Pappano, Chorus and Orchestra Excel in Holten’s Farewell Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden

12/03/2017

Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 11.3.2017. (JPr)

170306_1664_meistersinger BRYN TERFEL AS HANS SACHS (C) ROH. PHOTO BY CLIVE BARDA

Bryn Terfel (centre) as Hans Sachs at the conclusion of Act II (c) Clive Barda

Production:

Director- Kasper Holten
Set designer- Mia Stensgaard
Costume designer- Anja Vang Kragh
Lighting designer – Jesper Kongshaug
Choreography and movement – Signe Fabricius
Fight director – Kate Waters
Dramaturg – Elisabeth Linton

Cast:

Hans Sachs – Bryn Terfel
Sixtus Beckmesser – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Walther von Stolzing – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Eva – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Veit Pogner – Stephen Milling
David – Allan Clayton
Magdalene – Hanna Hipp
Fritz Kothner – Sebastian Holecek
Kunz Vogelgesang – Andrew Tortise
Balthasar Zorn – Alasdair Elliott
Konrad Nachtigal – Gyula Nagy
Ulrich Eisslinger – Samuel Sakker
Augustin Moser – David Junghoon Kim
Hermann Ortel – John Cunningham
Hans Schwarz – Jeremy White
Hans Foltz – Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Nightwatchman – David Shipley

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the longest of Wagner’s works still commonly performed today. It can sometime last about 5 hours (excluding intervals) though Antonio Pappano brings it in with over 30 minutes to spare. The setting is mid-sixteenth century Nuremberg, one of the centres of the Renaissance in Northern Europe at the time and the story is about a real-life Mastersinger guild who established a complex system of rules for the composition and performance of songs. The opera realises much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the guild’s traditions and one of its main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure (1494 – 1576): perhaps Wagner’s greatest character, he features as a wise and compassionate man.

Wagner’s only ‘comedy’ is a favourite for many. Of all his works it is the most accessible and potentially least disturbing, perhaps because Wagner ignored all the rules he had proposed for opera in his 1850s theoretical prose writings. The work has a historically well-defined plot – rather than mythological or legendary one – and is the only mature Wagner opera based on an entirely original story, devised by Wagner himself. Deliberately using many of the operatic conventions that Wagner had railed against in his essays, including a ballet, rhymed verse, choruses, arias, the work even has five different characters singing together at one point (the celebrated Meistersinger Quintet.) The whole thing is a huge metaphor about the meaning of Art, reflecting on the response to the foreign or unfamiliar in music and asking whether everyone can be sufficiently open-minded to value the modern. In this essentially autobiographical treatise, Wagner propounds his view that there is a greater chance of being understood by the masses than by essentially conservative professionals.

Attempts have been made over many recent years to taint the work with the accusation that it displays Wagner’s anti-Semitism through the character of Beckmesser as a Jewish stereotype. It is well known that I have never fully embraced this thesis and I was pleased to see it effectively laid to rest in an informative programme essay (Being Beckmesser) from Chris Walton who concludes: ‘For while Wagner openly fancied himself as Sachs and Walther, he knew he had once (almost) been a Beckmesser – a critic, a would-be composer, a marker, someone to whom laurels had been denied, someone who runs away from singing competitions when faced with public embarrassment [Wagner failed to join the jury at a 1852 festival of song in Basel]. An author should always identify with his creations in order to bring them to life; but the bond that Wagner shared with Beckmesser was rather closer than we have hitherto suspected.’

Earlier in the same essay Walton writes: ‘For the generation who saw the likes of Geraint Evans or Hermann Prey in the role, Beckmesser remains unforgettable, while it’s more difficult to remember who sang Eva or Walther alongside them.’ Indeed, my first Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden in 1982 was with Evans (with a young John Tomlinson as the Nightwatchman) and I subsequently saw Prey and this performance was also memorable for Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser who was undoubted star of this show. I suspect this had nothing to do with Kasper Holten’s farewell production as Kränzle’s Beckmesser was basically the same he gave at Glyndebourne, at the Met (review here) and will give at Bayreuth this summer.

Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, came to Covent Garden trailing plaudits for his Der Ring des Nibelungen for Royal Danish Opera, but he never seems to have achieve similar success during his tenure which is coming to its end. Here with his Danish compatriots he has developed a Konzept into which he tries to fit Die Meistersinger, but often seems more like the settings for some other productions he is now unable to bring to Covent Garden.

I am not propounding slavish adherence to Wagner’s stage directions; goodness knows I could even find positives in Katharina Wagner’s much-derided staging at Bayreuth (review here). However, if you are dispensing with a church interior and somewhere for the guild to meet (Act I), a street (Act II) and Sachs’s workshop superseded by a sunny meadow for Act III; you should have something logical and thought-provoking to replace them with. Here Holten and his team seem to have a few random thoughts which they fail to cogently realise.

Of course, those coming to Die Meistersinger for the first time will undoubtedly have different reactions than me and I accepted that. The evening had its moments and these were often musical ones. Leading the way were the Royal Opera Chorus who were on inspired form for ‘Wacht auf!’ in the third act and Antonio Pappano inspiring some of the best Wagner I have heard from him and his reliable orchestra. Pappano’s reading had the requisite autumnal glow, with the musical line frequently sculpted with revelatory nuance and character-rich detail. My only criticism is that it mostly sounded rather quiet – at least from where I was sitting – and I suspect Pappano needed to support his cast some of whom might have had trouble riding any full-on orchestral climaxes he might have unleashed.

