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Rachel Nicholls as Eva and Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
26 Feb 2015

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Rachel Nicholls as Eva and Iain Paterson as Hans Sachs [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]


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 Dutchman. One would hardly expect someone conducting The Mastersingers 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 Salzburg, 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 Herheim, or, from an earlier generation, say,Harry Kupfer and Götz Friedrich, 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 Castorf.) 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! Überall 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 helpful.

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.

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