Whatever one thinks of Wagner, it's unlikely the first word that springs to mind is 'funnyman'. Yet, there towards the end of his writing career - the eighth in his extraordinary run of ten 'mature' operas - is 'Die Meistersigner von Nurnberg' ('The Mastersingers of Nuremberg'), a four-and-a-half hour comedy, sticking out from amid the grand fantasy of the Ring Cycle and the mysticism of 'Parsifal' like a sore thumbs-up.
He had tried comedy once before. The middle opera in the early trio of lesser works before the 'Big 10' is called 'Das Liebesverbot', or 'The Ban on Love', and based on Shakespeare's 'Measure for Measure'. It dates from around 1836, and RW went on to disown it. What made him go for laughs again some 30 years later?
It's quite tempting to think he really was just after some light relief. After composing 'Das Rheingold' and 'Die Walkure', he ground to a halt mid-'Siegfried', apparently hitting a kind of creative stumbling block that must've felt like the whole Ring Cycle was in jeopardy. His first attempt at 'going off and doing something else for a bit' resulted in 'Tristan und Isolde': still vast, intense, mythical, and surely in the title couple's fatal love, foreshadowing the "laughing death" anticipated by Brunnhilde and Siegfried.
But his second great distraction, 'Mastersingers', really was a departure. If its romantic-comedy elements are more reminiscent of a younger work, then that's perhaps because to some extent it was. RW had in fact already tried to write it in 1845, just after 'Flying Dutchman' and 'Tannhauser', when his grand signature style was still crystallising. The Mastersingers of 16th century Nuremberg (along with their most revered member, Hans Sachs) were real, but Wagner fashioned a gossamer plot around them: boy meets girl, girl loves boy back, boy has to win girl's hand in arcane singing contest staged by a club of mostly benign, yet strangely inflexible, town elders. We've all done it.
Here goes (*takes deep breath*) - the opera opens on Midsummer's Eve. The Mastersingers are a guild of craftsmen who have established a tradition of virtuosic composition and singing based on a set of strict rules. We're mainly concerned with three of them: Veit Pogner the goldsmith, Sixtus Beckmesser the town clerk and Hans Sachs the cobbler. Young nobleman Walther and Pogner's daughter Eva are in love, but Walther's timing is terrible: Pogner has offered Eva's hand in marriage to whoever wins the Mastersingers' competition held on the following feast day. This being a comedy, Pogner does not immediately cry out, "You're right! I AM INSANE - I'm about to give my daughter away in a SONG CONTEST! Thank God you turned up." Instead, Walther has to try and become a mastersinger overnight.
Most of the mastersingers are married, which means only the bachelor Beckmesser and widower Sachs are likely contestants for the prize. Beckmesser is an old-school pedant, while Sachs is a thoughtful and open-minded maverick who occasionally horrifies the others with a new idea (for example, allowing the audience to judge the contest rather than the elders themselves). As a result, in one of the opera's funniest scenes, Beckmesser fails the auditioning Walther, punctuating the song by noisily chalking the errors up on a blackboard in every quiet moment. Sachs suggests the committee could be more receptive to the newcomer's vocal style, but to no avail.
(This superb production photo, and the one below, were taken by Catherine Ashmore and appear on the ENO website.)
Eva has a companion, Magdalena (or Lena) - who is stepping out with Sachs's apprentice, David. Events reach a 'mayhem ceiling' when later that night, Beckmesser - who really wants to win Eva - turns up to serenade her with his song-in-progress. Eva and Walther hatch plans to elope, so Eva places Lena in her window to fool Beckmesser. However, David - who takes events at face value and thinks Beckmesser is after Lena - starts a fight which soon escalates into a town-wide riot. Sachs, finishing off a new pair of shoes for Beckmesser, watches the entire fiasco unfold from his front porch. Giving the clerk a taste of his own medicine, he scuppers the romancing ('marking' his song by hammering on the shoes), and in the brouhaha, intercepts the lovers and gives Walther a bed for the night.
