WAGNER, R.: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg
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RIchard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
The only comedy among Richard Wagners mature works, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg dwarfed all previous comedic operas when it was given its first complete performance in Munich in 1868; and only Richard Strausss Der Rosenkavalier has since come near it in length, scope and richness of detail. Wagner conceived the scheme in 1845 and at that stage clearly saw it as a counterpart to Tannhäuser, the theme of a singing context being common to both. As so often happened with Wagner, however, he was deflected by other projects; and by the time he got round to working seriously on Die Meistersinger, he was a different composer with Tristan und Isolde and much of The Ring already behind him. He was fascinated by the idea that sixteenth-century Nuremberg had boasted, among its many guilds, a Guild of Mastersingers. He took the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, a historical figure who lived from 1494 to 1576 and whose music has survived, as his central character, and researched every available source in his mission to bring old Nuremberg to life. Curiously he had an autobiographical occurrence to draw on: the finale of Act 2, with its fugal brawl, is based on an evening Wagner and some friends spent in Nuremberg in 1835 when they witnessed just such a fight.
Wagner wrote two treatments, one in Marienbad in 1845 and one in Vienna in 1861, before producing his libretto around the turn of the year in 1861-2. In the interim his concept altered and became much more complex. In particular the central rôle of Sachs, which ended up as the longest singing part in all opera, developed from a rather sardonic character into the fully rounded portrait we now know. While retaining a wit with a certain edge, Sachs became much more genial and philosophical; the idea of bringing him into an eternal triangle with the young hero and heroine was a late addition. We should not complain if the other characters tend to be types rather than believable people like Sachs after all, most other operatic comedies are very stylized. The Mastersingers emerge as distinct personalities, craftsmen who are proud of their competence in their part-time craft, music. Wagner had some fun with the marker, Sixtus Beckmesser, the only overtly comic character in the piece. He even toyed with the idea of calling him Hans Lick, or Veit Hanslich, as a way of getting back at the great Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick, a constant thorn in his side. Whether Hanslick knew anything of this or not, he was the sole dissenting voice when the first performance took place in 1868 at the Court Theatre, Munich, on 21st June - Midsummer Day, as in the opera - under the baton of Hans von Bülow. This première was the greatest success Wagner had in his entire career.
Even in Wagners day, doubts were raised about the rampant chauvinism of Sachss final panegyric to German art, although it struck a chord with German audiences in the run-up to the Franco-German War of 1870 and its aftermath. Unfortunately Die Meistersinger was the saddest victim of Adolf Hitlers Wagnerian obsession. During the 1930s Nuremberg was the scene of the Nazi rallies and the opera was a rallying cry for the unhealthiest kind of nationalism. Bayreuth itself, where Hitler was an honoured guest, became besmirched by association. When the Bayreuth Festival reopened in 1951, the new regime of Wagners grandsons set out to confront this unpleasant legacy head-on and the brave decision was taken to programme Die Meistersinger. Even though some former Nazis were involved in the production, the goal of rebirth was largely achieved. We owe it to Walter Legge and his team from Columbia that the production was recorded for posterity. It was a triumph for the usual Bayreuth teamwork and no individual performance stood out, except perhaps for the cohesive effect achieved by the still young conductor, Herbert von Karajan, who at this stage of his career had not yet developed the emphasis on legato which was to sap the inner life of so many of his later performances. Edelmanns Sachs is genial rather than profound, a portrayal in the line of Frantz, Schöffler or Stewart rather than Radford, Schorr or Hotter, to name three outstanding recorded exponents. Kunz, Malaniuk and Unger live up to their reputations as being among the finest post-war singers. The young lovers are more problematical: Hopf is a sturdy craftsman rather than a poet, and Schwarzkopf, of whom it could never be said that her art is the kind that disguises art, is hardly an ingenue; at times one longs for a less tremulous tone and the straightforward radiance of a Grümmer. All in all, however, this historic set is a fair monument to a momentous occasion.
Herbert von Karajan was born in Salzburg on 5th April 1908 and studied at the Mozarteum in his native city and the Vienna Academy. His first conducting posts were at Ulm, 1929-34, and Aachen, 1934-41. After conducting Tristan und Isolde at the Berlin State Opera in 1937 he was much in demand and he headed that house from 1941 to 1945, when he was forbidden by the Allies to conduct because of his Nazi past. In 1947 he began to pick up his international career and in 1955 he succeeded Furtwängler at the head of the Berlin Philharmonic. He remained in charge of this orchestra until his death at Anif, near his birthplace, on 16th July 1989. He also had a close association with the Vienna Philharmonic and from 1957 to 1964 directed the Vienna State Opera. He made more recordings than any other conductor and many of his interpretations were also filmed. In opera he sought to create a unified concept, often acting as his own producer and working with colleagues he knew and trusted. This unity is apparent even in comparatively early studio recordings, such as his still unsurpassed versions of Die Zauberflöte and Così fan tutte.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was born at Jarotschin, near Poznan, on 9th December 1915. Her teachers in Berlin included the Lieder singer Lula Mysz-Gmeiner, the coloratura soprano Maria Ivogun and the latters husband, the pianist Michael Raucheisen. This training predisposed Schwarzkopf towards the kind of career she later followed, alternating opera with concert and recital work. Having made her début in 1938 as a flower maiden in Parsifal at the Berlin Municipal Opera, she progressed to being a member of the Vienna State Opera from 1944, first coming to Britain in 1947 with that company. Thereafter she was one of the best-known singers in the world, and marriage to Walter Legge led to his using her in myriad recording projects, both suitable (Mozart, Strauss) and unsuitable (two versions of the Verdi Requiem). She also recorded many Lieder. Few singers have so violently polarised opinion but, love her or hate her, she has always been a class act.
Ira Malaniuk was born on 29th January 1923 at Stanislav, Ukraine. At Lviv her teacher was the bass Adam Didur and in Vienna she worked with Anna Bahr-Mildenburg. She made her début in 1945 at Graz and progressed through the companies at Zurich and Munich before joining the Vienna State Opera in 1956. Guest appearances took her all over Europe and she sang all the major mezzo-soprano and contralto rôles. After retiring from the stage she turned to teaching and from 1971 was based in Graz. She made many recordings, mostly of opera, and wrote an autobiography, Stimme des Herzens.
The Heldentenor Hans Hopf was born in Nuremberg on 2nd August 1916 and studied with the bass Paul Bender in Munich, where he made his début at the Landestheater in 1936 as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. In those days he had quite a lyric voice. From 1939 he