Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO, review: ‘a triumph’

Edward Gardner’s conducting was so good he should be knighted forthwith, insists Michael Tanner

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

ENO, in rep until 10 March

Der fliegende Holländer

Royal Opera, in rep until 24 February

ENO’s new production of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is a triumph about which only the most niggling of reservations can be set. Every aspect — orchestral, vocal, production — works in harmony to effect one of the richest, most intensely absorbing, energising and delightful afternoons and evenings I have ever spent in the theatre. It is above all a team effort, and since individuality and teamwork are very much what Mastersingers is about, that made it still more satisfying.

However, two people must be singled out: Richard Jones for the finest of all the productions of his I’ve seen. This one comes from Cardiff, where it was unveiled almost five years ago. The set designs remain the same: a stark Act I, a stylised and cute, though overlit, Act II, and a super-realistic first half of Act III, Sachs’s workshop. The acting is remarkable, on everyone’s part: there are a few new touches, most of which I could do without. To have Beckmesser using a throat-spray and then inhaling over a bowl with a towel over his head, just before his attempt at the Prize Song, is absurd; but to have him naked at the end of Act II, only his smashed lute preserving his modesty, is both funny and heartbreaking. None of the opera’s pathos or humour is overlooked, almost nothing is underlined.

The other ‘star’ is Edward Gardner, astonishingly conducting his first Master-singers and instantly demanding a place among master conductors: he should be knighted forthwith. The ebb and flow which made five hours seem like two is something that only a tiny handful of conductors of this extremely tricky work have managed to such inconspicuous effect. There is no false economy: the Prelude was played for all it was worth, and all the mini-climaxes received their due, while the stunning peaks of the work — the riot at the end of Act II (though not well staged — it never is), the supremely confident Quintet, the ‘Awake!’ chorus —made a far fuller effect than they ever can in Bayreuth, with its recessed orchestral sound.

All the solo singers are admirable; none of them stands out. This was Iain Paterson’s first Sachs, and though he didn’t tire in this longest of all operatic roles, and has the right ideas about the heights and depths (he regards Sachs as virtually bipolar, a mistake), he will deepen his understanding; and his two great monologues are already fine. Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser is immaculate, a serious portrayal in the welcome modern mode. The greatest relief for me is that both the young lovers, who to judge from many recent performances are the most difficult to cast, are thrilling: the hefty tenor — about a third the size of Johan Botha — Gwyn Hughes Jones portrays Walter as a natural rebel, ill-clad and not well-mannered, but he sings gloriously; for once the Prize Song grows as it should from Sachs’s study to the festival meadow. In the Eva of Rachel Nicholls he meets a singer who for once has a voice to match his, and in her tantrums sounds like the Brünnhilde she has already sung. But why does she wander off-stage for his Prize Song? Her father, Pogner, is James Creswell, wonderfully full-voiced and moving.

At the end, instead of the injunction to ‘honour your German masters’ we have ‘noble masters’, while the crowd holds up pictures of the many great German geniuses there have been over the centuries. That is feeble. Anyone in search of the alleged ‘dark underside’ of this glowing masterpiece — and there are people who make a career, as academics or critics, claiming that it contributed to the rise of the wrong kind of German nationalism (or if it didn’t, it should have done) — won’t find a hint of it in this production of what after all is one of the grandest and most moving examples of holy German art.

Two evenings earlier I had gone to the Royal Opera’s revival of Tim Albery’s production of Der fliegende Holländer, performed in its original Dresden version, without the ‘Redemption’ theme at the end of the Overture and of the opera, and done straight through without an interval. Those are all good things, since the momentum generated at the end of the first two acts is fatally dissipated if there are intervals. But I found it, even so, a lacklustre evening. Andris Nelsons is a fine conductor of romantic scores, but here the only thrilling passage was the very opening of the Overture. The rest of it might well have been called ‘Smooth Journey and Pleasant Voyage’. The casting is strong, but compared with the towering account of the title role he gave with the Zurich Opera at the Festival Hall in 2012 — a concert performance — Bryn Terfel’s Dutchman here seemed mainly just depressed. Adrianne Pieczonka is his would-be saviour, who first appears — far too soon — during his monologue, nursing a model galleon; at the end of the opera she simply expires and collapses over it, while it’s unclear what happens to the Dutchman. The production and staging are no help, and I found this most exciting of Wagner’s early operas lacked drive and purpose.

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  • jjpowers53

    This ENO (English version) had a lot of problems to me. Virtually every critic here was ecstatic, and there’s much to be said for it. The conductor was amazing, realising all the nuances, and the great loud near-silent sequences, to perfection. (Everything was slow and haunting where it should have been (methinks), and again felt myself swooning through the music. The big problem was an English translation, trying to match German rhymes with English lines, etc. This is especially annoying with a work which is about the relationship of words to poems or lyrics. When the Mastersingers talk about tone and ‘coloratur’ and rules regarding how German syllables and words have to be integrated with music, or at least rules arranged to compliment each other, and when Walther finally wins with a song about a sentimental relationship with nature and women and art, it feels sentimental and not very interesting. I’m sure Wagner’s original German would have allowed us to appreciate that his song was the best of the lot. I never thought I’d ever accuse Wagner of cheap sentiment, but the audience loved it. It’s dumbing-down Wagner for English speakers only. The plus sides were magnificently toned-down, clever sets, terrific costumes, near-brilliant direction of actors, and fine singers in general. The whole business about extolling German art (over, significantly, all others was problematic; apologists for Wagner say that the work really celebrates art and culture for its own sake; but read closer and you’ll see he praises only GERMAN culture and GERMAN art). It’s a very problematic piece, and Wagner hardly can be accused of anticipating the Nazis. Someone in the Wagner clan did give Hitler and the Nazis the rights to use the themes in this work at their Nuremberg rallies. That may not mean anything in the long run, but it’s hard to deny that the relationship between Wagner’s personal ideology extriand National Socialsm were inextricably bound.

    Incidentally, Mr Tanner, they restored the phrase ‘noble GERMAN art, in both the singing and the surtitles. Agreed it would be feeble and actually misleading to take the word GERMAN out, They could have put in Swahili, for all the audience knew.

    • Stewart Trotter

      Agree entirely about the poor quality of the English. If this had been an original work the libretto would have been laughed out of existence. Also never forget the Wagner family supplied the paper on which Hitler wrote ‘Mein Kampff’.

  • Stewart Trotter

    A great production – and a brilliant solution to the last act. The production is set in Victorian times – but the Nuremburgers are holding a medieval fair at the conclusion and everyone is in fancy dress. It’s so kitsch Adolph would have loved it. But what planet is Tanner on? Eva didn’t wander off in the Prize Song – she was sitting in in a box, inspiring Walter to even more rapture. Also Beckmesser’s throat spray was a master-stroke: for the first time I felt Beckmesser had his own tragic dignity. Normally it looks as though Wagner, like a Nazi bully, is kicking the underdog.