Sunday, 20 June 2010

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Opening Night


This is going to be a long, amateurish post, so I suggest you If on a Winter's Night a Traveller yourself and get comfortable. And by the way – the rest of the post is dotted with SPOILER ALERT material so look away now if you're going to see it in the opera house. It was very good in case you are wondering.

As James once sang, How was it for you? For me it was exceptional. The applause that thundered at the end of last night's opening performance of WNO's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg told the story of a magical night, and one that will long be remembered by those who were there. Wagner is many things to many people – for some he is the Master, for others he is overrated and dubious to boot; but last night he was fun to be with, and more than that, he was generous and uplifting. Of course, you need the right combination of cast and crew for anything to succeed and WNO certainly had all the bases covered. Or, to borrow another baseball analogy, they hit a bases loaded home run at the bottom of the ninth in Game Seven of the World Series.

On first base there was Richard Jones and his creative team of Paul Steinberg (Designer), Buki Shiff (Costume Designer), Mimi Jordan Sherin (Lighting Designer) and Lucy Burge (Choreographer).

Before the opera began I took part in a nice game of Guess Who the Famous People of (Mainly) Germanic Origin Are?* with a Sgt Pepper style cover sheet. It kept me entertained until a certain degree of stupidity stopped me in my tracks with roughly 97% of the faces left nameless.

Wandered for a while there…back to the opera.

Jones opted for a split period approach with hints of late Victorian meets the Renaissance that I’m guessing was a reflection of Wagner's own time and the period in history he was attempting to recreate. The costumes were pretty sublime even from my vantage point and were representative of the characters themselves – suave, well schemed tailoring for Beckmesser and unfussy, honest working clothes for Sachs. Robe lovers among you may take a liking to the Meistersingers Sing School kit. Hat aficionados are also well catered for.

The sets are split into two camps – functional, impersonal green coloured spaces for the more overt public scenes as opposed to the detailed, more elaborate settings for private and communal scenes. The highlight is without doubt Hans Sach’s shoe shop. Imbued with a careful understanding of the character it’s a wonderful example of how to design and dress a set. You have the whole of Sach’s life encapsulated in one room from his cobbling work, to his poetry and music books, to a portrait of his wife and a teddy bear on a rocking chair that was thankfully left alone throughout the scene but acted as a moving reminder to all that Sach’s once had, but had now lost. This was a living, breathing space that embodied the nature of his character. The inventiveness, and detailed artistry that has gone into the production can't be praised highly enough.

The direction itself was in keeping with the spirit of the work and one that those who favour traditional over looser interpretation will most certainly like. Which is not to say that the direction is staid in any way. The characters aren't rigid in their actions, and at one point a group of box headed Hitchcockian dream figures appear as Walther (Raymond Very) raves about his treatment at the hands of the Meistersingers. The direction allows the story to be told, but in a way that makes you feel you are watching events unfold naturally before your eyes, which given the size and scope of Meistersinger is no mean feat and many long hours of thought and practice have gone into making things appear as effortless as they do on stage. More importantly one aspect of the storytelling is never allowed to dominate over other aspects and as such everything feels just right.

Sachs (Bryn Terfel) and Walther (Raymond Very) talk shop - photo by Catherine Ashmore, taken from The Arts Desk

On second base there was the cast. Leading the pack was Bryn Terfel in his role debut as Hans Sachs. Gregarious, affable and large of spirit, voice and body he has long been marked out as possessing all the traits that are needed for one of Wagner's most demanding roles. It's fair to say that he didn't do too badly. As he'd hinted in interviews prior to the production pacing is one of the greatest keys to playing Hans Sachs and it appeared that he'd found the correct rhythm for the role with no sense of strain or coasting throughout the evening. His Hans Sachs is essentially a good man (if a bit prone to deviousness where Beckmesser is concerned) who lives his life in two worlds – that of work and music, but neither can fill the loneliness that envelopes him. The obvious highlights were Was duftet doch der Flieder and Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn! that were accompanied by the still breath hold of an audience that always comes along when something really special is happening on stage.

Watching Terfel I began to understand why Sachs is such a hard role to sing – you need to have the full package as a singer to genuinely crack the role and it's lazy writing, but truthful writing, to say that he does have it all. Included in the package is an easy acting style that fairly sizzled in the quietest of moments – breathing in the midsummer evening air never looked so evocative and waking at the beginning of the prelude to the third act had one restless night's sleep written all over it. I could, and probably should, go on with more examples but there are others waiting to be praised so I'll finish with a simple he was very, very good.

For every Superman you need a Lex Luthor and in Christopher Purves you could find no better a man to play Sixtus Beckmesser. Okay, so Beckmesser isn't trying to take over the world, but he's still a preening figure who likes to put people down. I've heard Purves on quite a few occasions but I'm not sure if I've ever heard him sing as well as he did last night. Rock solid and almost with a hint of blues to his voice he served up a Beckmesser to root against, but to also welcome to the stage. He picked out the comedic aspects of the character with ease, and I guess with a large chunk of relish given how he mooned the audience while inspecting a large bruise at one point. Against my better judgement I've come to like Beckmesser as a character purely because he is an example of the pettiness of people in positions of power and Purves highlighted this side of the character with enjoyable precision.