Midsummer's Day arrives, and Sachs lays plans to sort out the mess. He coaches Walther, who manages to compose a top-drawer song that nudges the envelope without giving it too hard a push. While the two men get ready for the festivities, Beckmesser turns up and Sachs catches him nicking the new lyrics. Unwittingly, he has played into Sachs's hands - the cobbler promises that he will never claim to have written the text, and that Beckmesser can take the song and use it in the contest if he so chooses. Beckmesser - who has failed to come up with anything decent in time - reckons he'll walk it with a Sachs original, but in the event he has no suitable tune and his turn is a shambles. Although Beckmesser tries to blame Sachs for passing him a stinker (good luck with that), Sachs can truthfully attest the song isn't his. Walther is allowed to perform the song as he intended and win the day. The Mastersingers offer him immediate membership and Walther's first instinct is to (politely) tell them to shove it; but, in a curious epilogue, Sachs persuades him to change his mind with a monologue about the nobility of German art and the need to preserve its traditions.
However 'immature' the story, though, Wagner - by the 1860s - is incapable of giving it anything other than his 'mature' treatment. The plot twists and turns like a farce, but the characters are fully-rounded and complex, enhancing the improbable events with a layer of emotional resonance.
I find it interesting, for example, that RW went to Shakespeare for his only other comedy, as parts of Mastersingers seem to me to have a Bardic feel. For example, in David and Lena, Wagner sets up a lowlier 'mirror' couple to Walther and Eva. By promoting David from his apprenticeship (as singer as well as cobbler), Sachs - symbolising freedom and progress - is as responsible for making David and Lena's union possible, as he is Walther and Eva. Along the way, we have mistaken identity, a controlling father, a virtuous daughter... and the outsider/onlooker who ends the piece alone.
Wagner was no stranger to the *ahem* 'arrestingly modern' idea, and the presence of some of these psychological/sexual themes are extremely potent and challenging when applied to us normal folk instead of giants and gods. For example, there's the way Lena's love for David is expressed through providing food - and his feelings for her could almost be dismissed as cupboard love until his genuine outburst of anger and jealousy towards Beckmesser. Also - in contrast to, say, the incest between Siegmund and Sieglinde in the Ring Cycle - Sachs and Eva have a father/daughter/lovers dynamic that's subtly dealt with and achingly real. Sachs has known Eva all her life and is extremely fond of her - while well aware that any further feelings should probably be kept in check. Eva herself lets Sachs know that if he did enter and win the contest, it'd be fine with her - but, as we know she also loves Walther, the sense is very much of a young and rather confused person working their desires out with very little time to influence the outcome. A more cynical interpretation - she'll take anyone rather than Beckmesser - could be equally valid.
And despite my reluctance to consider RW a natural comedian, I couldn't help thinking that here he is, to some extent, sending himself up. By this time, he was fully into writing his 'music dramas' - rejecting showstopping, stand-alone arias that hold up the action in favour of a new style that had the music track the mood swings in the libretto.
Yet the opera itself is about the art of perfectly structured, self-contained songwriting. Sachs's tutorial of Walther - priming him with the necessary skills, yet shrewdly judging where the knight's innate talent has also moved the style on a touch - is the most obvious place for this. But elsewhere, say, there's beautiful use of the chorus, and liberal rhyming (present and correct in the fine, idiomatic translation). It's as if Wagner is saying, "Look - I can do this stuff when I want to..." and pulling off the feat of building in these more conventional features into his more sprawling, fully-realised vision. Who knows - perhaps, as he was hitting his head against a brick wall mid-Ring Cycle, he was reminding himself what he was capable of.
This tightrope the opera walks between tradition and innovation doesn't just allow its format to reflect its story - it's also a possible 'way in' to Sachs's closing remarks. Given what we know about RW's unsavoury views/character, the nationalistic feel of this paean to 'holy German art' seems problematic in hindsight. However, in context, it's a pep talk; Sachs gently deflates Walther's wish to break away and persuades him to respect the guild. Reflected outwards, this is Wagner demonstrating that his own operatic innovations still come from the same source as his forebears and that there is a place for him in the pantheon.
Director Richard Jones handles the finale deftly. The stage curtain is a Sgt-Pepper-style collage of German artistic innovators (progress as a tradition or characteristic), and as the opera closes, each cast member holds aloft an individual portrait of one of the figures. But the production doesn't put a foot wrong. The art/craft culture of the village is nicely evoked with elegant, but clean and uncluttered sets showing the functional life of the town - church, street square, park - punctuated with soft, busy, patterned backdrops. Props are used with humour and elan. The apprentices wheel on wardrobes behind the masters for them to don their robes and become local heroes - with helpful diagrams stuck on them to assist David's initial attempt to steer Walther through the rules. The graphics then reappear on the blackboard, only to be gleefully destroyed by Beckmesser's chalk. As I write, there are still two performances to go: so I shouldn't really describe Beckmesser's improvised use for his guitar following the riot. Once seen, never forgotten.
