This was to have been one of two performances of the Royal Opera’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, nearly identical but crucially different, that we would have seen in the space of about 11 days. However, it was not to be. The cast of the Covent Garden run – with one crucial substitution – will take the stage of Symphony Hall, Birmingham, for a one-off performance of the Royal Opera in the regions. Bryn Terfel was to have replaced Wolfgang Koch as Hans Sachs, which is a pretty major substitution in the context of the work, let alone that it brings in the great Bryn. But the vicissitudes of the winter season got the better of Mr T and he had to withdraw because of a chest infection. Wolfgang Koch, as one would expect, replaced him.
Having seen the New Year’s Day matinée, the 300-mile round trip (there and back in the day) for substantially the same cast seemed excessive, and so we have arranged with Symphony Hall a substitution of tickets. As I said in the note with which I enclosed the returned tickets,
Whilst I would not usually seek to change a booking on the strength of a single artist withdrawing, particularly not for a work with such an enormous cast of other talented singers, on this occasion we were planning to drive up from south London to see this performance, having already seen substantially the same forces presenting the work in the fully staged production at the Royal Opera House (as recently as 1 January 2012). The substitution of Bryn Terfel for Wolfgang Koch (who, however disappointing it is to be missing Bryn, did give a very good performance at Covent Garden) means that this is now an identical cast and it is difficult to justify the 300 mile roundtrip to see the semi-staged performance.
It feels a bit rotten to be bailing out on everyone else because of the one substitution, but it is a major effort to get up to Brum and back, especially from the outer reaches of south London and particularly in the context of a rather heavy return to work after the Christmas break; regrettably therefore I must ‘crave their understanding’ (not that I expect them to actually notice, of course!). I should want that understanding because, on New Year’s Day they were, for the most part, fairly wonderful.
Let’s head straight to the top, with Wolfgang Koch’s Hans Sachs (although Symphony Hall seem to think that, in Terfel’s absence, the cast is led by Sir John Tomlinson; were I Koch, I’d be a bit peeved). He did not dominate the drama in the way that a Terfel or Tomlinson would do, bringing a broader brush to proceedings than either of those two fine singing actors, but his characterisation built as the pressure increased. He was at his best in conveying the frustration of losing Eva to Walther, and he raised the temperature sufficiently to provide a suitable emotional context for the crucial start of the quintet. And the great thing about Meistersinger is that there are so many interrelations and dynamics, that the absence of so heavy a central ‘anchor’ just throws light elsewhere on proceedings.
Peter Coleman-Wright also delivered a relatively subtle Beckmesser, which avoided caricature, but sacrificed some of the comic impact in the process. This is no bad thing. His Beckmesser was relatively benign, as Beckmessers go: a portrait of someone so desperate to fit in and overcome his place ‘on the outside’. I was struck at how, as others had their trades, the implication was that Beckmesser (as merely the Chief Exec of the local Council) had no ‘trade’ as such. For a local government officer, it’s a fascinating portrayal of specialists vs. a generalist upon whom they pour disdain, and the (seemingly) centuries-old supremacy of the practical ‘manufacturer’ over the supposed pen-pusher. I think it will soon be time for the foundation of the Sixtus Beckmesser Rehabilitation Society: let me know if you’d like to join.
As the object of their affections, Emma Bell was impressive: a strong, clear voice, well-projected and in good diction, but nonetheless lacking the sense of Eva’s youthful impetuosity. Her father (yes, him who would have her raffled off to the best singer) was of course the Sachs of so many ROH Meistersingers, Sir John Tomlinson. He has gravitas in abundance and there can be no quibbles about an excessive vibrato here and there when a portrayal so intelligent and dramatically alive is married to so strong a voice: there were many moments when he almost managed to make some real emotional sense of giving his daughter away as a competition prize. But, obviously, not quite. His reaction to Walther’s rejection of the Mastersingers’ medal was touching indeed.
And when that would-be Mastersinger has performed as Simon O’Neill had done, he should have snatched that medal whilst it was being offered. We were told that he had bronchitis and, even when apologies are taken into account, his performance had a most uncomfortable edge to it. His usual nasal, narrow sound took on a harshness under the necessary force to produce it that was rather disruptive to, as prime example, the quintet. It was jolly impressive that he got through at all, but it was one of those moments when you are made painfully aware of the difficulty of producing an auditorium-filling sound, at the expense of your sense of the operatic character that is supposed to be on show.
Had I been awarding prizes, his tenor colleague, Toby Spence as David, would probably have taken the vocal honours for this performance. He produced a thoroughly impressive, ringing tone and the sort of unflagging, energetic characterisation of the gauche youth that brings the music alive. Fantastic – I hope he’s on track for Walther; if it feels like it fits for him, it should be a mightily impressive portrayal.
All of the other parts were well-taken, although I missed that last ounce of detail from the fussy bits of characterisation that were in the McVicar Glyndebourne production – the little to’s-and-fro’s between the Mastersingers in the crowd scenes. The production’s big, bright colours and model buildings intended to be symbolic of Nuremberg are efficient enough, but I think I was left wanting more of the detail of the people within them, such as McVicar achieved at Glyndebourne. In those big scenes, the chorus were on lusty form, and really let rip to thrilling effect in ‘Wach auf!’. Sir Antonio Pappano – as we might now refer to him (or does he have to wait for the trip to the Palace? Anyway…) – produced a fabulous big sound, allied to the well-managed dramatic propulsion that we have come to expect in his Wagner. I wondered momentarily if it didn’t miss some of the breathing space for the detail of the characters, but I can’t really provide any concrete backup for that assertion! Anyway, who am I to take away from the thoroughly deserved thunderous welcome that the audience gave him when he entered the pit – a privilege to have contributed to, for sure.
I’m sure, if you’re Birmingham-headed, the reduction to semi-staged concert performance will only bring out further details from this very sound cast. I do wish I was seeing it, but can’t quite justify the journey on a ‘school night’.