The plot tells of the young knight Walther von Stolzing, who courts the bourgeois Eva Pogner and – in order to obtain her father’s permission to marry her – must write a song of praise in accordance with the rules of the Meistersinger. The fact that the two lovers, Eva and Walther, finally come together and the young knight succeeds with his prize song is thanks to the (historically authenticated) cobbler and Meistersinger Hans Sachs.
Wagner’s Meistersinger is tremendous in its ambition, tremendous in its success and failure, tremendous in its effect. With this opera, Wagner turned again for the first time to the “real existing” theatre of his time. Unlike the monumental Ring project, which was intended for a utopian stage of the future, unlike Tristan, which proved unperformable, Wagner unfolds the new work with consideration for the theatre culture of his time and leads it to an acclaimed premiere. And the period of the Meistersinger development from 1861 to 1865 brings Wagner’s existence as a whole to a turning point. The amnesty of 1862 enables Wagner, who had been prosecuted for his participation in the 1848 revolution and had fled to Switzerland, to return to Germany. In the same year, Wagner finally separated from his first wife Minna and was united with Cosima Liszt-von Bülow. In 1864, the freshly minted 18-year-old King Ludwig II of Bavaria rescues him from dire financial straits and becomes his most important patron, making possible the world premieres of Die Meistersinger and Tristan, forcing the completed Ring parts Rheingold and Die Walküre – against Wagner’s will – and also saving the Bayreuth Festival enterprise, despite many other disagreements, when public donations and Wagner’s own funds threaten to dry up.
The service on the day before St. John’s is drawing to its close. Walther von Stolzing, a young knight from Franconia, staying at Nuremberg as the guest of the goldsmith Veit Pogner, finally manages to ask Eva, Pogner’s daughter, whether she is betrothed to someone. Magdalene, Eva’s nurse, explains: Pogner has decided that Eva shall marry the winner of the forthcoming singing contest of the Mastersingers. Eva, of course, is already very much interested in the Franconian knight. In order to win Eva, Walther decides to enter into the contest. While preparing the vestry for a meeting of the Masters, David, Sachs’ apprentice, describes the difficulties of the singing rules to Stolzing who remains quite confused. However, he is sure that he will pass the intermediate grades and presently succeed to be a Master.
Pogner now informs the Masters of his decision to offer his daughter’s hand and his fortune as a prize in the singing contest, and recommends to admit Stolzing. When Sachs suggests to let the people, too, vote at the contest, it is above all Beckmesser, the town scribe, who protests as he himself hopes to win Eva and takes Sachs for a rival. Soon, however, his suspicions concentrate on Stolzing. When the latter is allowed to sing a trial song, Beckmesser delights in performing his duty which is to mark the candidate’s mistakes. Walther sings without regard for the Masters’ rules and Beckmesser has no trouble to eliminate his presumed rival: the knight is »out and done with«. – Only Sachs recognizes the true potential of Walther’s song that sounded so unlikely to the Masters.
From her beloved David Magdalene learns that Walther failed with his trial song and hurries to tell Eva. Despite the late hour, Sachs moves to the front of his house to do some work, musing over the day’s events. Eva comes for help and advice. To test her, Sachs pretends to side with the Mastersingers, and from her angry reaction discovers her real feelings. Maybe there was a time when Eva would not have disliked Sachs to woo her, and maybe he himself once thought about it – but this is all over now. Magdalene tells Eva that Beckmesser intends to serenade her. Eva does on no account plan to appear at her window – Magdalene should pose there in Eva’s clothes. For Eva has an assignation with Walther who, in his indignation about the Mastersingers, persuades Eva to flee with him. Sachs, however, overhears the young couple’s conversation and, as he wishes them well, he tries to prevent such an irrevocable action.
Then Beckmesser arrives and begins his serenade. Sachs, meanwhile, disturbs him most thoroughly. Just as Beckmesser chalked Walther’s violations of the Masters’ rules on his slate, Sachs marks the scribe’s mistakes by taps of his hammer and so repairs Beckmesser’s shoes surprisingly fast.
David spots Magdalene who listens to the »serenade« in Eva’s clothes. In a jealous rage he falls upon Beckmesser and their fight develops into an enormous row involving the whole street. Sachs uses the confusion to bring Eva back home, and invites the young knight to his own house.
Sachs is brooding, wherever he casts his eye, he sees nothing but folly. David, who has the nightly row on his conscience, says his verse for St. John’s Day and remembers to congratulate Sachs’ on his nameday. Walther von Stolzing enters and says that he had the most beautiful dream. Sachs challenges him to make a poem from it and while Walther sings, Sachs writes down two of the verses. When they leave the room, Sachs leaves the poem lying on the table.
Beckmesser, still suffering from last night’s adventures, comes and finds the poem which he takes for Sachs’ own entry for the contest, and quickly pockets it. When Sachs realizes this, he makes Beckmesser a present of the poem – lest he be called a thief – and happily swears that he will never claim authorship of the song. Beckmesser is again full of hope to win the contest.
Eva enters and has all her doubts reassured when Walther addresses the third verse of his prize song to her. Following the custom of the Mastersingers, Sachs solemnly baptizes the new song and calls it »selige Morgentraum-Deutweise«, i. e. Song explaining the dream in the morning. He also makes David his journeyman, which pleases Magdalene very much.
The crowd greets Hans Sachs full of enthusiasm end respect. Sachs opens the contest and due to his age, Beckmesser has precedence. He has tried his hand with Walther’s song, but has failed to understand even one word of it and finishes most unfamously amid general amusement. Furiously, he names Sachs as the author.
Sachs, however, calls up the real poet and so gives Walther the opportunity to achieve the prize. The people acclaim Stolzing who is still not reconciled with the Mastersingers and wants to reject their prize. Sachs intervenes and makes Walther see the dignity and the value, the meaning and the importance of their art.
Source: Wiener Staatsoper