With a running time of five hours forty minutes, some would have judged this evening of The Mastersingers something of an endurance test. Far from it. The evening zipped past, Act III achieving something close to actually sublime and the evening as a whole bestowing enduring rewards. One felt greatly rewarded by the return on whichever “investment” one cared to use to analyse. In sum edification, entertainment (if one wishes to think of it that way) value for money (again, if one judges reward by value for money) and more simply and infinitely more rewarding: I was left with a surfeit of joy. This was opera which had done the job well.
This despite itself – or rather, despite Richard Jones and team’s ‘unique’ design decisions. The usual Richard Jonesian tropes were therefore in evidence, the idiosyncrasies of his oeuvre fully in place. To give an example: Outside Sachs house one would expect if not blue sky through his windows, then at least concession to indicating we are being show “the outside”. From Jones, nothing so commonplace, nor so literal. No mimesis here. Instead the backdrop was a kind of blue and grey type of brocaded pattern. (I actually felt a little unsettled at this, so odd was it to contemplate.)
These oddities persisted: in its furnishings and knick-knacks, Sachs’ home itself looks late Nineteenth Century, but there were electric lights inside and out (?!). Then contrary to Sach’s realistically furnished lodgings the Act III Nuremberg-vision Song Contest was held in Medieval dress for all. I wondered at first if it was fancy dress or ritual dress, for the characters, but now conclude it is probably just Jones being perverse. So too, Walter von Stolzing looks less a knight and more like a kind of mid 19thC backpacker.
Quite what Jones’ intention when deciding to toss this hodgepodge of referents at us was, I’m unsure. Perhaps we could allow that he is being “postmodern” and “playing with codes” which is all well and good, but I am heavily literal-minded*, and actually don’t mind the literal minded Zefferelli/Copley type of warhorses: they are uncomplicated in their honesty and require no ‘decoding’. In the end I found myself not questioning the staging overmuch, instead focussing on the music.
And what a good reason to focus: Edward Gardiner excelled. Under his baton the orchestra sounded confident, the brass refulgent, blooming and booming, noble in tone in all they did, not least in the famous overture. The strings gave a sympathetic reading, solos from the violins were sweetly done and all were sensitive to the weighting and statements of leitmotifs. As a result of this sure-handed control of motifs, all was (musically/thematically) narratively secure. The pace was poised. I spent the two hours of Act III with a stupid grin plastered on my face. Bravi to all.
With such security then, the singers had half the battle won. And a battle it was this night, for Iain Paterson as Sachs: an announcement by John McMurray, ENO’s head of casting before-hand informed us that he was fighting a bad head-cold. Mr Paterson came through the six-ish hours visibly drained at the end, walking slowly onstage to receive his applause as if fully realising the feat he had just completed. This truly was commitment. Genuine appreciation from him too, for our applause. One sensed a kind of “couldn’t have done it without you all” gratitude. While not the most resonant of Sachses lower in his register, we were given an amiable and avuncular depiction of Wagner’s unassuming cobbler – with suggestions of “sadder” side, which was well sung and well-presented to us. For anyone to have got through it at all on a good day is probably no small feat*.
Gwyn Hughes Jones was strong throughout, his burly tenor finding real “ping” in moments. The first suggestions of “Walter’s Prize Song ” were lovely indeed, the more so for being fragmented, as if we were being teased with seductive promise. His second time around the aria in toto was an emotional highlight, yet technically perhaps not as strongly given as that first fragmented time. (Or perhaps this was mere illusion?)
Rachel Nicholls Eva was becoming in manner and believably smitten by Walter and I liked how she approached the role, vocally as well as dramatically. This Eva and Walter made a good couple. Nicky Spence was clearly sung and a game David, which made me want to see other attempts at the “Schumacherei und Poeterei”. James Creswell was as always a class act here playing Pogner. The man can do no wrong in my eyes, and he was a compelling centre of gravitas for the piece. Madeleine Shaw’s Magdalene was lovely, though, sad to relate, I don’t think the guy next to me was training his binoculars on her voice alone, put it that way. As Beckmesser, Andrew Shore was fun, dastardly when required, buffo when needed, and I genuinely enjoyed his “Serenade” as well as his painful failures in the song-trial.
Special mention must once more go to the mighty ENO Chorus, this body of men and women swelled by some of the best talent around, these additional members joining them as the burghers of Nuremberg. When they sing as one, the sound is electrifying. When they sing the opening “chorale” of Act I, I found myself wishing for discs and discs of the same. Here is precision and uncommonly good unity of tone, here too great force when required and here too delicacy: the single words of “silentium” in Act III’s contest were wonderfully hushed and reverent, credit of course to Wagner for this, but in its execution, credit to these wonderful men and women.
By such musical forces entire, one could not fail to be affected. There was onstage a young girl cast as an apprentice whom I noticed was genuinely moved, and she stayed that way through much of Act III*. Small wonder. She was part of a wonderful sound-world and experience, and her happiness was self-evident and unbounded. Her beaming smile said it all.
Jones decided not to elide Act III’s claims of German pomp and majesty: his theatrical dénouement to celebrate German culture would probably have pleased Wagner, and it was all actually rather cleverly done.* “*SPOILER*” The fourth wall was momentarily broken by all members of the cast running from the wings with their placards, ready to flip them over, and show us which portrait from the curtain they were carrying. Perhaps this was simple joy from the novel idea. As spectacle, a success. The whole piece ending on a resounding high. What a success for all involved, and for the ENO pure vindication of its mission. (I even liked it in English!)
*eg, I wouldn’t mind watching this production, as the maidens look medieval maidenly and Botha looks believably the same (not maidenly, but Medieval.)
*but see here for Paterson on how a good singer can do Sachs then feel like he can immediately do it again.
* she is visible in the photograph above with Beckmesser and Hughes Jones.
* A member of the audience I heard when leaving said he was uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating German culture, which just goes to show the taint of wrongheaded misconceptions about Wagner himself, as if celebrating Wagner is celebrating the worst aspects of German culture – or at least, it goes to show that cultural pride can rub up against cultural pride. Rarely are we happy when others celebrate in our faces. So too, some might say this is all German jingosim. Let’s be honest though, hardly anything more jingoistic than God Save the Queen or any anthem, the stronger for being heartfelt. As I said though, Jones’ solution is clever and to my mind, defeats any objections. Here, the ultimate statement of art for art’s sake, for culture’s sake, for human culture‘s sake, not just German culture. (To call it art for civilisation’s sake is merely to repeat the mistakes of those who think Wagner is the root of most “German” evil.)