Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg runs approximately five hours and is the longest opera written by Wagner. It is his only “comedy”, meant to provide relief from his long travail on the Ring Cycle, an oeuvre on the power of art in human community, and while situated in a Southern German town in the 16th century, it nevertheless delivers a universal message of the importance of artistic and cultural freedom. Hans Sachs’ final speech on the importance of preserving the “holy German art”, written by Wagner in the context of the German national unity movement of the 19th century, unwittingly and brilliantly foreshadows the European history of the subsequent centuries. The supremacy and durability of art over politics and national borders is just as relevant today as it was in Wagner’s times. The end of a long evening, as the massive chorus dressed as common folk of Nuremberg sings the praise of the poet and shoemaker Hans Sachs and what he represents for the community, is a deeply emotional and cathartic experience, with the audience led into the collective sense of the joy of human spirits.

Musically, the opera is more “traditional” than most of Wagner’s other works in that it has somewhat discrete solo arias, ensembles and choruses, although Wagner is careful here – as elsewhere – to provide continuous music with no opportunity for audience applause. The opera is rich with beautiful and lyrical melodies, comic touches, complex choral music, as well as contemplative stillness. Despite its length, it is often thought to be the most accessible of Wagner’s music dramas. So the Met’s revival, the first for several years was a joyful occasion.  Although the singing and orchestral playing was solid, the overall musical performance did not quite deliver the kind of sublime experience of a great Wagner opera that one would expect from the Met.

Otto Schenk’s 1993 production is utterly realistic, following Wagner’s stage directions closely.  It is pretty and pleasant, and does not challenge you to understand or interpret any outlandish directorial concept. The other side of the coin is that the success of the opera depends squarely on the quality of musical performance.

The famous overture had some uneven playing from the brass and woodwind sections, but the Met Orchestra under James Levine was in fine form. The Prelude to Act III was a special highlight, as the low strings introduced the theme of utter despair that is human existence, followed by the rest of the orchestra, playing the slow melodies with lavish sentiment. The act, almost two hours long, is the crux of the opera, with such musical highlights as Sachs’ “Wahn” monologue, the creation of Walther’s “prize song” (with Sachs’ help), the sublime quintet to baptize the song, the great “Wach auf!” chorus, the “prize song” and, finally, Sachs’ speech. The evening’s performance had steadily improved, and the final act showed the Met orchestra and chorus at their best. The final several minutes were truly glorious.

James Morris reprised his signature role of Hans Sachs. While years of singing has taken a toll on his distinctive bass-baritone, he sang with the same intelligence and elegance that made him a reigning Wotan here for the past few decades. Some strain was apparent in his high notes, especially towards the end. Nevertheless, he had stamina enough to maintain legato phrasing throughout, and his strong stage presence provided a dramatic focal point of the opera. Mr Morris' acting was well studied and yet appeared casual and unforced, and he truly seemed to be enjoying his banter with Beckmesser, the town clerk, in their scene together, and was a kind mentor to the young knight Walther, who courts Sachs’ neighbor and beloved Eva. To Eva, he was a father/lover who was genuinely heartbroken at losing her and yet relieved to ensure her happiness. It was a rounded and complete portrayal.

Two German singers made a particularly strong impression in supporting roles. Hans-Peter Konig’s deep and resonant bass was nevertheless flexible enough to express sympathy and tenderness towards people around him, his daughter Eva and colleagues.  His Act I recitation of his intention to offer Eva’s hands in marriage to the winner of the song contest anchored the performance that was drifting somewhat up to that point. Johannes Martin Kränzle, making a Met debut as Beckmesser, used his pleasant, if not very distinctive, baritone to create a character that is more straight and at times sympathetic than a cartoonish one.  Another German baritone making a Met debut, Martin Gantner, was a fine Fritz Kothner.

Paul Appleby brought his sweet tenor to the role of David, Sachs’ apprentice, and made a very promising start in this demanding role. One needs a good David to get through the first rather tedious part of Act I, as the character explains the rules of the master song to Walther. Mr Appleby had some shaky high notes here, but by Act III he was fully inside the character.  Karen Cargill’s rich and round voice was a pleasure to hear in her small role as Magdalene, Eva’s companion. The very brief role of the Nightwatchman sometimes foreshadows a great Wagnerian bass (it was René Pape’s Met debut role) and Matthew Rose was memorable here. 

If Hans Sachs represents the wisdom of experience, the knight Walther is a young rebel who nevertheless gets persuaded to join the community to preserve, but hopefully innovate, the tradition, as shown in the evolution of his dream into a master song. Johan Botha, with his beautiful voice and tremendous musicality, sang the role impeccably. His breath control was masterful. While his acting was somewhat generic and his vocalism was perhaps too good to be moving (I kept wishing he would take more vocal risk), the ending of his Act III prize song was splendid.

Annette Dasch made a charming and vivacious Eva with her beautiful stage presence and fine acting. While her technique is solid, her voice sounded a bit thin and her high notes showed strain at times.  

It is well advertised that the current production of Die Meistersinger is to be retired after this run. Those of us who remember attending the production première in 1993, the last joyous notes of the opera were both sweet and sad.