Amanda Roocroft
gave an enjoyable performance of a young woman not satisfied with her lot in life. From youthful contentment to youthful poutiness she had you convinced that she knew exactly how Eva should act. I hate to use highlights too often as they tend to be the same old highlights in every production, but her leading of the quintet in Act III was quite poised and beautiful – and let's face it, it's a significant highlight of the work and the pressure is considerable to get it right.

Sachs sings for his supper - photo by Elliott Franks taken from The Guardian

Singing for Eva's hand Raymond Very looked the part of the dashing young knight who'd just turned up in town. He gave Walther a bit more humility than I'd imagined him possessing and my (very slight) antipathy towards the character gave way quite easily when faced with Very's efforts. I don't think I'm whistling in the dark when I say that Walther has a right old Devil's Delight of a jingle to sing. Morgendlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein is a great big old romantic tune, with the rather nasty surprise of being a) Bloody tricky to sing and b) Coming roughly five and a half hours after the performance has begun. Sing too much in the early part of the performance and you're looking at a sticky end to the evening. Sing too little and people are thinking, five minute wonder. To my ears Very, with his bright sounding tenor voice, measured his performance just right and gave a Morgendlich leuchtend that the evening deserved.

The second set of lovers was admirably served by Anna Burford as Magdalene and Andrew Tortise as David. Burford's mezzo was an ideal foil to Roocroft's soaring soprano and you could easily see how she could bewitch the trigger tempered David into submission. Tortise, armed with a light tenor voice, was a terrific bit of casting as the apprentice to Hans Sachs. It was only when I was sat watching the performance that I realised to have had a rougher, more powerful tenor in the role would have unbalanced the plausibility of the character who should be a youthful (admittedly over exuberant) man about to set out into the world, not one who's been there, done it and who now wants to have a t-shirt printed with Grizzled Tenor for Hire.

Of the remaining main principals Brindley Sherratt impressed as Veit Pogner. It was my first time hearing him and as soon as he began to sing I thought, hmmmm, he's good. But still, he puts his daughter up as a prize in a singing contest! The Meistersingers themselves gave great support and it was nice to get to hear Simon Thorpe singing after his last appearance in a non-singing role a few months ago. And of course, as ever, there was David Soar – this time in a brief cameo as Nightwatchman (he's Sparafucile in Rigoletto) looking as though he was Death in The Seventh Seal as dreamed by Tim Burton.

Are you still with me? Congratulations! We'll be at the end before long.

Okay, on third base was – the chorus! Beefed up with forty excellent ringers they electrified the air with their singing. Or at least the air surrounding the hair on bits of my body. The precision, and pronunciation of their singing was awe blindingly magnificent as usual. From beautifully quiet and reflective to Force 10 I Can't Hear Myself Think they thrilled me more than they have done before – and as I usually think they're the best around says something. And no, these aren't empty words.

So who's at home plate and swinging for the fences? It's Lothar Koenigs and the Orchestra of WNO. In recent years it's been mainly an orchestra of Italian opera, which isn't a bad thing, but to play like they did last night was a grand declaration of what they can do. From Prelude to Endlude they followed Koenigs' direction to perfection. And I'm still no closer at writing anything with more insight than that when it comes to the orchestra I'm ashamed to say.

Am I finished?


Not yet.

I can't finish, without talking about the ending. It's a sad fact that Meistersinger has had a troubled connection with the Nazi party, who took a twisted liking to the piece, and I'm guessing especially Verachtet mir die Meister nicht that closes the opera. So as Bryn Terfel thundered out the ending it's inevitable that as much as I tried not to think about historical events certain phrases triggered my memory bank. As the chorus joined in they began to reveal portraits of the very same faces who had been staring out at the audience before the beginning of each act. It had a magically liberating effect, banishing grimly nagging thoughts and replacing them with the far greater celebration of the achievements of Germanic people throughout the ages. It was a truly thrilling, and deeply moving moment, and one that an opera as humane as Meistersinger deserves to have. It was a celebration of the greatness of humanity, of the good that people can create and achieve and that for me was a joyful end to the performance. Simply magnificent.

I'm ringing Gwyneth Paltrow now to see how she managed her Oscar moment...

Tickets are running out quickly for the Cardiff performances so hurry if you want to see it, but if you miss it I have a sneaking suspicion that one or two performances will be filmed by S4C. But do make it if you can as you'll be treated to something mighty special. Unusually for me I booked a few times so I'm looking forward to spending a few more days in Nürnberg.

Gotta run now, Gwyneth's on the other line.

*If you are attending performances don't refuse the offer of a postcard at the end of the evening. It has a scaled down version of the cover sheet on your way out. Whoever gets the most answers will have a weekend trip of their choice to either Berlin or Munich.


  1. What a marvellous, flavoursome review (which is not quite the same as saying I agreed with every word). Does a long show deserves a long eulogy (debate that been's firing over at the Arts Desk)? Clearly we both think so.

    Thanks for nailng an evening that will stand out for the rest of our lives (etc etc).

  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment - have to admit that I was itching to reply about the question of length comment myself but thought it best to cool my heels or I would have resembled a scary fanboy...

  3. Glad you eventually did, and so logically. I'm humbled and overwhelmed etc by some of those beautifully phrased responses.

  4. You're more than welcome - your review was the one I returned to more than any other so the thanks should be all mine!