Sunday 8 February 2015

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the London Coliseum

David Stout, Iain Paterson, Gwyn Hughes Jones in The Mastersingers - ENO - photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Quentin Hayes, David Stout, Iain Paterson,
Gwyn Hughes Jones
photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Wagner Die Meistersinger Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg); Iain Paterson, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rachel Nicholls, Andrew Shore, Nicky Spence, dir: Richard Jones, cond: Edward Gardner; English National Opera at London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 7 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Outstanding account of Wagner's comedy, in a performance theatrically vital, lyrical and poetic.

For its sheer size and complexity a performance of Wagner's Die Meistersinger Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is always an occasion, and English National Opera's revival of Richard Jones's production (created in 2010 for WNO) was particularly notable for being the first new production of the opera at the London Coliseum for 30 years. ENO had assembled a strong cast. Iain Paterson sang the title role on stage for the first time (he sang it in concert with the Halle in 2012), with Longborough Opera's Brunnhilde, Rachel Nicholls as Eva. Andrew Shore made his role debut as Sixtus Beckmesser, with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther von Stolzing and Nicky Spence as David. James Creswell was Veit Pogner, David Stout was Fritz Kothner, Nicholas Crawley the Nighwatchman and Madeleine Shaw was Magdalena. The other Mastersingers were Peter Van Huille, Quentin Hayes, Timothy Robinson, Nicholas Folwell, Richard Roberts, Stephen Rooke, Roderic Earle and Jonathan Lemalu. Edward Gardner conducted. Richard Jones was working with his regular collaborators, with sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Mimi Jordan Sherrin and choreography by Lucy Burge. The opera was sung in the translation by Frederick Jameson, revised by Martin Fitzpatrick with additional amendments by Iain Paterson.

I have to confess that I have always had a love-hate relationship with Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, it contains some of Wagner's loveliest and most profound music but Oh, it does go on! Never has Rossini's quip, 'Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart d'heures' been more relevant. But this performance was one of the most vivid and theatrically vital that I have ever seen, and very much gripped from end to end. You were aware that it was a comedy, it has lightness, humour and pace - that rare thing in Wagner performances.

Perhaps the problem with the work is often the sheer size - the role of Hans Sachs sung end to end lasts around 100 minutes. The orchestra needed is large and the mature Wagnerian voices required often mean that lightness is at a premium, and comedy can get quite heavy. In the pit Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra, for all the sheer numbers, were sympathetic to the fact that the production had a number of role debutants and young Wagner voices. The result was pace and litheness with never a sense of singers having to compete with the pit.

Jonathan Veira, David Stout, Nicky Spence and Andrew Shore - ENO Mastersingers - photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Jonathan Veira, David Stout, Nicky Spence and Andrew Shore
photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Richard Jones's production was set in a fantasy 19th century Nuremberg which mixed in elements of the medieval. A society trapped in love of the past, with the gorgeous costumes a sort of visual metaphor for the Mastersingers rules. Anachronism seems and essential part of Jones's theatrical armoury, and here it was creative dissonance between medieval and 19th century which was profitably explored. It helped that Buki Shiff's costumes were simply gorgeous and that many of the big set pieces looked stunning. The final scene, with the audience of Nurembergers sitting looking at us, was a symphony of medieval visual archetypes.

Act one was just a hall with bare green panelled walls, into which the apprentices brought the pictures of the old Mastersingers and the elaborate cupboards containing the Mastersingers costumes, to create the setting for the Mastersingers ceremonial. Act two was as stylised town square, notable for the use of pattern everywhere. The buildings slid apart at the end to allow space for the riot, though the action here was by modern terms pretty tame. The first section of act three was Sach's room fitted out in imaginative high detail, a room used for living, cobblering and music. Whilst the final scene was just an open auditorium.

Bass-baritone is just starting out on the long journey as a Wagner baritone and his assumption of the role of Hans Sachs was a notable achievement. There was no sense of newness or rawness and certainly no hint of stamina flagging towards the end of a long evening; his sense of care and control was consistent throughout.

It was a very lyrical and poetic assumption of the role. Comic yes, but with a relative lightness of tone and deeply philosophical. Paterson does not (yet) have the sort of darkly cavernous bass-baritone voice which was a feature of Norman Bailey and John Tomlinson's performance in the role and Paterson made brilliant use of this in his lyrically poetic approach, and the lovely top to his range. In the programme notes Richard Jones talked about Hans Sachs being depressive and certainly this seemed an element in his make-up. Given Iain Paterson's relative youth (he was born in 1973), the apparent gap between Sachs and Eva was somewhat lessened making his renunciation of her all the more poignant. His monologues in acts two and three, including the great 'Wahn, wahn' monologue, were highly poetic meditations, notable for the way he and the orchestra created a highly flexible and fluid narration. Paterson's performance of the final peroration on German art was the least pompous and sympathetic that I have heard.

