Masterful Mastersingers

Woodcut of Nuremberg from the Nuremberg Chronicle [Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

Woodcut of Nuremberg from the Nuremberg Chronicle [Wikimedia Commons Public Domain]

Anyone coming afresh to the superlative performance of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the Coliseum last night would be astonished to find out that the company behind it was facing such challenges as it is. English National Opera demonstrated in this one performance just how essential it is as a part of London’s operatic life. It was a performance of fresh immediacy, for once the English language translation absolutely sharpening its focus, and a production of inventive, well-observed detail.

In fact, I would go so far as to forgive Richard Jones his Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier on the basis of last night. Yes, there was wallpaper in this Mastersingers, mostly adorning the roofs of the stylised Sixteenth Century buildings around which the action took place, but it remained a contributor to the overall visual effect, not an all-consuming presence. The costumes were a hybrid of medieval period and semi-modern, and brought a clever individuality to Nuremberg’s citizens – again, for once complementary and not at all distracting. The shift to Hans Sachs’s workshop/home for the beginning of the third act was fresh and engaging. The final scene was ushered in with such breathtaking, giddy, even bombastic swagger: music and action beautifully, thrillingly coincided as the crowds assembled, the scene was set and the singing contest could begin. The teamwork behind the production – Paul Steinberg (sets), Buki Shiff (costumes), Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting) and Lucy Burge (choreography) was very much in evidence.

The production began life at Welsh National Opera. It would never, however, be enough to simply ‘buy in’ a good production such as this. What makes this a particular ENO triumph is the execution: as someone who hadn’t the opportunity to experience ENO in the ‘Powerhouse’ years, I fancy that I had a glimpse of something of the confident team atmosphere that emanated from the Coliseum stage during that period. Under Edward Gardner’s baton, the orchestra were the finest I’ve ever heard them: crisp and radiant, whilst retaining the colourful theatricality that has always been their hallmark. The chorus were on thunderous form – raising the roof during the riot and in the closing scene, whilst elsewhere accompanying the song contest with wonderfully hushed interventions. Gardner judged pacing and dynamics brilliantly: the momentum of the discursive passages well-maintained, so that our attention was kept on the important debates between the characters that can sometimes feel over-long.

As Hans Sachs, an announcement prior to the performance had asked for our understanding for Iain Paterson having a cold and sore throat. A slight sense of being underpowered here and there did little to detract from a performance that etched out the facets of Sach’s personality (and predicament) wonderfully: his relationship with the other Mastersingers, as outsider but nonetheless affectionately and authoritatively viewed, was perfectly captured. His nemesis, Town Clerk Sixtus Beckmesser, was in the ever-capable comedic hands of Andrew Shore, providing a brilliant portrait of someone who lives only by his ability to uphold the rules, but who equally becomes trapped by them in turn, and ultimately just yearns for some sort of community respect, not to mention the love of Eva. It was a touching portrait. The man giving away his daughter as prize in the song contest, Veit Pogner, was played by James Creswell, lovely to watch in close-up through binoculars in his affectionate engagement with the other characters. Other Mastersingers were brought to life as a diverse community under Jones’ meticulous direction, by David Stout, Peter Van Hulle, Quentin Hayes, Timothy Robinson, Nicholas Folwell, Richard Roberts, Stephen Rooke, Roderick Earle and Jonathan Lemalu. Nicholas Crawley, complete with ominous creature-of-the-night style feathered sleeves to his costume, brought to life the only kooky Richard Jones touch, as a Nightwatchman-meets-Angel-of-Death.

Outside the Mastersinger community, noble intruder Walther von Stolzing was ringingly sung by Gwyn Hughes Jones, with a great heldentenor sound and beautiful phrasing: he achieved a wonderful tension in the room as he began his Prize Song. He was given a run for his money by the bright, clean tone and cheeky energy of Nicky Spence as David. Madeleine Shaw sung Magdalene with warmth and beauty. If Rachel Nicholls’ voice was a little too Wagnerian (perhaps a bit too Brünnhilde) for the more maidenly Eva, nonetheless she captured the mixture of duty and impulse very well, and started off the quintet with great poise. She was notable, amidst a cast almost universally faultless in this respect, for bringing outstanding diction and projection to her part.

In translation – well, in this translation anyway – that closing hymn to the power of Holy German Art as a defence against the intruders sounded not at all so jingoistic. It picked up on the theme that had been initiated on the opening drop curtain, which had borne a montage of the German-speaking world’s artistic and intellectual heroes from over the centuries. As the cast assembled with their individual portraits and revealed them to us over the closing music, it brought to a thoroughly affirming climax a riveting, warm and humane production of Wagner’s great, serious comedy. Absolutely extraordinary.

One comment

  1. An excellent review which captured the qualities and attributes of an exceptional production and performance. I found the English translation particularly informative, witty and fluent in it’s rhyming couplet format – refreshingly crisp and without a hint of clunkiness that can, on occasion, detract from fine musical drama at the Coliseum.
    Thank you
    Judy

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