The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, February 2015Posted on 8 February 2015
Although one of the greatest operas ever written, it is not unknown for directors and conductors to make a mess of it, even at Wagner’s own temple in Bayreuth, but not at the ENO, thank God! This resounding success throws down the gauntlet to those Beckmessers in the Arts Council who not only mark down the ENO, but cut their funding to boot.
And talking of boots, Beckmesser’s trousers end up on a giant boot hanging outside Hans Sachs’s shop at the end of Act II, his recovery of them on the midsummer’s morning of Act III being just one of several successfully witty vignettes from director Richard Jones. And yet it’s the music that really counts and this was superb.
Of course any conductor worth their salt understands the interplay of wit and wisdom, correctness and creativity, and pride and pomposity in this opera, but doing full justice to the emotional content of the music is another matter and Ed Gardner managed it with enormous finesse. The interchange between Walther and Sachs in Act III was hugely lifted by the restrained passion and emotion that swelled forth from the orchestra.
One often sees Hans Sachs as something of a cipher, an older man who understands more than he reveals and somehow plays the end game early on, but in Iain Paterson we see a man of conflicting emotions, paying close attention to Walther’s first trial song in Act I, yet in Act III exhibiting huge frustration in his rejection of Eva, well knowing what he is giving up. It was an inspiring performance, deftly and strongly sung.
As Eva herself, Rachel Nicholls — a glorious Brünnhilde in Longborough’s 2013 Ring, with Isolde coming up in 2015 — sang beautifully, showing equal frustration with both her father and Sachs. The other young people were superbly cast, with lovely singing from Madeleine Shaw as Eva’s companion Magdelana, and a likeably forceful David of full vocal power by Nicky Spence. He seemed to relish the rambunctious pugilism this production allows, his scruffy appearance matching that of the itinerant-looking Walther of Gwyn Hughes Jones, who sang like a dream.
The smaller roles of Pogner and Kothner were sung with power and authority by James Creswell and David Stout, and though Beckmesser is almost always good value, Andrew Shore gave him intriguing extra dimensions. Here was a younger man (apparently) of some substance, poised and elegant without the usual awkwardness that makes one wonder how he acquired the position of town clerk and singing master, yet also a prey to emotions of jealousy and insecurity. The dumb show at the end of Act I, and the interactions with Sachs in Acts II and III were superbly drawn vignettes.
Of course one of the problems of doing Wagner in English is translating the words of the master, particularly with the many double meanings in Meistersinger. The conversation between Sachs and Eva in Act III involving wax and pitch (pech) loses the allusion to bad luck (pech), and though there is little the translator can do about that he should avoid talk of sweetbreads when the text refers to cake and sausages (David in Act III). But this is to be too harsh — the translation certainly conveys the sense of the original, and with fine diction from Paterson, Shore and others it will be welcome to many.
Sets by Paul Steinberg were a delight, apart from the second part of Act III where the dozen portentous plinths give an impression of the 1936 Olympics, but Richard Jones has performed a very clever trick with pictures of honourable artists and intellectuals from the German world to emphasise Sachs’s paean to German art at the end. That was truly inspired, and with terrific singing from the chorus, excellent costumes by Buki Shiff, neatly performed choreography by Lucy Burge, and Mimi Jordan Sherrin’s excellent lighting, giving an unreal glow to the Polterabend at the end of Act I, this is a Meistersinger of huge power, wit and emotion. Not to be missed.
Performances continue on various dates until March 10 — for details click here.