Monday, 17 May 2010

In Conclusion...and apologies for the length of this post


The Beginning

I would like to think that I'm not an arrogant man, but how else should I think of myself if I thought I could dissect, distil, disentangle the heart of DMvN in a matter of weeks? A while ago (over a year at least) I saw a WNO video promo with Christopher Purves talking about how his preparations for his role as Beckmesser had already begun. Anyone who had seen the trailer could not have mistaken Purves' awareness of the challenge that lay before him. Bryn Terfel has been studying the score in one way or another since at least 2007 (if not longer). And I've been reading the text and listening to it for three weeks. Am I arrogant? I prefer the moniker optimist. You can add stupid if you like.

The first thing that struck me about Meistersinger was its length. You could fit Puccini's Il Trittico inside it and still have time to squeeze in a double bill of Flog It! screaming at the TV, Can't you see the presenter is just patronising you!? With something so long my first instinct was to think squeakily, Couldn't he have trimmed it in places? Wagner isn't alone in draaaaaaaaaaaawing things out – Tolstoy could have done with losing a few hundred pages of War and Peace (if not the whole book – bitchy, moi?) – but credit to Wagner, the scenes never feel overlong or undershort. They seem to be the perfect fit for the situations his characters find themselves in, and given that the action takes place in midsummer I felt this unrushed nature reflected the lethargy that can take hold on summer days. Or perhaps this is wishful thinking? I still think he should have had an ice cream break in Act III.

Part of the reason why Meistersinger succeeds in my eyes is down to the characters, who unlike the power crazed dunderheads of the Ring, and the serially depressed figures in other Wagner operas, are refreshingly optimistic. This is not to say that I necessarily like them. Some are so uptight you could offend them by saying damn and blast! – and others are likely to challenge you to some Marquis of Queensbury action. But each are greedy in one way or another for a form of love (no sniggering at the back), whether it be Veit Pogner's desire to see his daughter offloaded with someone he thinks will be a worthy suitor, the passionate yearnings of Walther and Eva or the equally passionate David and Magdalena. Even poor Beckmesser is trying to get Cupid on his side. This is a celebration of living love, an ocean away from Tristan und Isolde's all devouring vision. It's no coincidence then that in the opera where there are no gods, cursed sailors, grail keepers or swan riding knights that plain old ordinary folk connect with the audience far more easily than characters weighed down by philosophy and symbolism. But what of Hans Sachs? Hmmmmmm. He deserves a paragraph of his own.

Who is Hans Sachs? Cobbler? Poet? Letch? Inept Iago? All four? For me he is the happier brother of the Dutchman – both are looking for love, both fated to fail. But Sachs is living in a DC Comics alternate reality to the Dutchman. P'd off he might be, he doesn't go looking for damnation and broodiness, instead he bites the bullet and sets up the young lovers for their grand finale. As I said in an earlier post, it's the very thought that he's going against his own desires that makes him such an appealing character to me. Normally these older, grizzled types are wily dudes, but good humouredly accepting of their lot. Sachs is wily, but refreshingly aware of what he wants even if he knows deep down that he's whistling in the wind. He even has a bit of a pwditastic Didier Drogba moment! I'm interested to see what Richard Jones makes of him. Chainsaw Sachsmassacre? Hope the front row get plastic macs if the smell of petrol is in the air.

The Middle

Run for the hills, or the next paragraph – I'm discussing the music with characteristic dumbness for a short while. Wagner was never a man to shy away from a tune; the only problem was that he seemed to think a tune took four hours to listen to. Unlike the ragazzi Italiano who reeled off pop music length arias at the drop of a hat Wagner preferred to meld everything into one big whole (okay, I know you know all this but let an amateur pretend he's Stephen Hawking for a while). Thankfully he realised that while this succeeds with the heavier works, it needs a lighter touch with Meistersinger for everything to work and he goes with something (nearly) approaching an Adam and the Ants kind of aria. Not to Holländer levels, but nearly. And I dare anyone in the audience not to be reaching for the hankies when Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein hits your ears. Though you may find Hans Sachs' cobbling song doesn't understand the phrase bugger off after a few days.

And now the bad news. It will come as little surprise to people to learn that the performance history of Meistersinger is a complicated one. It's long been tainted with its association with the Nazi party, especially as it was supposedly a personal favourite of Adolf Hitler. In the context of this knowledge Hans Sachs' final speech becomes an uneasy call to arms. Today it's extremely difficult to question whether Wagner would have approved of the actions taken by his countrymen in an unbiased manner given what we now know of his ridiculous racial views, but the general air of unease I had to confront when I first began to listen to his operas increased greatly when I sat down with Meistersinger. It's one thing to separate Wagner from his work, it's another thing entirely to separate the deaths of millions from one opera. I'm not suggesting that Meistersinger brought about the existence of the Nazi party, but that as I sit and enjoy a recording of it I can't deny the fact that I'm perturbed knowing that men and women who thought little of the annihilation of groups of people they deemed to be inferior would have enjoyed the same music, the same comedy as me. I would hope any decent human being would share this same conflict. If I'm so aware and repulsed by the history surrounding DMvN why have I continued to listen to it? Why am I going to see it? Why haven't I thrown out my CD? Why haven't I torn up my tickets?

I can only give an honest pair of answers.

When the production was originally announced I did seriously question if I should give it a miss. I'll admit that if Bryn Terfel wasn't scheduled to play Hans Sachs I would have been more likely to avoid it. But then again, the more I listened to Wagner's work the more I wanted to hear all of his operas. Even Meistersinger. I probably would have bought the tickets anyway. So my first answer is selfishness.

My second answer has been longer in the making and is to do with ownership. I feel that my initial reaction in wanting to avoid Meistersinger was not unreasonable – but then what about Meistersinger before the Nazi party? It didn't reek of corruption in 1890 or 1909. It was just another Wagner opera. So should we abandon it to a group of horrific people? I don't think we should. Nobody can own a work of art – once it's gone out into the world it's there for everyone. It comes to mean something different to whoever sees it, and it makes no sense to allow ownership of Meistersinger to be solely in the possession of the Nazi party. As people we should never forget Meistersinger's history, but we shouldn't allow it to have only one history. Music is far greater than any one person, any one ideology. Perhaps I'm being overly earnest, too melodramatic – but this is how I've come to see my relationship with Meistersinger. I know its past. I despise fragments of its past. I can only hope it has a better future.

The End

And that's been my journey to Nürnberg. It's been fun. It's been confusing. I've gained a village idiot's grasp of the characters and the plot. The music, as ever, has been beyond my comprehension – and its history all too sadly known to us all. There are still a few more weeks to go until the curtain goes up on the 19th of June and the cast and crew will be working their cotton socks off for us to enjoy the performances. I'm chomping at the bit to see what Richard Jones, Lothar Koenigs and their collaborators onstage and off will come up with. In the meantime I'm going to enjoy listening to it for a few more times, and of course keeping everyone up-to-date with The Professionals (aka the JonesMole Gang).

For those of you who've enjoyed my take on DMvN's plot I'll be repeating the same trick with Rigoletto in a few weeks time to celebrate a fine cast including the role debut of Simon Keenlyside as Rigoletto. But for now, in case you've had too much Wagner on your plate – why not try this as a light refreshment – turn it up loud and pretend you can dance! And thank you all for reading my ramblings.

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