Marketed by the BBC as The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, Wagner's opera was delivered as a semi-staged concert performance in the original German language by the excellent forces of the Welsh National Opera. There were no English surtitles provided, so audience members without libretto on hand might have had problems in following the plot. However, I hasten to add that a full bilingual version of the libretto as well as richly informative programme notes were available in the Hall for the very generous price of £3.
Publicity for the event relied heavily on the participation of bass-baritone Bryn Terfel as the cobbler/poet Hans Sachs. Yet, in the event, the performance was a product of several mastersingers of various ages and stages. Terfel, who made his debut in the role recently, delivered his marathon role to satisfaction on all levels. He has the voice, the stamina, the physical stature and good memory for music as well as words. But is Terfel a great Sachs? No, not yet. He is on the right path for the nuances of the role, but memories of Sachs interpretations by the great Wagnerians Norman Bailey and John Tomlinson make me long for more than what Terfel has assimilated so far. I am wondering why publicity so heavily focused on Terfel's first Wotan a while back and now on his first Hans Sachs? It takes many performances, indeed many years, to fully grow into such roles at the highest possible level. It is to be hoped that Terfel's talents will not be spent in the publicity machine before he reaches considerable amount of experience in these magnificent roles.
Baritone Christopher Purves was a very strong Beckmesser. He stayed in character both dramatically and musically all way through. Purves' Beckmesser – as, indeed, Wagner's – is neither a clown (as so often portrayed), nor a wimp but a hard-working law abiding citizen who becomes rather unpleasant when confronted with possible failure. Bass Brindley Sherratt's Pogner was dignified, fully credible and beautifully sung. One could have been forgiven for thinking that tenor Andrew Tortise did not perform the part of David but that he himself was David. He looked like David, his body language acted like David and—last but not least—he sang (effortlessly and with great musicality) as if he was David.
The two ladies, Amanda Roocroft (Eva) and Anna Burford (Magdalena) did not seem to provide the contrasting pair which a different casting could have offered. While Burford radiated Magdalena's warmth and sense of humour with her secure and fruity vocal delivery, Roocroft seemed to me miscast. Her voice did not contrast that of Burford's and, more importantly, I kept thinking of the Marschallin or the Countess while looking and listening to her. In short, I was longing for a lighter, purer voice for the role of Eva. Tenor Raymond Very (Walther) sang tastefully and with intelligence, furthermore his lyrical voice is ideal for Walther. But while Very was fully credible as the noble aristocrat, it was hard to believe that his character was driven by love for Eva. I also wished that he would have shaved off his grey beard for his portrayal of the young knight. As things stood, he looked older than Sachs (which, of course, was meant to be the other way round).
There was splendid singing from baritone Simon Thorpe (Kothner, but perhaps also a future Sachs) and, in his short but significant role, from bass David Soar (Nightwatchman). He was majestic as well as lyrical, framing the magnificent music of the second act finale with appropriate stature. There were no weaklings among the solo singers (which included baritones David Stout, Paul Hodges and Owen Webb, tenors Rhys Meirion, Andrew Rees, Stephen Rooke and Geraint Dodd). Members of the chorus sang with discipline, dedication and impressive vocal abilities (which included – for instance, right at the opening prayer – a great variety of tonal shades and dynamics).
I was disappointed with conductor Lothar Koenigs' interpretation. Although seemingly self-effacing and conscientious, he did not always follow Wagner's instructions. In the Overture (Vorspiel), several of the dynamic markings were ignored. I was even more concerned about the tendency of notes following notes without evident coherent connection. The living organism of Wagner's life-enhancing score was not present. Between larger sections, we often heard over-indulgent poses – at one point prompting a member of the audience to clap in the wrong place – while the great Bachian finale of the second act was rushed and loud, thus denying transparency to the masterly structure.
The orchestra was in fine form. For me one of the artistic highlights of the whole evening was the playing of timpani player Patrick King. With music clearly in his blood, King practically sang on his instruments. His technique is immaculate and should be studied by all who want to deliver quality timpani playing.
The semi-staging was only partially successful, partly on account of inconsistencies regarding the presence (or lack) of props. However, many in the audience heard this opera live (rather than on CD) for the first time and the semi-staging went a long way to creating a positive experience. This was certainly the case for all those who contributed to the huge ovation on conclusion.
By Agnes Kory
Photo: Bryn Terfel by Alamy