(Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg—Wagner) by Sir John Tomlinson
The Mastersingers’ Guild in 16th‐cent. Nuremberg represents for Wagner the traditional skills and values lovingly, carefully, proudly applied, but crucially lacking adventure, individuality, and forward thinking.
On the day before Midsummer day in 1542, at a meeting of the Guild, Eva, the young and beautiful daughter of the rich goldsmith Veit Pogner, is offered in marriage by her father as the prize to the winner of the annual singing contest. There are three contenders: Sixtus Beckmesser, the rigid, rulebound, soulless perfectionist, the ‘Marker’ of the Guild, who tries every trick in the book to win Eva (and, thereby, her fortune); Walther von Stolzing, a young visiting knight who has fallen madly in love with Eva (and she with him), who hopes to be accepted as a Master but who, at the audition, sings with such passionate, swirling romanticism that he is disdainfully rejected by the reactionary Guild; and Hans Sachs, a workmanlike shoemaker who, when not at his last, retires to the shade of the elder tree by his front door where he finds solace with the muse in his other life as poet and composer.
Since the tragic death of his wife and children, Sachs, now perhaps 50 years old (somewhat older than Beckmesser, incidentally), has watched Eva growing up and has for her a generous paternal love. Sometimes her beauty tempts him to think he could be a suitable partner for her, but deep down he knows he is too old. Eva's father would certainly approve of such a marriage and Eva herself, a week ago, would happily have accepted. But since Walther's arrival on the scene…Sachs quickly senses that the pair love each other and he decides to do everything he can to bring them together. Hence the story of The Mastersingers, the events of the ensuing 24 hours in the life of the Nuremberg community, at once funny and lively but also philosophical, sobering, and perhaps even tragic.
Hans Sachs is the only character in the opera to be based on fact, and the poem by the real, historical Sachs is sung on stage in the final scene of the opera. By any yardstick, this is the longest of all operatic roles: he is on stage for four hours, singing for much of that time, and stamina is a fundamental necessity. However, Wagner was not a composer to make impossible demands on a singer (although he deliberately comes close to the limit), and he does not ask of a Sachs the dramatic power and continuous intensity of, say, a Wotan. The part of Sachs is written by Wagner on a human scale, sometimes almost parlando, with warm natural recitatives, thoughtful probing monologues and soaring public orations. Bass, bass‐baritone, or baritone voices are all potentially suitable; and indispensable alongside the stamina, is a voice of great expressiveness together with acting ability and a stage personality capable of portraying this charismatic and multifaceted character.
To return to Nuremberg: Sachs cleverly weaves his plans to outwit Beckmesser, persuade the Masters of the validity of Walther's new music and, finally, despite his own love for Eva, bring the young pair together and ensure a ‘happy ending’ to Wagner's ‘comedy’ (his own description).