Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
ACT I. As the congregation of St. Katherine’s Church sings a hymn, the young knight Walther von Stolzing tries to catch the eye of Eva Pogner. Once the parishioners have filed out, Eva informs her admirer that she is to be betrothed the next day to the winner of a song contest sponsored by the local guild of Mastersingers. Eva’s companion, Magdalene, tells her own sweetheart, David, apprentice to the cobbler and Mastersinger Hans Sachs, to explain the rules of song composing to Walther (“Mein Herr”), who is surprised by the complicated ins and outs of Mastersinging.
During David’s explanation of the rules, his fellow apprentices set up for a preliminary trial singing. When the Masters arrive, Eva’s father, Pogner, greets Walther, who expresses his desire to become a Mastersinger. Beckmesser, the town clerk and a spiteful, jealous pedant who also seeks Eva’s hand, overhears their conversation and immediately becomes suspicious of the young knight.
As proof that tradesmen value art, Pogner offers his daughter’s hand as the prize for the next day’s contest (“Das schöne Fest”). When Sachs suggests that Eva—and the people—should have some say in the matter, Pogner announces that she can reject the winner but must marry a Mastersinger or can marry no one.
Walther introduces himself (“Am stillen Herd”) and describes his natural, self-taught methods of musical composition. Going on to his trial song (“Fanget an!”), Walther sings an impulsive, free-form tune, breaking many of the Masters’ rules. Beckmesser vigorously keeps a count of his errors. The young knight stalks out when he is rejected by the Masters, leaving Sachs to reflect on the distinctive appeal of Walther’s melody.
ACT II. That evening, as David’s fellow apprentices playfully end their day, David tells Magdalene how badly Walther fared. Eva, arriving with her father, gets the sad news from Magdalene.
On the other side of the street, Sachs sets up shop in his doorway; the scent of the blossoms of the elder tree and the memory of Walther’s song, however, distract him (“Wie duftet doch der Flieder”). Eva visits him, and though she suggests that she would be glad if Sachs himself won the contest, her dismay at his pretended disapproval of Walther betrays her true feelings.
Running off in a huff, she is intercepted by Walther, who begs her to elope with him. They hide as a night watchman passes. Sachs overhears them and lights the street with a lantern, forcing the lovers to stay put while Beckmesser arrives to serenade Eva, whom Magdalene impersonates in a window of Pogner’s house.
When the clerk is ready with his tune, however, Sachs launches into a lusty song (“Jerum! Jerum!”) then pleads that he needs to finish his work. At length, they agree that both would make progress if Beckmesser were to sing while Sachs marked any broken rules of style with his cobbler’s hammer. The ensuing racket increases when David jealously attacks the clerk for apparently wooing Magdalene, and the night-shirted neighbors join in a free-for-all until the night watchman’s horn disperses them.
Pogner leads Eva inside while Sachs drags Walther and David into his shop. In the deserted street, the night watchman intones the hour, sounds his horn and passes through the suddenly peaceful moonlit street.
ACT III. Scene 1. Reading a book in his study the next morning, Sachs forgives David his unruly behavior and asks him to recite his St. John’s Day verses. Alone, the cobbler ponders the world’s madness (“Wahn! Wahn”), then greets Walther, who tells of a wondrous dream. Sachs recognizes a potential prize song; taking down the words, he helps the knight fashion them with an ear for form and symmetry (“Morgenlich leuchtend”).
When they depart, Beckmesser limps in and noses around. Pocketing Walther’s poem, he is caught by Sachs, who tells him to keep it. Beckmesser, certain of victory, rushes out.
Eva now visits Sachs on the pretext that there is something wrong with her shoe. Walther returns, dressed for the festival, and repeats his prize song for her. She is torn by her affection for Sachs (“O Sachs! Mein Freund”), but the wise older man turns her to the younger man. When Magdalene comes in, Sachs promotes David to journeyman with a box on the ear and asks Eva to bless the new song; all five reflect on their happiness (“Selig wie die Sonne”). Then they go off to the contest.
Scene 2. In a meadow outside the city, the guilds and citizens assemble under festive banners. After a joyful dance, the Masters file in, Sachs getting a spontaneous hand from his people, which in turn inspires a moving address from him (“Euch macht ihr’s leicht”).
The contest opens as Beckmesser nervously tries to fit Walther’s verses to his own music, but he forgets the words and distorts them, earning laughter from the crowd. The clerk turns furiously on Sachs and stumbles off, missing the rightful delivery of the song by Walther. The people are entranced, but Walther refuses the Masters’ medallion. Sachs, however, convinces him to accept (“Verachtet mir die Meister nicht”), extolling tradition and its upholders as well as its fresh innovators. Youth makes its pact with age, Walther has won Eva, and the people hail Sachs once more as Eva crowns him with Walther’s wreath.