Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 21 December 2011 3 stars

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  (Photo © Clive Barda)‘Just what kind of a piece is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg?’ asks one of the programme essays. Graham Vick’s production, first seen in 1993 and revived on this occasion by Elaine Kidd, suggests it is an out-and-out comedy, and not a great deal more. Yet, among the gaudily colourful costumes, gallivanting apprentices and comedy codpieces, we lose track of what makes Meistersinger one of the composer’s greatest achievements. Its jokes are clunky, often hammered home—sometimes literally—with workmanlike determination; it’s in the humanity, wisdom and the awareness of the troublingly fluid relationship between rule and rebellion, the fine line between rebel and ruler, that the work’s greatness and longevity lie.

But where was all that? When Antonio Pappano launched into a slow account of the act-three prelude, whose world-weary melancholy presages Hans Sachs’s famous Wahn monologue, it came as a shock. In the preceding couple of hours there had been little sense that anything on stage should be taken terribly seriously. Pappano’s conducting had a lively forward momentum to it, but his cast, with only one native German speaker among them in Wolfgang Koch’s mellow, underpowered Sachs, struggled to get a lot of Wagner’s wordy, punning libretto across. There was often a sense of rush and an attendant untidiness; too rarely did Wagner’s glorious score soar.

Matters did improve a little in the third act, but the great orchestral swoon as Walter arrives in his finery was undermined by the fact that that finery made Simon O’Neill look more like Liberace than the liberator of German art. The Quintet was marred by the slight flatness of Emma Bell’s Eva and the piercing quality of O’Neill’s unsubtle tenor. The gradual sense of excitement as we are led by trump and drum to the Festwiese, meanwhile, was undercut by the staging: as Wagner’s score opened up into grand public ceremony, everything remained encased with the same chunky green frame that had confined the model Nuremberg of Act Two. The various guilds marched ludicrously around in circles, smirking like Dad’s Army on manoeuvres. Perhaps it was all designed to take us away from other Nuremberg associations; if it was, then Vick’s is a production that seems even more inadequate to deal with this work. And while there were enough good things in purely musical terms to provide a stirring conclusion to the evening, it all seemed rather two-dimensional.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg  (Photo © Clive Barda)Perhaps the production’s shortcomings were emphasised by a cast that fell a little short of what one might expect from Covent Garden. A lot of it was made up of veterans of the Royal Opera stage, some of whom sounded fresher than others. John Tomlinson’s Veit Pogner bellowed and flailed in customary fashion, imbuing the character—a personification of bürgerlich propriety—with an inappropriately fiery-eyed earnestness. Donald Maxwell sounded woolly at the top as Fritz Kothner, and Robert Lloyd blasted out the Nightwatchman’s brief lines—for technical reasons, one imagined, rather than interpretative ones.

Most damaging to the drama, though, was Peter Coleman-Wright’s Beckmesser. Not only was the character drawn in the most broad, cartoonish manner, mincing about ineffectually, but Coleman-Wright didn’t really have the notes under his control. His top A at the end of the first scene of Act Three was an unacceptable falsetto compromise, and there was a lack of accuracy and security elsewhere. Relegating this problematic character to the realm of Christmas panto, meanwhile, fatally skewed the dramatic balance: as Christopher Wintle’s essay reminded us, Sachs and Beckmesser should not be so very different.

O’Neill’s Walter was secure and reliable, but hardly endearing. The acting was wooden and the singing short on grace and warmth. He seemed so concerned with maintaining a legato line that most of the words counted for little. Emma Bell’s Eva was charming but underwhelming, even if here—particularly in conjunction with Heather Shipp’s feisty Magdalene—there was some unusually detailed and imaginative acting. Toby Spence’s David, by contrast, was almost too vibrant a stage presence. The voice is bigger than we’re used to for the role, something which brought advantages and disadvantages: the sound was bright and engaging; he struggled to bring the necessary pernickety cleanliness to the wordier sections of Act One. Koch’s Hans Sachs, meanwhile, was a size smaller than we’re used to, and, as an inevitable result, he struggled to assert himself, and his words were often lost under the orchestral blanket. He’s youthful and rather likeable as the character, but, while this was a high-economy Sachs that lasted the course pretty well, one often wished for it to move up a gear.

Musically I’m sure this revival will settle down and tighten up, but I feel a slight jealousy for the those with tickets to hear it when the Royal Opera hit the road to head for a performance in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on 11 January. The jury might be out on whether Bryn Terfel’s Sachs will improve on Koch’s, but the Welsh baritone can certainly command a stage. At that concert performance, though, the opera’s challenging ambiguity might be better able to shine through.

By Hugo Shirley

Photos © ROH/Clive Barda