Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg (Opera by Richard Wagner); conducted by
James Levine; production by Otto Schenk; starring Michael Volle, Johan Botha, Annette Dasch, Karen Cargill, Paul Appleby,
Johannes Martin Kränzle, Hans-Peter König, Matthew
Rose; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, Dec 13, 2014
You might not call me the most ardent Wagner fan. Not like those guys in the upper reaches of the Met Opera house who drool
and yell at the mere mention of his name. I’ve only ever endured the full length of one of his operas: Tristan und
Isolde. (See review on DD page March 26/08) But I knew there was some music that I liked in Meistersinger
(the prize song ), so it seemed like a good idea to sit all the way through this one to see what I’d been missing.
What a gruelling six hours!
Not that the story’s terribly complicated. We’re in Nuremberg in the 16th century and a competition
has been announced: the guy who sings the best song will win the hand of Eva, a rich man’s daughter. A young knight
named Walther arrives in town, and being the male romantic lead of the piece, he, of course, is determined to go for the big
prize. Trouble is, a local clique of mastersingers rules over everything having to do with singing. Walther’s style
is too edgy and new for them, so they bar him from the competition. You can bet our Walther’s not going to take that
Who couldn’t respond empathetically to the young artist whose bold new approach is condemned by the old fogies? And
Herr Wagner fleshes out the story with good music. The overture, for instance, is great. And the overture to the third act
is especially beautiful. In fact, any time you can pay attention to what the orchestra is doing, it’s very interesting.
I suppose this is what Maestro James Levine meant when he spoke (during an intermission feature) about the endless marvels
of the score, about the fact that every time he opens it, he finds new and fascinating things. And there’s no denying
that the closing scene delivers thrills comparable to the finale of any great opera.
But I’m the kind of opera buff who would like the singers to have more opportunity to shine. Like a few melodies,
maybe? This opera has exactly two good melodies (the main theme and the prize song). Apart from that, there’s hours
and hours of what you might call speaking-on-pitch. Monologues go on and on without any tune that catches you up and helps
to carry you along. Granted, if you understand the German and don’t have to rely on subtitles, the talk is probably
a bit more engaging. (I did experience this in the brief sentences and phrases of German that I could catch.)
To me, it’s not so much an opera as a theatre piece, with music added. I suppose that was fine with audiences in
Wagner’s day. They didn’t have movies or tv. The only way they could get entertainment in the form of acted-out
stories was on the stage and, if the stories came with music added, well so much the better. And I know that theatre evenings
were expected to last much longer back in the day; there was a different sense of time. (Concerts often included twice the
amount of material that we’d consider suitable today.)
And yet, this is not good theatre. It’s self-indulgent, drawn-out and lazy. Take the discussion among the mastersingers
about whether or not they should admit the newcomer to their ranks. They keep harping on the rules of good song-writing. There’s
a lot of swaggering and mugging. Clearly, these guys love seeing themselves as the jury on "Nuremberg’s Got Talent."
The scene goes on for about twenty-five minutes when, dramatically speaking, it’s worth about ten. In the second act,
some dolt is trying to serenade a lady who’s perched in her balcony but the cobbler across the street keeps interrupting
the serenade by hammering at some shoes. Ok, that’s fine for a bit of comedy – about five minutes, maybe. But
it goes on much too long. At the end of the opera, everything has been brought to a suitable climax and it’s obviously
time to ring down the curtain. But no. We have to wait for a big long aria championing the importance of German culture.
I can see how this might appeal to people from that background. (The same way my predecessors would have thrilled to celebrations
of Irish culture.) And yes, there is a certain appeal in knowing that this business of the mastersingers is part of the true
history of the German people. Apart from that, what are the rest of us supposed to get from this opera? Does it have something
to do with the cult of Wagner? Are we supposed to be thrilled with anything from the pen of the Great Man?
