sat 25/10/2014

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Welsh National Opera, Cardiff

Bryn Terfel excels in Richard Jones's clear and brilliant Wagner production

Mastersingers: Bryn Terfel and Brindley SherrattAll images by Catherine Ashmore

Only those who think the burnt-out question of Wagner and the Nazis can still be brought to bear on his operas could be disappointed by Richard Jones's life-enhancing new production. Not a swastika in sight, not a hint of anti-semitic caricature for the fallguy who was never intended for it in the first place, only affirmation of the opera's central message that great art can bring order and understanding to society.

It launches with a masterstroke: a dropcloth collage portraying German-speaking genius from Bach and Mozart to Pina Bausch and Michael Haneke, embracing all creeds and persuasions among those whose work outlives the chaos that threatened it. It's only at the end that the central, historical figure of Hans Sachs, the opera's cobbler-philosopher hero, joins the portraits. Holding him aloft is his embodiment, Bryn Terfel, the Welsh bass-baritone who especially after this, his most daunting achievement to date, should join any British pantheon of greats.

Jones's view of a Nuremberg that veers wittily between 16th-century pomp, 19th-century bourgeois dress and a dash of the later artistic Germany - a photo of Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill is propped up on the cobbler's bookcase - is not without its inner demons. Its heart of darkness is located, tellingly, in Sachs himself. Perhaps it takes a singer who has also brought us a definitive Sweeney Todd to embrace the murk as well as the humanity. Terfel really does look like a master who thrashes his apprentices in a bad mood. And it doesn't get much worse than the slough of despond into which the violent folly of St John's Eve casts him: Jones has the curtain rise on a seriously depressed Sachs with the first notes of the deeply melancholy Act Three Prelude, and we see him bolting for freedom, like the young lovers tried to do before him, only to return to bring order to the day of a great song contest.

He's the embodiment, then, of the opera's later message that nothing can happen, or be created, without a touch of Wahn, that untranslatable key word which can be rendered as "madness" or "illusion". Terfel's warm, never over-forced timbre embraces both masculine weight and feminine sensitivity, and as we've long known, he's the ultimate embodiment of stage charisma. No one takes their eyes off this Sachs, his physical presence emphasised by the way Jones brings him so close to his relatively diminutive fellow leads. If Sachs is the noblest, most reflective character in any opera, then that means that anyone who can master his essence will be giving the performance of a lifetime. I saw one, way back in the 1980s, from the lovable Norman Bailey, which I never thought to see equalled. Bryn did just that, in his own very different way. He too was born to play the part; he's made it his own; take your pick of the clichés, and any one will be true.

Where to begin with how Wagner weaves in the demands of an art that must respect tradition but learn also to embrace the new with the slowly emerging love-triangle that gave Strauss and Hofmannsthal the cue for the drama of ageing in Der Rosenkavalier? All I can promise you is that Jones tells the story and brings out its tangled relationships as well as its artistic debates with exemplary clarity. There's not even a problem with the early, dramatically sticky passage in which apprentice David (Andrew Tortise, a suitably truculent and whimsical adolescent if at times in need of a bit more vocal support for his lightish tenor) instructs outsider knight Walter (Raymond Very, pictured above right with Terfel) in the rules of song as the mastersingers dictate it so that Walter can win the young girl he's fallen in love with. All the song-types, related in pedantic if orchestrally delicious detail, get pointed out on the wardrobes wheeled around by the other apprentices, who accomplish their multiple tasks with disciplined aplomb and manage to sing spiritedly at the same time.

Paul Steinberg's bare set for the church which must become the song school is transformed before our very eyes both through what's in the wardrobes and a series of portraits of latter-day Welsh worthies dressed up in the same Renaissance garb. Sachs stands out immediately by gently brushing the costume aside, unlike his fellow Mastersingers; already we learn that he's both part of the group and prepared to resist it if he thinks it needs putting to the test. There's a symmetry in Act Three where it's the townsfolk who get to wear Buki Schiff's fantastical pageant-costumes and the masters who appear in everyday smart suits to people the bare green framework of the stage.

