More Italianate cauchemar: I maestri cantori di Norimberga (1962 recording)

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.


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 1570It’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.

6 responses to “More Italianate cauchemar: I maestri cantori di Norimberga (1962 recording)”

  1. Brilliant! I was cackling with laughter when I read this – and I like I maestri cantori more than you do.

    “It consists mostly of bass coloratura gargling, which can be most unpleasant”!

    “Tristano ed Isotta (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).”

    Hanno Sacchi like Saki… Ooh! Do go on. I’d like to see Clovis thrown into the middle of a Vagnero opera, and coolly dismantling the whole thing.

    Any comments on Vagnero pinching themes from Rossini, Halévy, and Meyerbeer?


    I’ve spent six hours this weekend watching Lully operas. NOT recommended; trust me. Put me down as a fervent Ramiste. (I’ve only just discovered Rameau, but, my word! what imagination, what colour, what life!) Rameau had the bold idea that opera might actually be improved by, you know, having some actual music in it, rather than low-key recitative and slobbering over the king. At least when Rameau praises royalty, he gives us something like this:


    1. Thanks for catching my mistakes here. Ugh If you think Lully is dead and buried, I reviewed the Downes recording of Rienzi last night up to the act two ballet. I had to listen to a half-hour of Strauss’ Arabella to get out of that one. I never noticed any Meyerbeer or Rossini in this opera, I was too preoccupied with how often Wagner quotes himself here, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Let me see how I could fit in Clovis into this? Too many ways, encouraging the elopement plot because Pogner is a stupid authority figure? Convincing the whole town that Beckmesser really is Jewish and the local bishop Riccardo Vagnieri is plotting a massacre, no that would be in poor taste and knowing how hated Beckmesser is I doubt it would effect to very much in the way of a resistance movement. A physical demonstration of the Wahn Monologue (particularly the section on hunting?) involving a ferret or a hyena. You would probably be more creative with this than I would, I just really was amused by the name recognition of Italianizing Hans Sachs into Hanno Sacchi and the fact that he spouts out meaningless philosophy like a broken water fountain hose.

      I think you already know I concentrate on Romantic Era music, I’d rather listen to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito than Gluck’s setting of the same libretto any day (nothing but countless arias, I want to die!). I know people who love opera seria but it just isn’t my thing and neither is Lully from what I’ve heard, but thanks for your six hours of reviews because otherwise I would never probably have bothered, although I did get through about 35 minutes of Atys about four months ago before I was so bored I had to shut it down. Why are the recitatives and the arias basically the same? I was amused by the pronunciations in Cadmus “porc-way”, “heureuks”. French sounds so much better today even if it isn’t remotely phonetic in terms of spelling, proof of evolution!


      1. You’re listening to Rienzi? Downes’ mammoth recording – 4h40? Are we both going for the masochist championships, you with your beloved Wagner, me with Lully? Good luck, chum!

        Rameau, though, is terrific. Just ordered DVD of Hippolyte et Aricie; once that arrives, I’ll do a series on Rameau – H&A, Castor & Pollux, Dardanus, Indes galantes, Platée, maybe Boréades.

        What do you think of Gluck? There are moods when he’s in my half-dozen top composers. I love Iphigénie en Tauride; Paride ed Elena is beautiful; and there are sublime things in Iphigénie en Aulide (the overture, “Au faite des grandeurs”). Want to hear Alceste and Armide properly.


  2. Yes, I have become a musical masochist. I’ve actually listened to the Downes’ recording before, in its entirety. Naturally I did it over three days, because I do have a life, and it will probably take me a while this time because I’m also working on Le Comte Ory and Arabella. I think it’s the ridiculous heights of bombast that actually draw me to it. Whereas in Maestri Cantori Wagner just repeats himself over and over, in Rienzi you get three massively different finale tunes in the first three acts, each more ridiculous than the one before. Whenever I actually look at a libretto I know it’s utterly disgusting and militaristic, but there is something so utterly kitchen-sink about the music of the over-complete Rienzi, and psychotic as well as I keep thinking he must have included every cliche in music at the time here. However, finishing two hours of it doesn’t mean it will be showing up on the blog soon. I may just stop and go on it for months, or it may end up like Gounod’s Sapho and become an ectopic pregnancy, granted with Rienzi I will probably die from a haemorrhage as a result but that is life.

    I’ve heard Les Indes galantes years ago. The plot is episodic and weird at times (volcanoes erupting, everyone breaks into dance sequences) but the music is very good if you like the genre. I know you like Platee already. Castor and Pollux is supposed to be very good as well. I’d be interested in Zoroastre personally. The plot has some vague similarities to Massenet’s Le mage.

    As for Gluck, I have a copy of Orfeo and I’ve heard Iphigenie at least three times. I’ve heard portions of Alceste (it is on my short list of operas to listen to once before I die at least, but which version?), as well as Armide (I prefer Rossini’s even to Dvorak’s). I tend to find Gluck a little stilted, although not nearly as bad as an opera seria but say Handel or Vivaldi. I prefer more action, fewer arias in favour of more ensembles, and less emphasis on ballet. I use Iphigenie as an example of an opera that is anemic frequently on this blog so I guess that tells you what I think of it, but it does have some good parts, the Introduction placid sea and storm, the chorus of Scythians, the lack of a love interest plot line given that the protagonists are sister and brother, and the human drama of Iphigenie’s struggle in regards to performing human sacrifice. In its own slightly sedate way it is a triumph musically, probably a more interesting opera than Orfeo, as it is about more believably human people.

    What did you think of my Mozart double-bill?


    1. I’m off work with pneumonia; bed-bound till Thursday.

      Nice review of the two little Mozart pieces! I’ve heard Bastien und Bastienne once, a decade ago; surprised there are so many three star pieces in ti! Or is this Mozart’s genius? Take Schauspieldirektor – almost a throwaway piece, but lots of wit and invention!

      What do you think of Lortzing? He was a huge admirer of Mozart, and Zar und Zimmermann is great fun.

      Le comte Ory may be the great antidote to Rienzi: light and fleet. Gramophone, reviewing the Gui recording, said that Rossini’s music, along with Wodehouse and champagne, was one of life’s great pick-me-ups! For me, when I’d slogged my way through the abominable tetralogy, I turned to Offenbach’s Grande duchesse de Gérolstein.

      Wagner, of course, would be appalled; he hated Offenbach (who detested his music), and thought that people who died in a theatre fire while watching Orphée aux enfers got everything they deserved. (And, for good measure, wouldn’t it be funny if all the Jews in Germany were burnt alive during a performance of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise?)

      There is something deeply Fascist – or at least totalitarian – about Rienzi. Hitler infamously said it was while watching Rienzi that the inspiration for the Third Reich came to him, and the bombast, militaristic parades, haranguing and hectoring are like the Nuremberg rallies set to music. Listen to that march towards the end of the third act.

      Here’s my review from my old blog:


  3. Sorry to hear you are unwell. I guess it is winter where you are and thus that season. Get well soon. Yes, Rienzi is literally the definition of bombastic totalitarianism and I’ve read your review multiple times and commented on it last March. I might finish my post soon and send it off, but I’m really not sure.


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