The orchestra under Edward Gardner (ENO's current - but outgoing - musical director) found a warm, enveloping tone that utterly banished any idea of Wagnerian bombast and created the necessary atmosphere of domestic intimacy and civic breeziness - then activating full-on beauty mode when the mastersongs took flight. Helping complete the illusion that the Coliseum, for those five hours, was a close-knit studio space were an essentially perfect cast.
To begin with, it's easy to see why the ENO chorus have been nominated as one of the best in their field in the international Opera Awards 2015. I've already seen them give such incredible performance in recent months ('Thebans', which - as befits Greek tragedy - contained such great writing for the chorus, as did 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary'). From their opening hymn in this production, you knew you were listening to a very special group of voices.
The leads were especially well-suited to their roles - both for their sound and the way it served their acting. I could list everyone but for me, there were three particular stand-outs. Rachel Nicholls as Eva sang angelically, but played against this when needed: the improvising runaway lover, or undecided coquette - with the ability to give lines a harsh snap in moments of frustration ("That's all I need!" on hearing of Beckmesser's approach). Andrew Shore gave Beckmesser a near-permanent expression of suppressed fury, and I marvelled at his ability to sing so beautifully yet angrily - at once - then finally, having the theatrical courage to still sing a note-perfect performance while convincing us utterly that he's demolishing a song. I still can't quite work out how he did this, which is how it should be.
As Sachs, however, Iain Paterson is surely giving one of the performances of his life. His bass-baritone voice has tremendous depth and power - as you might expect - but I'm still never quite prepared for its fleet agility and lightness when needed. It gives him the foundation to sing, as well as show, the vulnerability in these rocks of men. I first saw him during Barenboim's Ring Cycle at the 2013 Proms, singing Wotan in 'Das Rheingold' and made a resolution to try and catch his performances whenever possible. In the Royal Opera House's most recent 'Elektra', his unsettling Orest - sinking to the ground in exhaustion by his sister's body in the final moments - is still vivid in my memory, alongside his vehement and heart-wrenching interpretation of Kurwenal in last year's 'Tristan und Isolde'.
Sachs is one of the most intriguing characters in opera, I think - both ordinary and extraordinary bloke. He casts himself in the role of amused outsider and self-styled maverick - but behind the mischief is a keen mix of intelligence and kindness. He finds a way to clear up the confusion but in carrying out the plan he makes a sacrifice that only he can really feel or understand, as the brief window of opportunity where he might have won Eva for himself closes for good.
Unlike the other masters, Paterson's Sachs leaves his ornate robe open - a nice touch that visualises his reluctance to be hidebound by their system - as well as a signature laissez-faire that chimes in with his unerring ability to arrive everywhere a few minutes late. Always alert, always apart and always acting. Hands: a comic 'OK' gesture to Beckmesser mid-serenade at one point; at another, a heartbreaking, incomplete reach for Eva when her thoughts are elsewhere. Even though we were in the circle, IP's command of physical gestures and facial expressions made us feel like we could see what was in his mind, behind the eyes. While it might seem odd to commend such a fine singer in a moment of quiet, I must mention the start of Act 3, where during the prologue, Sachs is onstage alone, waking up. In those few minutes, we are treated to an acting masterclass by Paterson: he works through melancholy, loneliness (gripping his pillow), hope, acceptance, resolve - all by changes across his features and silent movement around the workshop. It was impossible to take your eyes off him, let alone your ears. Let's not forget, this luxuriously complete and rounded characterisation is all still in service of the vocal achievement: the range of dynamics (Sachs must argue, cajole, encourage, comfort and declaim, and Paterson adjusts the volume up and down exactly as needed) on display with such skilful diction and resonance made for an indelible portrayal. It was a performance I felt privileged to see.
Before I go - I should mention a couple of things. First, if you can see this production, you should. Time is short. Tickets look scarce on Saturday 7 March but with a few more available for Tuesday 10 March.
Second, Iain Paterson is also a fascinating and entertaining scribe (he worked on the translation for this production) and his blog is well worth following. Two recent pieces: the advice he gathered from his fellow Sachses, and his debt to the great John Tomlinson. I'm sure Paterson can expect present and future young singers to hold him in similar regard and seek him out for advice in the same way.