As for the performances in this production, the person who stood out for me through most of the first part of the show
was Hans-Peter König, in the role of Pogner, Eva’s father. He’s one of those
wonderful stage fathers who has dignity and authority that seem to come naturally to him, and yet his facial expression is
benevolent and kindly. Best of all, his voice is one of the brightest, clearest and strongest in the production. Paul Appleby,
in the role of David, a cobbler’s apprentice, is a charming and attractive young performer but his voice didn’t
seem to be coming through strongly enough in the HD transmission. Johan Botha can certainly sing Walther’s demanding
music but there’s not much sweetness to his voice. (Also, it would have helped if he had a slightly more romantic look
to him, less of King Henry VIII at his most dissolute.) Annette Dasch was lovely and fresh as Eva and she sang beautifully
but, as she herself said in the intermission interview, it’s a small role that doesn’t offer much opportunity
for amazing singing. On the other hand, Michael Volle’s performance in the role of Hans Sachs was a tour de force,
especially in his soul-searching and tortured monologue about the meaninglessness of everything.
The Theory of Everything (Movie) written by Anthony McCarten, based on the book by Jane Hawking; directed by James
Marsh; starring Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Harry Lloyd, David Thewlis, Alice Orr-Ewing, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney,
You can hardly go wrong with a movie about the life of Stephen Hawking. There are so many key moments that make for excellent
You start with the geeky, shy student. Then his professors’ amazement at his brilliance. The flowering of his genius.
The tender romance with a sincere young woman. The gradual appearance of his physical problems. The horrible diagnosis. The
fatal prognosis. His friends’ reactions to this news. The steadfast young woman’s refusal to give up on him. Marriage.
Kids. The worsening of his physical condition. Fame and international honours. Medical crises. Marriage problems.
Imbue all this with the setting of Cambridge university – the hallowed halls, the dons flopping along in their academic
gowns, the lofty spires, the lush greenery, punting on the river Cam – and you’ve got a movie that’s sure
to please. Which this one does. It’s beautifully made, virtually flawless in every detail -- as long as you're not expecting
any enlightenment on Mr. Hawking's stupendous theories. But....does the movie give us anything other than the theme
of the indomitable individual who triumphs over tragedy, thanks in no small measure to the loyalty of a good woman? Well,
things do not work out quite as gloriously as in the usual exemplar of the genre. There’s a bittersweet quality to the
And that has to do with – I’m not giving anything away here, since the biographical facts are well known –
the Hawkings’ marriage. Even though the movie doesn’t sugar-coat the truth on that score, it doesn’t do
much to illuminate the situation. Things simply fall apart without any explanation. Ok, life’s like that. But don’t
we expect the theatre – and movies by extension – to give us some insight, some understanding? I’m not saying
that the characters have to verbalize like Edward Albee creations but it would be nice to get some idea of what’s going
on between them.
In a way, Eddie Redmayne, as Mr. Hawking, has the somewhat easier acting job: the withdrawal into a kind of shell as his
physical disabilities become more and more incapacitating. The more interesting performance comes from Felicity Jones in the
role of Jane, his wife. We watch her transformation from the wide-eyed, ingenuous idealist to the mature woman who has, without
losing her sensitivity or her gentleness, been seasoned by the hard realities of the passing years.
One of those realities that gets scant mention is the question of raising three kids in a home with a handicapped father.
As intellectual celebs, the Hawkings are gadding about (in so far as you can do that in a wheel chair) with no talk of who’s
looking after the kids. Maybe the movie-makers think that’s not a relevant issue but the failure to deal with it
leaves some of us wondering whether we're looking at the life of a genuine family. But the thing that bothers me most
about the movie is the obnoxiously intrusive music. It's so sentimental that it makes Peter IlyichTchaikovsky sound like
he's suffering from emotional blockage. Do movie-makers truly believe that a story won’t succeed without this blatant
manipulation of our feelings? Maybe this one wouldn’t, given the lack of exploration into the feelings of the two main