Hallé’s Meistersinger a Triumph

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1862/67): Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir, RNCM Chamber Choir, Chetham’s Chamber Choir, Ad Solem – University of Manchester Chamber Choir, Hallé Orchestra, Members of the Hallé Youth Orchestra and Chetham’s Sinfonia / Sir Mark Elder (conductor), Jamie Phillips (assistant conductor), Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 10.2.13 (MC)

Die Meistersinger : Prologue and highlights from Acts 1 and 2; Act 3 (complete)

Hans Sachs, a cobbler: Iain Paterson (bass-baritone)
Walther von Stolzing, a young Franconian knight: Daniel Kirch (tenor)
Veit Pogner, a goldsmith: Richard Wiegold (bass)
Eva, Veit Pogner’s daughter, Emma Bell (soprano)
David, Hans Sach’s apprentice, Allan Clayton (tenor)
Sixtus Beckmesser, town clerk: Christopher Purves (baritone)
Fritz Kothner, a baker: David Stout (baritone)
Magdalena, Eva’s companion, Sarah Castle (mezzo-soprano)

Sung in German with English surtitles

In this Wagner bicentenary year when I discovered the format that was to be used for the concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg I’ll admit to being rather sceptical. I shouldn’t have worried as the whole evening was a triumph. No stranger to this magnificent masterwork Hallé music director Sir Mark Elder has conducted Wagner’s only mature comic opera at no lesser place than Bayreuth in 1981. Always the man for the big event Sir Mark was so confident at marshalling his massed forces of well over 300 singers and around 200 orchestral players.

In the build up to the main event a complete Act 3 the Prelude and highlights from Acts 1 and 2 were played by members of the large forces of the Hallé Youth Orchestra and Chetham’s Sinfonia. Hallé assistant conductor Jamie Phillips confidently and enthusiastically conducted the lion’s share of the music with Sir Mark having a turn with the baton. To say that the Hallé Youth Orchestra was impressive in the marvellous Prelude was an understatement. How these young players relished their time in the spotlight in front of such a well attended Bridgwater hall audience. At the front of the stage the multitasking Sir Mark sat at a small wooden table (a much used prop through the evening) providing an engagingly spoken, often witty and always entertaining introduction to the opera and a number of the principal characters. A splendid narrator Sir Mark rather surprised the audience by displaying a decent singing voice although I didn’t hear enough to judge if he was a tenor or a light-baritone.

After an hour long interval Sir Mark, a highly insightful conductor of deep sensitivity, took the baton for the complete concert performance of the lengthy Act 3. Successfully balancing the broad dynamics with the melodic line and coupled with gorgeous playing and singing this was a performance which will stay long in the memory. Iain Paterson stole the show in the challenging leading role, of the cobbler Hans Sachs, which could have been written especially for him. The assured bass-baritone displayed a medium rich tone and excellent amplitude with singing that felt quite effortless. Sachs’s adversary, Sixtus Beckmesser the town clerk of Nürnberg, was convincingly made into a figure of fun by baritone Christopher Purves who certainly made the audience chuckle with his light humour. Pretending to play a lute when the real music was coming from a Scottish harp positioned only a few feet away shouldn’t have been amusing but it was so –  full credit to Purves. Looking rather uncomfortable in the soprano role Emma Bell did an acceptable job as Pogner’s daughter Eva. In her aria O Sachs! Mein Freund the soprano’s voice sounded a touch uneven yet contained just enough weight to be heard over the orchestra. Daniel Kirch gave an appealing portrayal as Walther the young Fraconian knight, a relatively sweet voiced tenor with the consistency of milk chocolate warm enough for pouring. On the other hand in Walther’s testing Prize Song Kirch didn’t quite have the volume to be fully heard over the orchestra. A genuine highlight was the famous quintet Selig, wie die Sonne so beautifully rendered by the group and decidedly affecting too.

The Finale lived up to its intention as the pinnacle of the evening. Sir Mark’s visually magnificent and vocally inspiring choral forces massed around the wonderful orchestra singing their hearts out in praise of Hans Sachs the Meistersinger of Nürnberg to create one of those special spine tingling moments of opera. There was little to grumble about, however, I have a minor quibble with whoever thought it a good idea to dress the silver haired Emma Bell in such a pale lemony gown that it drained all her colour, serving to camouflage her against the similar wood shade of the stage. Thinking back to a highly successful concert staging of John Adam’s Nixon in China that I saw in Berlin last September I was disappointed that the main Meistersinger characters were not garbed in period costume to provide additional visual impact.

It seems likely that Sir Mark and the Hallé are taking Wagner’s Parsifal and not Die Meistersinger to this year’s BBC Proms. I’ve not got any problem with that but it would be a shame to mothball this outstanding production of Meistersinger. It’s such a clever way of presenting this great Wagner opera to a wide audience who may not be comfortable with the four and half hours or so of the full opera or baulk at having to travel to one of Europe’s great opera houses.

Michael Cookson