Drama in musica in tre atti. Running Time: 4 hours 17 minutes.
WARNING: I’m not nice here. However, given the success of Loengrino, I have decided to take a further plunge. This took me days to complete as I took each act at a time. Why are operas allowed to be this long? I get three hours, but four and a half is just too much for one night! Also, is it just me or is this a prime example of singers practicing their craft far too loudly, maybe it is just the recording. Weirdly, this was actually one of the most popular Vagnero operas in Italy during the 20th century, although how they could hold their pee in for that long is beyond me.
SETTING: The one in which Eva Pognero has to marry a song contest winner so a guy named Valtiero di Stolzzini tries to enter the singers guild so he can win her even though they literally met less than 24-hours before the competition and a wealthy shoemaker named Hanno Sacchi is also in love with her and acts a lot like the real Saki, except obviously without the whole being gay thing (not that there is anything wrong with that, it would actually make this story more interesting), as is an odd character named Sesto Becmessero who is exhibit A evidence against Vagnero.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: The interior of St. Catherine’s Church, Norimberga, somewhere in Northern Italy apparently. (84 minutes)
0: The prelude *, starts off famously and spectacularly, but declines rapidly into mush. It has one undeniably amazing tune, the leitmotif for the Maestri Cantori (MC) which will become extremely tiresome by the end of this marathon. What is more it is incredibly bombastic, even ridiculous, and only becomes more so with its constant repetition. Then the orchestra bogs down into something resembling The Merry Widow (this is the famous Prize Song motto or PS) and then a new motif Pomp and then more bogging down until something that sounds a little like Vagnero going a bit daft and then we get jolted into this tune that sounds like ducks waddling about (the apprentices theme) this gets very frustrated and then ambles about aimlessly for a while until we get another leitmotif that sounds like Merry Widow again. More meandering until we get more MC and then Vagnero hammers it out like its the score of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, bang crash the curtain rises on an awesome church interior circa 1570. It’s considered a classic but only one star from me.
9, 21: The opening choral *, like the prelude starts off with one grand entrance and then declines rapidly as Old One Hundredth breaks apart and dies a slow death, although there is one return of that opening line that is worth looking out for just before the hymn ends officially. We get some PS motto again as Valtiero gazes longingly at Eva and she back at him. It’s all meet cute as the two and maid Magdalena go into one of the most patches of narrative recitative in operatic history. There is agitation as the first long patch of recite begins. Other than the constant rehashing of leitmotifs it is rather ornery and the singing either is dreadful or was poorly written to begin with. The scena ends with a mini trio in which an embryonic form of the Prize Song itself pops into Valtiero’s head but it isn’t enough to save us from the ennui we are forced to enduring.
27, 33, 44: David enters bombarded by the other much younger apprentices and talks about his dreams for the future to a flying string accompaniment that will not quit. Eventually David gives us a waltz of sorts * as he goes over the Maestri Cantori rules (more MC). It has an odd elegance to it and Forman totally ignores this. The apprentices attack twice again * tunefully but it is fleeting, the second occurrence happens about two and a half minutes later. Pogneri, Eva’s padre and Maestro di Maestri Cantori, arrives (apparently he wasn’t at the church service earlier, odd?) to his own motto which is short lived but repeated constantly in this scene. Valtiero wants to get into the Maestri Cantori lodge because only members can compete tomorrow for Eva’s hand in marriage (yes, this story is very anti-feminist, however Pogneri does have a caveat, Eva can reject the winner of the contest if she so chooses). Pogneri tells us all of these rules in his long and otherwise very boring bass address except that a new theme comes in here that of Festival *. The Maestri-Cantori are excited by this, as are surprisingly their apprentices. There is an extremely brief ensemble both otherwise there really isn’t anything worth talking about for a while. Oddly Hanno Sacchi’s entrance is not anything special and I must say, doesn’t this all take a rather long time?
