On Friday, a new co-production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opened at the Lyric. The only comedy among Wagner’s mature music dramas, its sound is very much like that of the better-known tragedies – brassy, overfull, with a core of strings teetering at vibrato’s edge. But its style is heterogeneous where the tragedies are homogeneous, shifting rapidly through a Wagner-index of tropes and melodic figures. A bit of Lohengrin’s prelude here, a smidgeon of Siegfried there, and a direct quotation of Tristan und Isolde at the moment the characters speak (semi-ironically?) of their woes in love. By quoting himself, and by trying his hand at a public, theatrical and comic tale of marriage (albeit one that lasts five-and-a-half hours with intermissions), Wagner explicitly links himself to Mozart, who quoted his own Marriage of Figaro at the end of Don Giovanni.

Act Three, Scene 1 © Dan Rest
Act Three, Scene 1
© Dan Rest

The opera’s a potpourri, and the new staging at the Lyric no less so. At one point it occurred to me that I had never before seen so many people crammed onto the stage at the Civic Opera House (this was at the end of Act II, and again at the end of Act III); I feared that the house, even after removing a dangerous fire-stunt from the beginning of the last act, was still in violation of building fire codes. It’s a huge cast, especially when the non-singing dancers and jugglers and stilt-walkers are factored in. The sense of spectacle is made explicit when, in the last scene of the last act, four-and-a-half hours into the night, the curtain goes up on a peasant circus that is performing for the opera audience and soliciting our applause. The jolt of direct address is a welcome intervention so late into the night, and reinvigorates the crowd just before the arrival of the all-important song contest.

I have to note a really lovely detail: the fire curtain is printed with the first page of the Meistersinger overture, sideways, reminding us of the concert tradition of playing operatic overtures in isolation by symphony orchestras. When the curtain goes up, seeing costumed singers running around on stage is a shock. It highlights at once the opera’s theatricality and the immediacy of its action.

Yet the stage, once revealed, is so frequently over-stuffed that one easily begins to feel the same way about the music. From the floor, the orchestra seemed to maintain an undifferentiated fullness throughout, though a friend who was in the upper balcony reported that the sound there was less full and more focused. Some of the group numbers (for instance, at the end of Act II) may be impossible to direct, but the roar was so noisy that I sometimes could not tell where voices and instruments separated from one another. Johan Botha (who plays the hero), the great Wagnerian presence, stays above the hubbub, but the large cast is not always consistent in balancing flexibility and sheer volume. This is especially a shame when the score presents the opportunity to set solo lines in relief. I’m not appealing for total clarity, which would be as undesirable as it is impossible – but it seemed that the opera’s (hence the director’s, and conductor’s) strategy was to flood rather than seduce, to sacrifice detail in certain moments (perhaps at the cost of a slight asceticism) for warm, Bierstein-waving good cheer.