The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Above all, I am thinking of Nikolaus
Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal
, sadly revived but once, with
estimable conducting from ENO’s soon-to-be Music Director, Mark Wigglesworth,
and a fine cast (bar an unfortunate Kundry). The contrast with the Royal
Opera’s recent Parsifal
— a production that appeared to offer
a bizarre tribute to Jimmy Savile, a Music Director quite out of his depth, and
a tenor whose replacement with a pneumatic drill would have been more or less
universally welcomed — was telling. Here, a Meistersinger production
originally seen in Cardiff again proved preferable to Covent
Garden’s most recent offering
(an especially sad state of affairs at the
sometime house of Bernard Haitink). If we quietly leave to one side the most
extravagant claims heard over the past fortnight — surely more a consequence
of sympathy with and support for ENO in the face of financial and managerial
difficulties than of properly critical reception — this proved something to
be cherished, something of which ENO could justly be proud: a good, and in many
respects very good, company performance.

Edward Gardner’s conducting certainly marked an advance upon his 2012 Flying
. One would hardly expect someone conducting The
for the first time to give a performance at the level of a
Haitink or a Thielemann, let alone the greatest conductors of the past; nor did
he. Yet, once we were past a fitful first-act Prelude — I began to wonder
whether we were in for a Harnoncourt-lite assault upon Wagner! — Gardner’s
reading permitted the score to flow as it should. (I shudder in horror when I
recall Antonio Pappano’s hackwork — a generous description — at Covent
Garden.) If there was rarely the orchestral weight, the grounding in the bass,
that Wagner’s work ideally requires, relative lightness of touch was perhaps
no bad thing for lighter voices than one would generally encounter. Moreover,
Gardner seemed surer as time went on: not an unusual thing in this score, for
even so fine a Wagnerian such as Daniele Gatti gave a similar impression a
year-and-a-half ago in
, coming ‘into focus’ more strongly as the work progressed.
Moreover, orchestral playing, considered simply in itself, was excellent
throughout; a larger body of strings would have been welcome, but one cannot
have everything. The ENO Chorus, clearly well trained by Martin Fitzpatrick,
offered sterling service in the best sense: weighty where required, yet
anything but undifferentiated. Orchestra and chorus alike have prospered under
Gardner’s leadership; they are treasures the company and country at large
have the strongest of obligations to protect.

What of Richard Jones’s production? Clearly, to anyone familiar with the
work of Stefan
, or, from an earlier generation, say,Harry
and Gˆtz
, there has again been an excess of extravagant praise. The
production rarely gets in the way: certainly a cause for celebration. Yet, by
the same token, it has nothing in particular to add to our understanding,
however diverting the ‘spot the German artist on the stage curtain’ might
be. (I could not help but smile at the mischievous inclusion of Frank
.) A predictably post-modern mix of nineteenth- and
sixteenth(?)-century costume could have been used to say something interesting
about Wagner’s donning earlier, anachronistic garb (that is, Bach rather than
something ‘authentic’). It would need to have been more sharply defined and
directed, though; here, it remains on the level of the mildly confusing, or at
least incoherent. One has a sense of community, but it is difficult to discern
much in the way of the darker side of the work — without which, the light
makes less impression, just as its ‘secondary’ diatonicism remains
predicated, both immediately and more reflectively, upon the chromaticism of
Tristan. I can see why Jones might have opted — at least that is
what I think he was doing — to present Hans Sachs as suffering from bipolar
disorder, doing an irritatingly silly dance at one point, prior to slumping
into depression. Had that been a personal illustration of the Schopenhauerian
Wahn afflicting the world more generally, it would have worked a great
deal better, though, than an all-too-simple explanation for Sachs’s
mood-swings. The translation, similarly mistaking the personal for the
metaphysical, certainly did not help: ‘Mad! Mad! Everyone’s mad!’ for
‘Wahn! Wahn! ‹berall Wahn!’ If that were misleading, though, far worse was
the bizarre reference to ‘ancient Rome’ instead of the Holy Roman Empire in
Sachs’s final peroration, rendering his warnings meaningless and merely
absurd. There is enough uninformed misunderstanding of this scene as it is,
largely born, it seems, by Anglophone audiences being unable or unwilling to
read what Wagner actually wrote; further confusion such as that is anything but

Jones certainly did score, though, in his adroit direction of the cast on
stage, although much of that credit should certainly go directly to members of
that cast. Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser was an unalloyed joy, treading the
difficult line between comedy and dignity as surely as anyone was is likely to
see today. His diction was beyond reproach, seamless integration of Wort
und Ton
almost having one forget the problems of translation. James
Creswell’s rich bass similarly impressed, having one wish that Pogner’s
role might be considerably expanded. David Stout’s Kothner elicited a not
dissimilar reaction from this listener. Iain Paterson’s voice is less ideally
suited to his role, that of Sachs, but there was no doubting his commitment to
role and performance, the thoughtfulness of which offered many compensations.
The other Masters and Nicholas Crawley’s sumptuously-clad Night Watchmen were
an impressive bunch too. I wondered whether, to begin with, Gwyn Hughes
Jones’s Walther was a little too Italianate in style; that is doubtless more
a matter of taste than anything else, though, and either the performance or my
ears adjusted — or both. He certainly went from strength to strength in the
second and third acts, experiencing no difficulties whatsoever in making
himself heard above the rest of the ensemble, without any recourse to barking.
Nicky Spence’s characterful David — it would, admittedly, be an odd David
who was not characterful! — struggled a little with his higher notes in the
first act, but, like the cast as a whole, offered a portrayal considerably more
than the sum of its parts. I was less keen on Rachel Nicholls’s somewhat
harsh-toned Eva, having the distinct impression that her voice was being
forced, perhaps on account of the size of the theatre. (But then, Wagner tends
to be performed in larger theatres.) Madeleine Shaw’s Magdalene was
straightforwardly a joy to hear, as impressive in its way as the assumptions of
Shore and Creswell. Again, it was difficult not to wish for more.

So, despite certain reservations, this was a Meistersinger to be
reckoned with. On a number of occasions, especially during the third act, work
and performance brought a lump to my throat, even once a tear to my eye. That,
surely, is the acid test — and it was readily passed.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Walther: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Eva: Rachel Nicholls; Magdalene:
Madeleine Shaw; David: Nicky Spence; Hans Sachs: Iain Paterson; Sixtus
Beckmesser: Andrew Shore; Veit Pogner: James Creswell; Fritz Kothner: David
Stout; Kunz Vogelgesang: Peter van Hulle; Konrad Nachtigall: Quentin Hayes;
Ulrich Eisslinger: Timothy Robinson; Hermann Ortel: Nicholas Folwell; Balthasar
Zorn: Richard Roberts; Augustin Moser: Stephen Rooke; Hans Folz: Roderick
Earle; Hans Schwarz: Jonathan Lemalu; Night Watchman: Nicholas Crawley.
Director: Richard Jones; Set designs: Paul Steinberg; Costumes: Buki Schiff;
Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherrin; Choreography: Lucy Burge. Chorus (chorus master:
Martin Fitzpatrick) and Orchestra of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner
(conductor). The Coliseum, London, Saturday 21 February 2015.

image_description=Rachel Nicholls as Eva and Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
product_title=The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Rachel Nicholls as Eva and Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]