ENO’s Exemplary and Magnificent Performance of Meistersinger

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (sung in English): Cast, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor),. London Coliseum, 7.2.2015 (CC)

Meistersinger Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore
Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore

Hans Sachs: Iain Paterson
Walther von Stolzing: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Eva: Rachel Nicholls
Magdalene: Madeleine Shaw
David: Nicky Spence
Sixtus Beckmesser: Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner: James Cresswell
Fritz Kothner: David Stout
Kunz Vogelgesang: Peter Van Hulle
Konrad Nachtigall: Quentin Hayes
Ulrich Eisslinger: Timothy Robinson
Hermann Ortel: Nicholas Folwell
Balthazar Zorn:  Richard Roberts
Augustin Moser:  Stephen Rooke
Hans Folz: Roderick Earle
Hans Schwarz: Jonathan Lemalu
Nightwatchman:  Nicholas Crawley


Director: Richard Jones
Set Designer: Paul Steinberg
Costume Designer: Buki Shiff
Lighting Designer: Mimi Jordan Sherrin
Choreographer: Lucy Burge

First seen and heard at Welsh National Opera in 2010, Richard Jones’ triumph of a production of Wagner’s magnificent Mastersingers has been transferred with the utmost success to St. Martin’s Lane. Jones has been working with ENO for 25 years (there was a little presentation at the end, and as far as I could see just about all the audience stayed). The staging is fascinating but never clever for the sake of cleverness; but the real triumph was purely musical. The casting was exemplary, and the orchestra were in fine form.

At the helm was Edward Gardner, a young conductor still and with a young man’s idea of Mastersingers. Not all the detail was there, certainly, but what was there was a zeal from the players that gripped from the very first to the very last. Pacing tended towards the brisk, yet nothing was rushed, the expansive Prelude to the Third Act unfolding naturally, the Prelude to the First Act a miniature tone poem. That great, sudden entry of the chorus in the church chorale, surely one of the greatest of coups de theatre, worked so well because of the excellence of the English National Chorus. Nether did the chorus disappoint in its great moments in the final act.

The first striking aspect of the production is the curtain: set designer Paul Steinberg’s a hotchpotch of major figures of Austro-Germanic art: Berg, Bach, Bruckner, Karajan, Furtwängler, Brahms, Schoenberg … the list goes on. Mastersingers is a hymn to Holy German Art, and the frontispiece to the drama reminds us that there is much to celebrate (while at the same time perhaps deflecting the attention from those notorious overtones of Germany’s dark years of the twentieth century). The setting is Nuremberg around the time of the writing of Mastersingers itself. There is a certain decadence to the staging: two of the audience boxes are used to house instrumentalists, and the outsize chorus is impressive to behold as well as to hear. There is also, though, despite the time of the setting, a certain fairytale aspect. Houses have patterned roofs, colours are just a tad larger, brighter than life. While costumes may date the staging, the message seems to be a timeless one. Even the dark side of fairytale is honoured in a weirdly hallucinogenic, nightmare sequence for Walther. So: once upon a time there was a cobbler …

And what a cobbler. ENO Company Principal, bass-baritone Iain Patterson, making his role debut as Sachs, is simply magnificent. An older man, certainly, one imbued with a certain amount of wisdom, this is nevertheless a touchingly human Sachs, prey to the temptations of the flesh while at the same time being a leading light of the community. Patterson’s assumption was all of a reading, considered in all of its aspects, fervent at times, deep, and deeply human, full of compassion, at others. The “Wahn” and “Flieder” monologues were clear highlights of the evening, twin peaks that seemed to bury their way to the core of Wagner’s masterpiece. There was little or no trace of tiring to Paterson’s (pardon the pun) masterly portrayal, just a continuing sense of rightness, his higher register a continuing marvel, his legato a thing of pure joy.

Every great Sachs demands a great Beckmesser. Step forward the much-loved Andrew Shore, in fine, even honeyed voice on this particular evening. But much more valuable was Shore’s avoidance of caricature. Harsh, rule-enslaved critic though he might be, Becknmesser is a human being with the seed of enlightenment and redemption (somewhere) within. We follow his shenanigans – even seeing him (nearly) stark-bollock naked, his faults, and nearly everything else, revealed for all to see. He, too, is on a life journey.

Gwyn Hughes Jones sings better than I, for one, have heard him in the difficult role of Walther von Stolzing, his youthfully ardent Prize Song vying with Sachs’ great monologues for most memorable moment. But perhaps that particular prize goes to the radiant Quintet, with the Eva, Rachel Nichols, in blazing, electric form. This is Nichols’ ENO debut, and it must rank with one of the greats from that perspective. Fresh of voice as well as outlook, her assumption was nothing less than captivating, her delivery of her part in the Quintet absolutely the equal of this great moment, her feelings for Sachs undeniable and believable given the sheer presence of Paterson. Her comrade-in-church-and-elsewhere, Magdalene, was taken by a fine-voiced Madeleine Shaw, absolutely believable of demeanour, while Nicky Spence was confident in both voice and acting as Sachs’ apprentice, David.

The American singer James Creswell was a fine, strong and characterful Pogner. All of the Mastersingers, in fact, lived up to their name (nice to see Jonathan Lemalu there as Hans Schwarz, too). But one should expect nothing less from a real opera company. To state that the performance is cast from strength is an understatement. Yet the accomplishment is not just that: it is to blend young talent with the established so skilfully that reminds us that, just like the search for a Mastersinger, talent is the way forward.  Even the Nightwatchman (dressed just a little bit like the Grim Reaper), was glorious in the hands, and voice, of Nicholas Crawley.

The staging and performance did that rare thing: they did Wagner’s monumental achievement, his hymn to humanity, justice. And for that we should be ever grateful.

Colin Clarke