So what did we see? On TV currently there is a series – ‘A Very British Hotel’ – set above and below stairs at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in Knightsbridge and Act I reminded me of that. In Mia Stensgaard’s indeterminate setting with its elaborate wood panelling we are clearly in a luxury hotel hosting an alcohol-fuelled masonic dinner with musical entertainment. There are bustling waiters and waitresses and Magdalene as head of hospitality. Hans Sachs is onstage at the start during a choral rehearsal conducted by the company’s chorus director, William Spaulding! For Act II – despite references to house, window or street – we are still in the hotel lobby with a couple of potted lilac trees for Sachs’s reflective Fliedermonolog. There is also a spinet which Beckmesser plays instead of his lute. Later in the opera Sachs bemoans he is ‘Forever cobbling’, but we never actually really see him make any shoes. In Act II he taps on his shoemakers’ last for no apparent reason. The full-blown riot at the end of the act seems no more than a nightmarish Dionysian carnival – complete with the Nightwatchman (David Shipley) as Pan, conjured by Hans Sachs apparently having a migraine.

I always think that if a director runs out of ideas they set something backstage at a theatre. Act III opens backstage at a theatre which revolves for no apparent reason, before the final scene which is turned into a version of the parade – in more historically-traditional costumes – at the Lord Mayor’s Show with onlookers in evening dress on tiered seating on either side of a catwalk. Prior to this the Quintet was sung with the five singers facing straight out into the auditorium: the simplicity of it all made this sublime moment a very effective interlude. This final Festwiese scene was complete with an onstage photographer and Hans Sachs – who earlier in the act had cuddled a small teddy bear like Mr Bean – happily signing autographs and posing for photos. Unlike some Beckmessers – Thomas Allen particularly – who have sung too well at this point, Johannes Martin Kränzle gave a masterclass of how to make a good song sound unforgivably bad.

I am grateful to Chris Walton for providing the evidence of how Wagner saw his one-time muse Mathilde Wesendonck as Eva and himself as Sachs adding: ‘It is now Wagner, aka Sachs/Walther who wins the laurels before the adoring masses, and who manages to both get the girl and renounce her at the same time.’ Holten never genuinely illuminates the Sachs-Eva-Walther love triangle and, in fact, at the crucial point in Act II Eva kisses Sachs as passionately as Walther and this comes out of the blue. Eva is the character who has undergone the most revisionism: she notices how all the Mastersingers’ trophy wives are shunted aside before they settle down to drink and smoke, and falling in love with the scruffy outsider Walther is not keen for him to conform. When he does she has a strop and flounces out at the end of the opera.

Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Walther is a known quantity having sung it for English National Opera (review here), but I believe this is the first time he has sung it in German. Hughes Jones is clearly a Wagner singer who is able to balance sweetly lyrical tone with some vocal heft. He inflects his words meaningfully and manages to sound for all the world like the dashing young hero Wagner wrote; though like his great Walther forerunner, Alberto Remedios, who he brings back memories of – both vocally and physically – he does not look like him. His character is somewhat of a petulant rebel and appears to graffiti Wagner’s ‘Kinder, schafft Neues!’ (Children, create new things!) on a hotel wall at one point. I did not find Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Eva easy on the ear – but that might just be me – and I prefer the role to be sung rather more tenderly, though that might not have suited Holten’s view of her character. In the modern way, Hanna Hipp’s Magdalene was more typically girly than Wagner’s ‘old maid’. She began with some perky and high-spirted involvement in the Scene 1 ensemble and her rich mezzo impressed by making this relatively small supporting role seem much bigger than it is. I was impressed with Allan Clayton’s David who seems always puppyishly eager to please. His long Act I explanation of the Mastersinger’s art can be somewhat of a trial in its own right, but I have rarely heard it delivered better. From the sound of his voice Clayton clearly has a more significant Wagnerian career ahead of him if he wants it. Stephen Milling was the sternly paternal Pogner and Sebastian Holecek a stentorian Kothner and they were animatedly supported by the mix of youth and experience amongst the Mastersingers.

This leaves Bryn Terfel whose voice I have known since he auditioned for – and won of course – the Wagner Society’s Bayreuth Bursary when I was on the panel more years ago than I care to remember. Wagner in the intervening years has taken a toll and his plainspoken, larger-than-life, slightly gruff Hans Sachs is more like his predecessor at Covent Garden, John Tomlinson, than the warm, expressive and sympathetic paterfamilias Hans Sachs of Norman Bailey who I grew up – in a Wagnerian sense – listening to. Like a semi-staging Holten positions Sachs almost continually at the front of the stage. Throughout, Terfel downplays the more philosophical side of his character, whilst in typical fashion, he delivers the text masterfully and retains sufficient stamina to get right through to the end of his clarion closing ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ without running out of steam; something Tomlinson never quite could in my experience.

Jim Pritchard

For more about what is happening at the Royal Opera House visit http://www.roh.org.uk/.

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