Die Meistersinger is, by Wagner's standards, quite a cheerful opera. The action turns on comedy's staple, the marriage plot: get the hero and the heroine safely and truly wed with at least a presumption of happiness ever after. There are cross-currents and undercurrents that make Meistersinger's libretto subtle in ways that the librettos of operas usually aren't. But for once Nietzsche is nowhere in sight and nobody dies; the territory is closer to The Barber of Seville than to The Ring. Yet, in the first scene of Act 3, the avuncular Hans Sachs, whose benevolent interventions smooth the lovers' course, delivers an aria of bitter reflection on the human condition. It comes as rather a shock:
Wherever I look . . . .
People torment and flay each other
In useless, foolish anger
Till they draw blood.
Driven to flight,
They think they are hunting.
They don't hear their own cry of pain . . . .
When he digs into his own flesh,
Each thinks he is giving himself pleasure.
So 'what got into Sachs?' is a well-known crux for Wagner fans, and one the opera doesn't resolve. (By Scene 2 of Act 3 Sachs is back on the job, arranging for Walther to get his Eva and vice versa.) Sachs isn't, of course, the first to wonder why we are so prone to making ourselves miserable, and the question continues to be pertinent. We have just seen the last of a terrible century with, quite possibly, worse to come. Why is it so hard for us to be good? Why is it so hard for us to be happy?
LRB 18 October 2007 | PDF Download