Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Meistersinger – Week One – Act One – or just plain old WOAO

Walther catches up with Eva

First of all a word of warning to anyone considering listening to Meistersinger via earphones – don't. Just don't. Kindness to neighbours should only go so far and I'm drawing the line at deafness. Of course, if I'd checked the volume before I introduced a ton of Wagnerian brass to my eardrums then maybe I wouldn't be writing this. Sorry neighbours – it'll be two boxes of chocolates this Christmas.

Suped up brass bands weren't the only surprise that hit me when I took on the task of getting to know DMvN. Meistersinger a comedy? Wagner and humour? Surely a mistake? To be fair to Wagner most comic operas are usually anything but comic, and given that we're talking about works with well over a century to their names there's no great surprise that they are lip tremblingly amusing at best and frankly embarrassing at worst. Humour dates, badly. How many people find Charlie Chaplin's work truly funny? Inventive, yes. Funny, no. It's at this point that I'll scuttle my own argument by admitting I'm partial to the Marx Bros who predate the frankly **** My Family by the invention of colour and wipe the floor with the Harper family in the comedy stakes. I'm left then with one possibility, or perhaps two. Either Wagner's comedy genius up to DMvN was too subtle for me, or he just wasn't that funny. Will things change with Meistersinger?

***** Time for one of those spoiler warnings *****

Despite my pledge in an earlier post not to turn this into a review of the first act I couldn't come up with anything else…

The first thing I'm scratching my head over with a slightly furrowed brow and throbbing ears is the question of Die Meistersingers themselves. Who were they? As far as I can tell they seemed to be a self-appointed quango that decided what was hot and what was not in 16th century Nuremberg's music scene – a bit like bloggers (okay, just me), but with talent. Or to put it another way – they were the Big Bang for shows like X-Factor and Dance Fool You're on TV and You Need to Humiliate Yourself for a Minute of Fame. Thanks boys.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The cast of characters – look away now if you're Germaine Greer.

Of the named seventeen characters scientifically speaking 2.8976% of them are women (anyone who intends checking the veracity of this figure needn't bother – I'm useless at percentages and have made these up out of my PIN number). In other words fifteen are burly, manly men. Applying the Clueless-Dumbfounded Method reveals a slightly less skewed picture. There are seven principal roles, with roughly 9.875% being female. For laymen and non-mathematical wunderkinds like myself that's two out of seven. Eva (the love interest) and Magdalena (the reserve love interest).

Lined up to do battle for Eva is newcomer Sir Walther von Stolzing a young knight and Sixtus Beckmesser, the town clerk and a Meistersinger – I'm guessing he'll be booed by the end of the performance. Battling absolutely nobody for Magdalena is David, an apprentice to Hans Sachs, the Jimmy Choo of downtown Nuremberg and real life Meistersinger! The remaining numero uno character is bling daddy Veit Pogner who thinks nothing of offering his daughter (Eva) as the prize at an upcoming singing contest. He isn't completely on Germaine Greer's bad books though as he does offer Eva the possibility of turning down the winner – but she can't marry anyone else. For ever, and ever and ever. Bad man – he should be booed at the end as well.

Die Meistersingers warn off Walther and Hans Sachs photo

The crux of this first act is that Walther isn't a Meistersinger but wants to become one so he can win Eva's hand (and presumably the rest of her too). Invited to give his best he falls foul of Beckmesser who bad marks him to eternity for not following a set of rules designed to nullify creativity of any kind. Only Sachs sees the potential in Walther and sets out to train the young punk from the right side of the tracks in the sacred art of the Meistersingers. In 80's filmspeak he's a bit like Mr. Miyagi and Walther is Danny LaRusso, but with money. Wax on, wax off is in the offing then.

Less frivolity / waffle / idiocy – it's the important part where I pretend I know about proper musical things like singing above the staff and hitting an A flat minor at ten paces while blindfolded. A monkey can probably gush with more accuracy about what I've heard (and with a bit more eloquence to boot) – but as the monkey is fed up with writing my thoughts for me I'll have to finish this bit off myself and dock his wages.

So musically…speaking…the first act…

Okay, I'm no Daniel Barenboim but even to my ears DMvN (so far) is both a breakaway and a return to the same old paths for Wagner. Present are his love of long chats that can take a while to get to where they should – but nowhere near Tristan und Isolde levels. The thickly layered blankets of strings are there to sink my teeth into and enough idiosyncratic tunes (the leitmotifs – I am learning you see?) to wave a marking board at, some of which remind me of certain characters from the Ring. Above all the cohesion that marks out Wagner's scores is in full health and never lets up. I'd appreciate it if you forgot I've said all of this, as I'll probably be using it in my next post.

The pastures new come in the form of a lightness running through the opening act, almost whimsical in nature. It's this that makes the score probably as accessible to first timers to Wagner as Der fliegende Hollander in my shaky opinion. There's flexibility to the music that never allows the pace to drag, but at the same time I don't feel rushed and Wagner, the big old softy, even allows some of the singers a good run at their numbers with Romantic gusto required (I'm thinking primarily of Walther).

Is there comedy? I'd have to say yes. It's mainly character driven comedy with the jealous Beckmesser and the obstinate Meistersingers providing the laughs as they cling to their rules in the face of new ideas and youthful passion. Though I can't shake the feeling that Walther is carrying a tiny bit of Siegfried in his DNA. You won't be gasping for breath, but then you won't be wishing you were watching My Family either.

If you do want to be gasping for breath watch the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode from the second season called Trick or Treat where Wagner gets a run out and so too does the overture from Die Meistersingers.

At this early point in proceedings I'm a happy chappie – this is shaping up to be an entertaining opera that does quite a bit to shake the portentous cloud of intensity that's sat over Wagner in my eyes. Can he keep it up? Will Walther finish his household chores? Will Beckmesser try freestyle yodelling? Does Magdalena tire of being the number two in the love stakes and fix the brakes on Eva's sporty town wagon? All will be revealed next week in Die Meistersingers von Nürnberg – Act Two.

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