Monday 2 January 2012

Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden

My abiding memories of Graham Vick's production of Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden are of the towering performances of John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, two great singing actors, in the roles of Sachs and Beckmesser. Their absence in this revival (after some considerable time, it first appeared in 1993 and revived in 2002), seen Sunday 1st January 2012, seemed to throw the production itself into greater relief; it was revived by Elaine Kidd. Had the costumes (design by Richard Hudson), really been so outrageous with the prominent cod-pieces and amazing selection of hats (the ROH milliners must have had a field day). Evidently they had, but memory had played tricks. The production does not send the opera up, exactly, but Vick and Hudson seem to have been intent on creating some sort of cartoon/picture book Nuremberg (complete with models of the town's buildings which are polished by the apprentices). The apprentices themselves are presented as a cartoon-ishly loutish lot, with lots of hi-jinks forming the back-drop to Walter (Simon O'Neil) and Eva's (Emma Bell) encounter in the church.

Thankfully the principals were depicted with sensitivity and naturalism, no picture book behaviour here but a straightforward telling of the story. Die Meistersinger is so loaded with history that performing it straight is becoming difficult; to provide a setting whereby Sachs can sing his great paean to German Art without it seeming otiose. Perhaps that is what Vick and Hudson were about, ensuring that the setting was truly and memorably period.

The opera house had cast the piece strongly, with a roster of mastersingers which mixed experience with younger voices; Colin Judson as Vogelgesang, Nicholas Folwell as Nachtigall, Donald Maxwellas Kothner, Jihoon Kim as Ortel, Martyn Hill as Zorn, Pablo Bemsch as Moser, Andrew Reese as Eisslinger, Jeremy White as Foltz and Richard Wiegold as Schwarz. Pogner was played by John Tomlinson, the production's original Sachs; a welcome opportunity to hear this great stage performer but perhaps not the most tactful of casting to introduce Wolfgang Koch's first Sachs at Covent Garden. Koch is relatively young for the role (he's in his 40's) and looks quite young. In Act 1 his Sachs did not dominate the stage the way Tomlinson (and further in the past Norman Bailey) did, Koch's performance had a sort of collegiality about it; he sang as one of a group of equals. That the other mastersingers were portrayed by some fine characters actors meant that Koch was in danger of being out-shone, especially when it came to Tomlinson as Pogner.

Peter Coleman-Wright was a prissy, fussy Beckmesser. He did not make the character quite as sympathetic as Thomas Allen had, but Wright certainly did not guy the role; creating a man full of his own self-importance and creating real sadness in the resulting confusion.

Simon O'Neil was announced as being ill, suffering from a throat infection. He sang the role successfully and made it all the way to the end without apparent ill effects, but never having heard him live before I have no way of knowing how this affected his voice. In appearance he is quite burly and Richard Hudson's costumes did him no favours. On stage he looked awkward for much of the time, but then Walter does spend rather a lot of time being ill at ease and awkward.

Emma Bell's Eva was beautifully sung and nicely poised, but she sounded perhaps a little too mature, too self possessed. This became more apparent in the 2nd act, when the scene between Sachs and Eva took on slightly different resonances when the difference in the characters ages was less apparent; with Koch looking young and Bell sounding mature, there seemed less reason for them not to be together. Perhaps Koch was aware of this because I felt that there was less pull between Sachs and Eva; far less possibility in their relationship than in other performances I've seen.

Heather Shipp nicely played the relatively ungrateful role of Magdalene.

Koch was relatively understated in the 2nd act, he didn't overplay the comedy and made the drama work quite naturalistically. Again he was part of a group, rather than dominating. The Night Watchman who starts and ends the action was Robert Lloyd.

I have often found Act 3 of the opera rather too long for its own good, but here the performance came together beautifully. Koch's domestic scale Sachs came into his own with the 'Wahn' monologue, the scene with Walter and the quartet. The action and interaction flowed, nicely controlled by Antonio Pappano in the pit. The only slightly false note was the Bell's delivery 'Sachs mein Freund' where her uneven vocal delivery seemed to emphasise the feeling of coolness in the character.

For me, though the stand-out character is one I haven't mentioned yet; Toby Spence's David. Spence is one of a long line of middle-aged (he is well over 40) lyric tenors to have undertaken the role. His demeanour and voice remain lively and fresh, creating a vivid impression with no sense of the ridiculous of the age gap between character and singer. He sang with a fine sense of line and  nice way of slipping in and out of focus as the role demands, fluidly moving back into the ensemble of apprentices. There are not many roles in Wagner for Spence's type of voice but in time he might find that he could move into some of Wagner's other tenor roles, but not too soon I hope. A lyric tenor like Robert Tear (himself a fine David at the ROH) successfully made the transition and had a fine later career singing roles like Loge.

The shenanigins in the final scene went on a bit for my taste, I could have wished for some cuts in the various choruses before the real action started. O'Neil delivered a creditable performance of the Prize Song, with bright tones and commendable stamina; his is a Walter I would like to encounter again without illness. Koch delivered his hymn to German art with commendable restraint.

In the pit Antonio Pappano and the ROH orchestra delivered a knock-out performance. From the first notes of the overture it was clear that this was going to be a human comedy (not always apparent in performances of this opera). Pappano kept speeds brisk without feeling rushed, but more importantly there was a constant sense of life and liveliness.

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