Saturday 10 August 2019

A stupendous achievement for a small opera company: Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg from Fulham Opera

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Keel Watson, Ronald Samm - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Keel Watson, Ronald Samm - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Keel Watson, Ronald Samm, Catherine Woodward, Jonathan Finney, Edward Mout, dir: Paul Higgins, cond: Ben Woodward; Fulham Opera at the Greenwood Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 August 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A stupendous achievement, Wagner's long comic opera in a performance of engaging intimacy and character

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Keel Watson - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Keel Watson
Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, his longest single opera with 17 named roles is a big stretch for any opera company and would seem beyond the capacities for fringe company. But Fulham Opera has already mounted productions of Wagner's Ring Cycle and Verdi's Don Carlo [see my review], and the new production of Wagner's comedy rewarded their daring.

Fulham Opera moved from its home base to the Greenwood Theatre to perform Paul Higgins' production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (seen Friday 9 August 2019), with Ben Woodward conducting. Keel Watson was Hans Sachs, Ronald Samm was Walther von Stolzing, Catharine Woodward was Eva Pogner, Sarah Denbee was Magadelene, Jonathan Finney was Sixtus Beckmesser, Edward Mout was David and Gerard Delrez was Veit Pogner.

The opera was performed uncut with around 4 hours 30 minutes of music, but apart from sheer length this was a relatively intimate production. Ben Woodward conducted an orchestra of 18 using a new orchestral arrangement by Jonathan Finney (who played Beckmesser and is also the company's chorus master!), and there was a chorus of 23, providing townspeople and apprentices. And whilst the piece was cast from voices capable of the heft and stamina needed for the piece, it replaced the monumentality of some performances with an intimacy and pacing that brought out the conversational quality of Wagner's libretto.

Woodward started the overture with a liveliness which really suggested that we were going to be listening to a comedy. It perhaps took a little while for the instrumental ensemble to settle down, but we came to appreciate the skill of Finney's arrangement and throughout the opera the orchestra never short-changed Wagner's music. Inevitably, the balance between strings (only nine), wind and brass was different, and there were passages where I missed the fuller string sound, but there was also a feeling of clarity that can be lacking for a full orchestral version.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Jonathan Finney - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Jonathan Finney
Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
In the programme note, Ian Wilson-Pope talked about how in Act One, Wagner effectively set a committee meeting to music. Paul Higgins' modern dress production (designs by Jessica Stanton) re-set the action in terms of the 2019 Nürnberg Music Festival, the Meistersingers were the organising committee. It was an imaginative idea, and meant that the quite plain settings worked with ethos of the tradesmen cum musicians. Stanton's settings for all three acts were very penny plain, and whilst the grander moments perhaps showed the lack of a bigger budget, the sense of concentration on character worked very well. This was a very character-based performance, and the smaller scenes of dialogue worked particularly well. Whilst the production had a paciness, it never felt rushed but certainly this was one of the most engaging performances of Wagner's long masterpiece that I have heard in a long time.

The roles of Walther, Sachs and Eva had all been double cast but unfortunately the second Sachs dropped out which left Keel Watson making his role debut and singing all four performances.

Watson's Hans Sachs was still a work in progress, albeit a very impressive one, as for much of the performance Watson was still using a score. Still, Keel Watson singing from a score is still rather more dramatic than many singers, and Watson used his expressive face to superb effect throughout the work. This was quite an intimate performance, no large-scale gestures and instead a thorough investigation of this complex man. The monologues, notably 'Wahn! Wahn!' were interior personal meditations, and throughout the piece Watson created quite a serious, intent figure making Sachs something of the watcher and outsider. His manipulation of the Meistersingers 'committee meeting' in Act One was masterly, and the long scene with Ronald Samm's Walther in Act Two was one of the most gripping moments in the opera. Watson even managed to bring of the final paen to German art, a little subdued perhaps but a personal and intimate declaration rather than the grand gesture. I do hope that we get to see more of Watson's Sachs in its fully finished form.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Sarah Denbee, Catharine Woodward, Ronald Samm - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Sarah Denbee, Catharine Woodward, Ronald Samm
Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Tenor Ronald Samm is notable for his assumption of the role of Otello in Verdi's opera with City of Birmingham Opera (the first professional UK production to use a black tenor in the title role!). He has recently been singing more Wagner, having done Siegmund with Berwick Festival Opera, and Siegfried in Act Three of Gotterdammerung in Wuppertal. This was his role debut as Walther. Samm brought a dramatic firmness of voice to the role. His tone perhaps takes on a slightly steely quality at the top, but Samm was wonderfully tireless and this was superbly consistenly sung performance. There was little sense, during the Prize Song, that Samm had been going since the opera's 5pm start. This Walther was an older man, but one still prey to the nervous delights of love. Samm's Walther was a wonderfully engaging character, and clearly not completely at ease in this rather different society. He and Catharine Woodward's Eva developed an easy intimacy and their relationship felt very natural. And as for that Prize Song, Samm's performance was very stirring but it was also fresh and impassioned, this really felt like a younger man singing about his impassioned love.

Eva gets something of the short straw, musically, but Catharine Woodward made her far more than just a passive vehicle of Wagner's ideals of womanhood, and this Eva was an active participant in her destiny (woe betide Beckmesser if he had actually won!). Woodward sang with a lovely even, bright tone was emphasised Eva's youthfulness without Woodward trying to be too much the 'little girl'. Eva's 'Sachs mein Freund' in Act Three, one of the highlights of the opera, was bright and passionate, making you wonder again about the Sachs / Eva pairing that never quite happens.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Edward Mout, Ronald Samm - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Edward Mout, Ronald Samm & the apprentices
Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
There are various ways of playing Sixtus Beckmesser, and I will never forget seeing Thomas Allen in the role, combining comedy with an immense sympathy for the man. Jonathan Finney's Beckmesser left firmly behind any sense that Wagner was playing anti-semitic jokes with the character. This Beckmesser was wonderfully self-regarding and rather arrogant, his behaviour around the other Meistersingers made it clear he thought he was better than them, and his dismissal of Sachs showed Beckmesser's sense of his own rightness in following the rules strictly, thus setting the scene for his mangling of Walther's Prize Song, verse which goes against 'the rules'. Finney's performance was wonderfully detailed, very funny yet rather sad, this Beckmesser was so unaware of the real effect he had. Perhaps an old rocker, he wore too-young clothes and for the majority of the opera sported a terrible wig which almost had a life of its own!

The American tenor Edward Mout, a member of the ensemble of the Staatsoper Hannover, made a charming and melliflous David, successfully bringing of the costume of t-shirt, shorts and wellington boots with great charm. He was engaging and vivid as the young apprentice, developing a lively relationship with Watson's Sachs, and with the engaging Magdalene of Sarah Denbee. Mout and Denbee successfully brought of the rather heavy-handed banter which Wagner gives them, making us believe the young people, and Denbee impressed in a role where it is often easy to retire into the background.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Ben Woodward and the orchestra in rehearsal - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - Ben Woodward and the orchestra in rehearsal
Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
As Eva's father, Weit Pogner, Gerard Delrez brought immense dignity to the role, this was a man who took himself very seriously though sometimes I wished that Delrez had sung the role with a little more swagger. The remaining Meistersinger were all admirably taken, creating a series of vivid character portraits and forming a lively and engaging backdrop to the action, with Andrew Mayor as Fritz Kothner, Robert Barbaro as Kunz Vogelgesang, Tom Asher as Konrad Nachtigall, Phil Clieve as Balthasar Zorn, John Rodger as Ulrich Eisslinger, Holden Madagame as Augustin Moser, Ian Wilson-Pope as Hermann Ortel, Simon Grange as Hans Schwarz, and Henry Grant Kerswell as Hans Foltz, plus Robert Byford as the admirable Night Watchman.

Whilst the production performed the opera admirably complete, I could not help feeling that a scene like the dancing at the beginning of the final scene in the meadow might have profitably been cut, though the chorus entered into the dancing with a will. Elsewhere they formed a lively presence, with a vivid sense of a random assemblage of ordinary folk, plus eight singers as the even livelier apprentices!

There was one aspect of the production which was all the more striking for being understated. The colour-blind nature of the casting meant that for this performance we had a Sachs and a Walther who are both of Afro-Caribbean heritage. This meant that the scene in Act One where Walther's difference troubles the Meistersinger (in the original he is a noble, a junker and so not trusted) and where only Sachs argues Walther's case, took on interesting resonances given that Samm and Watson were the only people of colour in the group.

Wagner: Die Meistersinger - the chorus - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Wagner: Die Meistersinger - the chorus - Fulham Opera (Photo Matthew Couglan)
Whilst the performance wasn't perfect, this was overall and incredible company achievement, particularly bringing off this huge opera with such relatively small forces. All the cast drew strongly characterful accounts of their roles, emphasising the lively intimacy of the work rather than its grandeur, an approach also reflected in Ben Woodward's performance with the hard working orchestra. A full Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a long evening, and the success of this performance lay not so much by overwhelming us with great singing (though there was plenty of that), but by engaging with the characters on stage.

Wagner - Die Meistersinger
Fulham Opera, director Paul Higgins, conductor Ben Woodward
Cast for Friday 9 February 2019, Greenwood Theatre
Hans Sachs: Keel Watson
Walther von Stolzing: Ronald Samm
Eva: Catharine Woodward
Magdalene: Sarah Denbee
Beckmesser: Jonathan Finney
David: Edward Mout
Pogner: Gerard Delrez
Kothner: Andrew Mayor
Ortel: Ian Wilson-Pope
Foltz: Henry Grant-Kerswell
Zorn: Phil Clieve
Eisslinger: John Rodger
Nachtigall: Tom Asher
Moser: Holden Madagame
Schwarz: Simon Grange
Vogelgesang: Robert Barbaro
The Nightwatchman: Robert Byford

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1 comment:

  1. I agree throughout with this review. it was a remarkable evening. This masterpiece has not been staged in London for a long time and so far as I know is not on the near programmes of either of our big opera compainies. Fulham Opera are doing three more performanceso over hte next week. NOT TO BE MISSED. Tom Luce


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