59, 67: Valtiero gives us his biographical arioso *, at times it sounds just a wee bit like Puccini, but only a little and it suffers from being fragmented by those jerks the Maestri Cantori making comments. It ends with a rather old fashioned vocal twist from our hero (?) which is a nice touch. Then things get ornery again. Incidentally Sesto Becmessero is supposed to be the villain. Cotnero goes through the song rules for Valtiero *, it is oddly close to a proper set piece aria.
71, 81: Valtiero’s first attempt at an MC song *. It is frenzied, it is romantic, and it really isn’t all that interesting. Becmessero dislikes it even more than I do though. Similarly to during the prelude I feel like it borders very closely on the Morte d’amore. The last thing of note before the curtain is a confused ensemble *, a bit of a whirlwind storm before the act ends, although this does have a good orchestral finish that is well worth looking out for.
ACT 2 A street corner in Norimberga, houses of Pognero and Sacchi on either side. (56 minutes)
8, 11: The intro is a little too sunrise-y for the end of the day pack up, but it is jovial. David comes on with the apprentices as they shut down for the day and Magdalena comes on with food which they all try to steal. It all vaguely borders on a proper chorus until Hanno arrives and shoos everyone else away so he can talk to David. Then Eva and her father come on and engage in an odd dialogue (mostly him talking, she responds when asked to reply). This gets sad and Tristan-y. A new theme comes in at this point Civil Satisfaction, (ta-taa-ta-taa-ta-taa) and this is really the only thing to look for because the rest is very ornery until Sachi gets a long and darkly sober monologue about the meaning of life. This is the first of many Vagnerian monologues working out philosophically what the meaning of human existence might be, this time in the context of Hanno pondering Valtiero’s song and how modern it was. It is not particularly exciting or even all that interesting at first but it gets better **. Relatively early in there is some bustle from the orchestra but otherwise it is rather ponderous. Eventually there are some flourishes which sounds an awful bit like Tristan und Isolde again.
18: Eva comes on and spills her guts out to Hanno in a mild duet. It has some nice ideas and it is fairly obvious even this early from the orchestra that Hanno hearts Eva big time. It is sort of in the limbo between * and ** stars.
28: The love duet Eva-Valtiero *. Vagnero really hams this up. Although it starts almost like the meeting of Tristan and Isolde at the start of the Notte d’amore it bogs down very quickly (less than two minutes) into an oblivion of leitmotifs and ornery orchestral shouting (first MC) as Valtiero whines. Eva calms him down and then the nightwatchman comes on. They contemplate elopement but decide ultimately against it (Remember they met in church that morning).
36: Sacchi’s shoemaking aria **.
53: The finale * starts with Becmessero’s serenade, which never really gets anywhere as Hanno pounds out on his shoes on each rule the former breaks. Also, he is singing to Magdalena sitting at Eva’s window. The melody is really not that good and consists mostly of bass coloratura gargling, which can be most unpleasant. It gets much worse, Valtiero starts screaming to the point that the entire town comes out in a freak attack of Wahn. It is loud, it is noisy, and it starts off mildly entertaining and a bit Verdian. The scene collapses and all that is left is for the watchman to do his ornery rounds one last time.
ACT 3 (114 minutes)
Scene 1: The shoe shop of Hanno Sacchi.
0: This prelude *** is probably the best piece in the entire opera. Brooding, dark, philosophical but not in a bad way, becoming rather noble in fact. It does seem odd to attach it to the longest act ever (not quite) but in its own sedate way it is striking. Otherwise I really can’t fault it any: no bombast, no pretension.
12: David comes on to some Mickey-mousing orchestral accompaniment as he is excited for the St. John’s day celebrations and expresses this in some ardent verses *.
16: Stand by for one of the most overblown philosophical mono-cant in all opera. The (im)famous Wahn Monologue. Musically it is incredibly ornery. Philosophically it might have some worth if you are into that sort of thing. It is all so blatantly about Vagnero trying to get out this ideological message of his, this concept of Wahn, which isn’t even an Italian word! It ends better than it begins but still no star. A new theme comes in (Hanno and Eva, very lyrical and romantic stuff). This would be a good section to cut quite frankly.
