Lyric Opera of Chicago's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is Wagner, tamed



Bo Skovhus as Beckmesser
Lyric Opera says its current production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnbergis a "heartwarming comedy" with a message about the important role of art in a community.

The message part is right on.

Meistersinger, also known as "Hitler's favorite opera," was theme music for Nazi Germany, performed on official occasions including the founding of the Third Reich. It was also part of the score for Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

Of course, Meistersinger premiered in 1868, and Wagner died in 1883.

That could make Hitler's appropriation of it a half century later irrelevant to any performance now.

Except that Wagner (1) used the opera to make an argument for an ethnically pure German art (and state) and (2) was a raving anti-Semite himself.

In case there's any doubt about what he was thinking at the time, in 1869 Wagner reissued "Das Judentum in der Musik," a rant he'd published under a pseudonym two decades earlier. It concludes with the suggestion that Jews should annihilate themselves. This time he put his name on it.

Wagner wrote the libretto for Meistersinger himself. He gave it a comic villian, Beckmesser, traditionally played as a stereotypical Jew. Most of the opera's humor hangs on the exploitation of this character's mannerisms and foibles, and its "happy ending" turns on his humiliation and expulsion from a community freshly warned of the dangers of "foreign" influences.

This has been a problem for modern productions, which have dealt with it in various ways—including one that simply stopped the singing during the concluding paean to "Holy German art" for a discussion of what exactly is going on.

In Lyric's coproduction (it had a run last year at Glyndebourne), director David McVicar (who also directed Lyric's Elektra last fall) has opted for something less pointed, but an intervention nonetheless. As he says in an interview published in the program, the traditional take on Beckmesser might be true to Wagner's intention, "but that's an intention I don't intend to let loose onstage!"

Instead, McVicar says, "we play [Beckmesser] as a well-dressed man of means, with dignity of bearing." A vain man, with "petty jealousies, and small-mindedness," but "still a human being."

Which makes both Beckmesser and the opera more palatable, but less powerful than they have been.

This is a big, beautiful production, admirably performed. But it wants us to go a little brain dead while watching it—as if neither Wagner's anti-Semitism nor Nazi Germany ever happened.

Maybe next time we could have one that delivers what Wagner intended, and takes into account the historic events that followed.

That would really be an opera about the importance of art.

Performances continue through March 3 at Lyric Opera, 20 N. Wacker, 312-222-2244,

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