Birmingham Symphony Hall Celebrates its 21st with Die Meistersinger

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Orchestra / Antonio Pappano (conductor). Birmingham Symphony Hall, 11.1.2012 (GR).

Principal Soloists:

Hans Sachs:Wolfgang Koch
Walther: Simon O’Neill
Eva: Emma Bell
Beckmesser: Peter Coleman-Wright
David: Toby Spence
Magdalene: Heather Shipp
Pogner: John Tomlinson.

The first half of 2012 sees Birmingham Symphony Hall celebrate 21 years as a concert venue. During that time some of the greatest names in classical music, dance, pop and comedy have graced its stage, some of whom were listed in the programme. Affirmations of its quality were also included from the press, Tony Bennett and George Shearing. But it takes one of Wagner’s greatest music dramas, a consummate orchestra at one with their maestro and a star-studded list of soloists to bring out the best in the acoustic properties of this palatial auditorium. Everything was in place on 11th Jan 2012, when Sir Antonio Pappano and the ROH returned to Birmingham. A packed house enthusiastically received their rendition of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Wagner operas often function well in concert and on the whole this was an excellent semi-staging of Wagner’s ever-popular story of the 16th century citizens of a provincial German town. The complete cast, hotfoot from their recent run at Covent Garden, were so tuned in to their characters and each other that interactive role-play came naturally. This was particularly apparent when the narrow strip in front of the orchestra that became their stage was occupied by all twelve Mastersingers. For the most part, the absence of sets and costumes did not seem to matter; the images invoked by the music of Pappano and his instrumentalists did the rest. The Vorspiel with its three main themes, correspondingly portraying the respectability of the Masters, the ceremonial pomp accorded to them and the sheer lyricism of the Prize Song, painted a graphic enough picture in my mind. The numbers of the orchestra had at first appeared undersized, but their power (and quality) were never found wanting. As the overture glided into the opening chorale of the first scene there featured some divine organ chords and instrumental solos from the orchestra, led on this occasion by Co-Concert Master Sergey Levitin.

The star of Scene 2, and indeed the singer who throughout was the perfect fit for his role, was Toby Spence as David. Both his interaction with the other apprentices (twelve on this instance and constituting the front row of the centre choir stalls) and his instruction of Walther in the ways of the Nürnberg singing contest were exemplary. Seeing David later taking up his indentures from Sachs, made me wonder how long it might be before Spence himself plays the noble cobbler. His Der Meister Tone und Weisen was full of beautiful tone and melody, loud notes and soft, short ones and long, a contrasting range of colour, a diversity of flora and animal sounds; David knew the endless list of rules and Spence delivered them all.

The introduction of Pogner and Beckmesser in the next scene brought a mixed response from me. John Tomlinson was the goldsmith Meistersinger. Despite the occasional crack, his stentorian tone was a delight to behold, oozing authority through an imposing stage presence. In contrast, Peter Coleman-Wright as the town clerk failed to focus my attention on his characterisation for very long. Coleman-Wright was town clerkish, but a boring job’s worth, and the opera depends upon him to bring a smile or two during its 4½ hour duration. He reminded me of Stan Laurel on a bad day, devoid of props and sidekick. Depending for humour as it does on the antics and voice variation of Beckmesser, I found the ‘marker’ scene somewhat disappointing. Apart from the funny side, where was his initial persistence and the final triumph when he persuades the guild to reject Walther from singing in the contest?

Up until now Wolfgang Koch as Sachs had done little wrong but had caught neither ear nor eye – saving himself for the rigours ahead? But I thought his Flieder monologue in Act II was as good as I’ve ever heard live. Aided by some delicate accompaniment from Pappano and his players, Koch’s delivery fitted the libretto perfectly – in turn mild, full and fervent. More baritone than bass, this number seemed to fit him like a glove. Torn between his last and the pen, his doubts and problems became all too clear – empathy filled the auditorium.

The duologue between Walther and Eva struck a good balance between drama and music. As prospective Meistersinger and suitor to Pogner’s daughter, tenor Simon O’Neill I found too ‘helden’ and not enough ‘lyric’, so his while his clinches with Emma Bell as Eva were not totally convincing, his subsequent trumpeted tirade against those who had turned him down was compellingly so. If this was Bell’s first major Wagner role, I thought she made a pretty good job of it. Finding a soprano with the power and control required for Eva, whilst giving an outward appearance of youth and vitality is never easy, but she looked great and pulled it off; her Geliebter, spare den Zorn was exquisite.

After a cameo appearance from Robert Lloyd as the night watchman, Beckmesser prepared to serenade Eva, assisted by ROH’s harpist Lucy Wakeford. However I thought the whole Cobbler’s Song might have been choreographed better. Why position the supposedly hidden Walther and Eva in direct line between Beckmesser and Magdalene? Couldn’t she have retreated to the choir stalls? The finale of Act II can be a problem on stage, but here the music overcame any difficulties; the turmoil on the Nürnberg streets was truly frenetic, but both orchestra and choir were never outside the tight control of Pappano. The chaos subsided with the night watchman’s second soothing pronouncement; the subsequent clarion call of the horn, the haunting recall of the Beckmesser Serenade on the bassoon and a resounding final explosive chord were unforgettable.

Pappano and the orchestra began Act III with a stunning interpretation of the glorious Prelude. Spence’s chirpy rattling temporarily lifted these sombre tones, but the mellifluous cellos would not be denied – the mood of the music and his master Sachs was a disturbed one: the midsummer madness of the Wahn monologue began. The staying power of Koch’s voice was now tested to the full and he passed with honours. I thought his understanding of Sachs, and therefore Wagner’s message, came across absolutely: there was frustration at mankind’s failure at coexistence, pride in the traditions of his local community and reflection as to how good might triumph. Pappano and the orchestra mirrored these moods to the bar. The philosophy Wagner weaves into his operas continued as Walter joined Sachs. O’Neill showed in the following tuition scene that his stamina was equal to that of Koch, but I could have done with a bit more warmth and uncertainty; after all this was supposed to be composition class!

Considering this was a semi-staging, I thought the subterfuge whereby Beckmesser lifts the verse dictated to Sachs by Walther was excellent, again assisted by some atmospheric playing under Pappano. The slimy movements of Coleman-Wright were beginning to grow on me and his duet with Koch was perhaps his best moment. That for Bell was just around the corner: her O Sachs! Mein Freund! was all the piece demanded – commanding yet poignant. It was a dramatic highlight of the performance and Bell’s Wagnerian credentials must have risen substantially. Equally effective was her Selig, wie die Sonne that led into the glorious blend of the quintet, each protagonist harmoniously voicing their thoughts. Heather Shipp as Magdalene more than held her own, demonstrating enough to show why Opera North chose her for their production of Carmen last year.

After some appropriate military sounds, the final scene opening sing-along gave further opportunity for the choir to excel. How they took it! Despite generating a festival feeling, this was perhaps the one scene where I missed the theatricalities that a fully staged performance can bring. Beckmesser made a fool of himself allowing Walther to step in with his Prize Song and claim Eva as his bride. Having heard the familiar theme throughout the three acts, it requires something special for it to sound fresh and attention grabbing at this stage; O’Neill was OK, but that little bit extra was not there.

Many Happy Returns, Birmingham Symphony Hall!

Geoff Read