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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Cobbler's Hammer

Another take on singers breaking character.

Bernd Weikl as Hans Sachs at Bayreuth.
Image © Unitel/Bayreuth Festspielhaus
When Anna Netrebko made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the company's new production of Anna Bolena, critics erupted in a furore over her grin at the end of the aria "Al dolce guidami."

In a recent post on The New York Observer, Zachary Woolfe offers a fascinating denfese of Ms. Netrebko's smile, arguing that singrs have a long history of breaking character onstage and should not be picked apart for doing so.

This reminded me of my first performance of Die Meistersinger at the Met, back in 1995 with an all-star cast led by Bernd Weikl as Hans Sachs. To give you an idea of the fire-power onstage, that night in Olde Nuremberg featured:
  • Hermann Prey (in his only Met appearances as Sixtus Beckmesser.)
  • Ben Heppner as Walther von Stolzing.
  • Karita Mattila as Eva Pogner
  • Two promising young basses (Alan Held and René Pape) as Fritz Kothner and the Night Watchman, respectively.
Back in those innocent (grad school) days, my mom had subscription seats in the fourth row of the orchestra on the left side of the house. This put us close enough to hear James Levine scat-singing along with the orchestra during the prelude.

It also put me directly across from Mr. Weikl's cobbler's last in the second act. If you're not familiar with this scene, it opens with Sachs singing poetically of the beauty of the night and the linden-tree overhead. It ends in comic chaos, as Beckmesser comes out in his nightshirt to sing the love-song he has planned for the next day's song-contest and unwittingly touches off a massive Straßenkampf.

Now this was my first live Meistersinger. But, budding Wagner geek that I was, I'd studied the opera in dept and learned it back-to-front from the first Solti recording. As Sachs banged his hammer on the cobbler's last, critiquing (or "marking") Beckmesser's performance, I felt myself caught up in the show. I started bobbing my head at each "bang."

Suddenly, I felt Bernd Weikl's eyes on me from across the orchestra pit. He wasn't angry. In fact, he looked amused that I was the kid knew where the hammer-strikes were in the score. He held up the cobbler's hammer, nd gave me a  questioning look. I grinned. I nodded vigorously and whack! Beckmesser had another mark against him. We never made eye contact again, and it was a great performance.

The point is that, moments like this are among the opera-goer's most cherished. If a singer does
"break character", it can leave the audience with the reminder: "Hey! They're human beings! Let's go back and see if they do something like that again."

Opera lovers, (and fellow critics): treasure those smiles, those glances, those cobbler's blows. They don't happen often.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats