Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, December 2011

This was Antonio Pappano’s first Meistersinger for the Royal Opera, and from the start of the overture to the final chords of Act III, more than five hours later, his peerless conducting drove Wagner’s comedy forward with huge effect. The chorus too was excellent, from the first four-part harmony in the church to their final embrace of Sachs and Walther on the meadows by the river Pegnitz.

Wolfgang Koch as Sachs, Emma Bell as Eva, Simon O’Neill as Walther, all images Clive Barda

Among the principal singers, some could hardly have been better. John Tomlinson was the best Pogner I ever remember seeing. This man, who is happy to give up his daughter as bride to the winner of a song contest, can sometimes appear a bit pompous, but Tomlinson’s delivery of Pogner’s Act I monologue was hugely powerful. This is where he extols the art-loving German burgher, frequently misrepresented abroad as caring for nought but money. It’s a key moment and so often comes over too weakly. Tomlinson’s characterisation of the role was so strong that the revival director even had him pushing Sachs around towards the end of Act III, urging him to embrace Eva and Walther. Add to that the excellent portrayal of Kothner, the head of the guild, by the ever reliable Donald Maxwell, and you only wish everyone on stage fitted their roles this well.

Toby Spence as David with the apprentices

Some did, and Toby Spence was an enormously likeable David, whose Act I explanation to Walther of what makes a mastersinger, along with the extraordinary list of tones he delivers, was riveting. Here is surely a future Walther. His fiancée Magdalena was very well portrayed by Heather Shipp, who seems to make a speciality of these awkward supporting roles, and Eva was well sung by Emma Bell, who showed angst and joy in equal measure. Her adored Walther, with whom she is willing to elope and defy her beloved father, was Simon O’Neill, whose voice I found too heldentenorish for the role, though he certainly delivered Walther’s various songs with great power. I only wish the costume department could have provided him with a better white outfit for Act III — cloaked for his delivery of the prize song it was better, but those shoulder wings … I know it’s Christmas, but this is not pantomime. Beckmesser’s black costume was much better, and his role was finely sung by Peter Coleman-Wright, though several comic moments were noticeable by their absence, perhaps due to a lack of stage direction. However the fight scene after he has attempted to serenade Eva at her window is cleverly staged, as is the appearance of the Nightwatchman, strongly sung by Robert Lloyd.

Emma Bell as Eva with John Tomlinson as her father Pogner

And then there is the main character, Hans Sachs, sung by Wolfgang Koch, who has performed the same role in Frankfurt (2006) and Vienna (2008). In Act I he came over less strongly than either Pogner or Kothner, and I found the Flieder monologue of Act II disappointing. Of course it’s a huge role and he must reserve himself for Act III, where his response to the crowd in the final scene and his final speech, Verachtet mir die Meister nicht (Don’t despise the masters) to Walther and the assembled company, came over well. But earlier in Act III, the Wahn monologue in the first scene and the later response to Walther’s question on what makes the difference between a beautiful song and a master song, were delivered in a matter-of-fact way as if they were academic lectures. With the Wahn monologue I felt I was listening to a defence of the Euro by a male version of Angela Merkel. Koch has a lovely tone to his voice, but I missed the repressed emotion of these important soliloquys, and the unrestrained emotion when he threw a chair across the room, just before Eva sings O Sachs! Mein Freund! was by contrast quite over top, though that would be due to revival director Elaine Kidd.

This production by Graham Vick is immensely colourful and I loved the lighting design by Wolfgang Göbbel. The blue light shining on the front curtain for the prelude to Act III, the light coming into Sachs’s study through the windows, casting shadows as people moved in front of them — it was all very carefully thought out. With a raked stage in Act III the view from the Amphitheatre was as if one were looking down on the proceedings, which was good, but I would have preferred some images of the river and meadow, rather than plain sides and a wooden floor.

But this was a musical triumph brought to fruition by Pappano, the orchestra, the chorus, and some superb singing.

The New Year’s Day performance of this opera will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 from 14:45, and performances at the Royal Opera House continue until January 8 — for details click here.

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