25: Valtiero arrives at the shoeshop for his singing lesson before the contest and a totally meaningless duet strikes up in which they discuss nature, romantic-era music, etc, none of which has anything to do with the plot at all. Apart from very lyrical snatches of the PS * there really isn’t much to discuss here. Again, another attempt by Vagnero to enforce his ideological agenda and not much else.
30: Then suddenly, like the THX theme we get the first verses of the PS for the first time **. Other people think this tune is amaze-balls and although it is good, I’m personally not enraptured by it. The orchestra does have a nice climax though while Sacchi is singing. Then, more ennui, Becmessero arrives to a very long patch of orchestral Mickey-mousing, none of it particularly good and some of it downright ornery and we have yet another section that could be cut. What does Becmessero’s attempt at steal the Prize Song ultimately have anything to do with anything even if he does attempt to song in the next scene? The act is so overlong as it is, more material to cut! And why does it go on for so long? Basically the entire sequence consists of leitmotifs.
52: Sacchi things of Eva, and she appears! This is rather cute **: Eva is complaining about her shoes, which are too small apparently, so she needs new ones. This is probably late Vagnero at his most Italianate (the Sacchi-Eva theme). He even quotes the opera Tristan e Isotta here (although what an opera about a horny married couple who destroy their lives by having far too many children has to do with Sacchi and Eva is beyond me).
57: Valtiero comes on and sings bits of the PS *. This is followed by Eva’s aria in which she tells Hanno that she loves him but also that he is definitely in her friend-zone. A lot of this sounds like the prelude to Tristan again (IT happens at 61 minutes in, just so you know) and isn’t all that interesting.
63: Sacchi goes through a long monologue backed by a repeat of the hymn * from the beginning of the opera (remember that thing they sang in the church scene 3 hours and 15 minutes ago?), as he raises David to the status of Journeyman (duh, he is like twenty-five, about time already!).
66: Now something odd for Vagnero, a quintet **, although it starts off as an aria for Eva (notice the partial quotation of the love theme from La Valcuria. It finishes well, hence the second star.
Scene 2: A field just outside the walls Norimberga, all in readiness for the contest.
72: The opening male choral sequences * that announce the arrival of the Maestri are not so impressive as the arrival of the bullfighters in Carmen but sped up a little on the video it some jolt to it.
76: The Dance of the Apprentices *, very catchy, a little too catchy and a bit bizarre.
99, 113: What follows is one of the most overindulgent grand entrances in all opera. The stateliness of this theme (MC again, trailed by Pomp) is utterly bizarre. Predictably, we get immediate quotations from the overture here without much attempt at all to come up with something original. It’s all just stately ennui for the longest time. Becmessero tries to sing the Prize Song, it is a psychological disaster. It sounds like garbage and it is garbage. Kill me, take my life now! He is humiliated. Listen for the violins about two minutes before the Prize Song starts up again, this time sung by Valtiero **. It has the most idiotic introduction from the orchestra but when sung it is nice, not amazing, but nice. Sacchi gives his parole on “holy Italian art” and everyone is excited. Although Sacchi is the author of the PS, Valtiero sings it and wins but Eva gives the crown to Hanno. The orchestra explodes with one last repeat of MC, and the curtain falls on an odd little cymbal crash *.
I do get why one would like Meistersinger more than other late-Wagner, it is far more traditional in orientation musically (diatonic, Wagner uses more vocal and orchestral trills here than in probably any score), the characters are recognizably human beings, and when the libretto does go overboard with the philosophy it is far less obscure than anything else Wagner wrote. The music, however, is bombastic, heavily repeated, and the opera is overlong by at least an hour. Surely the Wahn Monologue could be cut without any detriment, and probably most of the disturbing role of Beckmesser as well. A very weak B, although a very popular one.