Rachel Nicholls and Iain Paterson - ENO Mastersingers - photo credit Catherine Ashmore
Rachel Nicholls and Iain Paterson - photo credit Catherine Ashmore
I have admired Gwyn Hughes Jones in previous appearances at the London Coliseum but have sometimes found him to be vocally and dramatically a bit stiff. Making a seemingly a rare foray into Wagner (his CV lists mainly Italian opera), he seemed to have found terrific form. Vocally and visually he seemed relaxed and natural. His gleaming, bright tone was fluid, flexible and highly focussed with a good sense of line. Perhaps too narrow of focus for some, to me he sounded ideal in this repertoire reminding us that Wagner admired the operas of Bellini and liked a sense of line in his music (the development so-called Bayreuth Bark dates from the years after his death). I started to wonder whether Lohengrin might be a possibility. Apparently tireless, Jones's Prize Song was beautifully sung as well as being stirring. Almost as notable was the scene in act two when Walther and Sachs write the song. Jones's tone here was relaxed yet ardent, whilst he and Paterson created a believable dramatic impetus to the scene which made it work well with a sense of two people creating something new.

Jones managed to bring some ardour into his opening scene with Rachel Nicholls' Eva, which is important because Wagner gives so little stage time for the lovers together. Nicholls was in gleaming voice as Eva. She sang with beautifully youthful tone which belied her assumption of the role of Brunnhilde. Perhaps there was a certain stateliness about her musical performance, but this was always offset by the focus and flexibility of her tone and there never seemed any danger of stamina problems. Her Eva was poised and highly self-possessed, her 'Sach, mein freund' was not the most poignant I have heard but it was radiant and highly emotional.

Andrew Shore was making his role debut as Sixtus Beckmesser (thus confirming remarkable parallels with the career of the great Derek Hammond-Stroud). As might be expected from this fine artist, Beckmesser was very funny, very astutely observed and rather touching. A prissy (dare I say camp) self-obsessed man who had little idea of his effect on the world around him. As with the best clowns, Shore's performance ultimately left us feeling sorry for the man rather than laughing at him. It was a brave performance in many ways, not always going for the obvious in this much written-about role, besides managing to lose all his clothes during the riot!

The role of David, Hans Sachs' apprentice, is a devil of a role because in theory the character is probably only a teenager but in practice the singer must be considerably older than that to sustain a lyric tone over the length of Wagner's opera. Nicky Spence brought his familiar sense of lively bon-homie and intensely vivid stage presence to bear on David, giving a vividly projected performance which was combined with sustained and ardent lyricism. The result was highly appealing, very charming indeed and supremely well sung.

The object of David's love-interest is Magdalene, Eva's companion. Here played by Madeleine Shaw, the role peters out after the middle of act two, but Shaw made Magdalene's contribution a vital theatrical event and made the role anything but a cipher. A real companion to Eva, rather than a shadowy presence.

The roles of the other Mastersingers all require soloists of calibre, though not all have large moments in the spotlight. The greatest role goes to Veit Pogner, Eva's father. Here sung by James Creswell, who we recently saw at Opera North in Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea and Smetana's Bartered Bride. Creswell seemed to be confirming his versatility by giving us a dramatically vital performance as Pogner, with fine, bright and well projected tones. Certainly a performance which made you look forward to further Wagnerian roles (he is singing Fasolt and Hunding in Opera North's 2016 Ring Cycle). The other significant Mastersinger role is Fritz Kothner, here finely sung by David Stout, with strong and characterful support from the other Mastersingers, Peter Van Hulle, Quentin Hayes, Timothy Robinson, Nicholas Folwell, Richad Roberts, Stephen Rooke, Roderick Earle and Jonathan Lemalu. Earle was lumbered with Richard Jones's unfortunate pensee in having Hans Folz as a stooped and tottering elderly man forever doddering to catch the other Mastersingers up.

Nicholas Crawley, magnificently attired all in black with a costume to die for, was the finely sung Night Watchman.

The chorus numbered some 90 people, and under chorus master Martin Fitzpatrick they seemed to have been in superb voice. And it was lovely to see a chorus which really filled the London Coliseum stage both visually and aurally.

As I have said, Edward Gardner led a highly sympathetic and very fluid account of the score which balanced the voices well (there was never a sense of anyone having to scream). From the first notes of the overture, it was apparent that his was going to be a very lively and vital account of the score and it was clearly the overture to a comedy. This continued throughout and like Jones's stage action, the orchestral contribution was gripping, swift flowing and extremely finely played.

The diction was excellent throughout, and I really felt that we would not have needed the surtitles. No information was given in the programme book about the translation. This was in fact the venerable translation by Frederick Jameson, which had been updated for the famous Sadler's Wells production in 1968 and was again revised by Martin Fitzpatrick (assistant conductor and chorus master) with contributions from Iain Paterson. The result was an English translation which rhymed (sometimes via assonance rather than consonance), flowed nicely and matched the poetry of the original whilst never sounding fusty or arcane.

There was certainly a sense of crisis what crisis about this magnificent performance. Despite the production having been created elsewhere, Richard Jones has a long history with the company. In fact after the first night performance, John Berry presented him with his very own Mastersinger portrait in celebration if this being the 25th anniversary of his first working with ENO. Many of the singers in the cast are regulars, company principals, young artists and former young artists, all working together to create a theatrically vivid and notable performance of one of Wagner's greatest, longest and trickiest works.
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