti-semitism in the characterisation of the evil characters in The Ring, and the unfortunate connotations attached to the heroic Saxon heroes in most of the operas, it is with his most warm-hearted and traditional masterpiece, the comedy Die Meistersinger, that most uneasiness over his nationalism worries his critics most.
The opera’s plot takes the historical character of Hans Sachs, a medieval shoemaker/poet as its basis and the revered city of Nuremberg as its setting. Nuremberg, in the 19th. Century was a symbol of “true” German values when all those small nation states were on the verge of coming together under Bismarck’s new united Germany.
It was idealised, of course, but many Romantic writers saw the old city, with its independent spirit and its administrative structure controlled by its network of craftsmen’s guilds, as a template for a nation rich in culture and at risk of losing that in the surge towards industrial and, in the end, military might.
“Take heed! Ill times now threaten all;
And if we German folk should fall
And foreigners rule our land
No king his folk would understand,
And foreign rule and foreign ways
Would darken all our German days;
The good and true were soon forgot,
Did they not live in Masters’ art.
I say to you,
Honour your noble Masters,
Thus you would shun disasters;
If you hold them close to your heart;
Then may depart
The fame of ancient Rome
We have at home
Our sacred German art!”
“Sacred German Art”, in the Nazis view, came to Nuremberg for its monumental rallies and its crudely realistic sculpture and painting, its brass band versions of Wagner’s “greatest hits” and its naive reinventions of old German legends.
It ended with most of the survivors of that regime coming back to Nuremberg on trial and, for many of them to face their executioners there too in 1945.
The beautiful and symbolic city of Nuremberg suffered a fate undeserved by those master craftsmen that had built it when Allied bombers razed it to the ground when the War against Hitler came to its conclusion.
Yet again, I resisted all of this when I sat down at intervals all last week listening to a recording of the opera but, yet again, Wagner worked his magic. The piece is not about death and destruction, hatred and malice. In fact it is about love, toleration and the poet’s art where the young, naive but romantically inspired Walther tries to win his bride through his artistically creative powers and who succeeds when he has learnt to temper his passion with experience.
Wagner celebrates the cultural legacy of the old Masters but his opera tries to show how each of us must look deep inside ourselves to find the inspiration first experienced in the euphoria of youthful love but brought to wisdom if remembered throughout our lives. As someone trying to become a poet, I found these words really moving and challenging:
“My friend, in joyful days of youth
When first our souls are captured
In joy of love enraptured,
When hearts are beating proud and high,
The gift of song is given
To all by kindly Heaven:
‘Tis Spring that sings, not we.
Through summer, fall and winter’s chill
When cares of life are pressing,
Though marriage brings its blessing,
Children and business, strife, ill-will,
Only those who still have kept then
This gift of song from Heaven,
Then Masters they will be!”
We are not all going to be great composers, sadly, but we can take Wagner’s music and his message with us to help prevent the World becoming just what Wagner’s critics accused him of trying to build.
Here is the Prize Song from the last act where young Walther wins his bride tutored by the wise old poet Hans Sachs. Wonderful music, superbly sung by the great Sandor Konya – none of this, however, stops me thinking that Richard Wagner was a truly horrible man but it hasn’t wiped that long smile from my face either.