It's not until Act Two that Wagner lets us see to the heart of more personal relationships. Amanda Roocroft's vivaciously acted Eva, vocally stretched to the limit only when Wagner finally wants her to be an impassioned woman rather than a sweet girl, is credible from the start. She's seen as capable of teasing her goldsmith father (Brindley Sherratt, noble and intelligent of phrase in his long Act One narrative), but less so Sachs, the much older man who's played such a part in her life and with whom, in this production, she's clearly in love (Roocroft and Terfel pictured above). The problem we have to see borne out is that she's now blitzed by a deeper, more troubling infatuation with young Walter - despite his nobility, a mini-Sachs in Act Three when the two men sit side by side in their shirts and braces with their matching beards and long hair. Very looks right, which is more than I can say for any other Walter I've seen, but for the near-impossible ideal you want someone who's charismatic, impetuous and who really takes the palm with golden singing at the competition. The American tenor didn't achieve that, but curiously when Walter's working out his prize song in Sachs's workshop, a memory lapse threw him and suddenly, when he stopped thinking too hard about what he was doing, the vocal production eased up - but only then. Still, he got through this killer role, which is worth a prize in itself.

There's a masterclass in comic timing, as ever, from Christopher Purves as the pedantic Beckmesser: first elegantly malevolent as he fingers the chalks to mark the newcomer's performance in Act One, then desperately unpleasant and finally preeningly foolish as he tries to sing the song stolen from his assumed rival. We don't need to feel sorry for his come-uppance: Jones and Terfel between them make much of Sachs's remark that everyone has moments of weakness, but some learn from their mistakes and others like Beckmesser crash on through the red lights.

Though this characterisation is merely a slightly more realistic than usual rendering of the expected comedy of discomfiture, a straight line that's taken over the four hours plus of the drama as a whole, Jones's imagination surfaces in sudden, telling and often tear-inducing moments. His two most typical thumbprints are the phantom procession of markers with crosses on their box heads which Walter conjures in his night-time brain-fever, and the Seventh Seal, Brother Death-like figure of the night watchman (David Soar, a promising young bass), bearing a lantern in place of a scythe. There's also a Jonesian caper when David thrashes Beckmesser for wooing his Magdalene (Anna Burford, smiling charm throughout), who's disguised as her mistress - a chase around the houses in which Beckmesser eventually loses his trousers. The night brawl as a whole is relatively tame, maybe to make sure that the splendid WNO Chorus keep in time with the conductor (they did on the first night).

The bedrock of this towering company show is WNO music director Lothar Koenigs's natural grasp of the score's rich ebb and flow

Other touches are humane and intelligent. When Sachs tells Walter he'll help him to interpret his dream - a passage of which Freud undoubtedly took note - the young man lies on the couch while the cobbler sits at the table behind him writing it all down. The finished sheets are hung up to dry, and the characters all look up at them in wonder just as in the first act the assembled burghers all looked up at their rather more rigid rules for mastersinging. On the first night, I wasn't sure if these green panels were working as intended, and the usually reliable lighting of Mimi Jordan Sherin was playing up rather a lot, especially at the end of the First Act and in a quintet where I couldn't believe that four of the five characters were supposed to be left in the dark. These are the kind of teething problems that such a massive undertaking as the staging of a Wagner opera is bound to throw up, and the sometimes tricksy Wales Millennium Centre doesn't always make things any easier, so no doubt things will have settled by the time the show hits Birmingham.

I haven't even so much as mentioned the bedrock of this towering company show, WNO music director Lothar Koenigs's natural grasp of the score's rich ebb and flow. Transparent and buoyant from the first in a Prelude that inspires total confidence, he brings the carolling woodwind voices of spring and youth to the fore, lets the orchestra billow in the big emotional climaxes and never overdoes the pomp and ceremony. So the final celebrations in the Nuremberg meadow underpin deliciously Lucy Burge's choreographed rituals and dances and never come close to bluster - crucial when we get to the sticking point of Sachs's final address to "holy German art". Whatever that might have meant to the unruly German states of the 16th century, or for the still dubious German identity of the 1860s, Jones makes clear what it means to him: a universe of German-speaking genius across the centuries. So, yes, the portraits from the dropcloth come back, as we thought they would, but couldn't work out how. As Sachs delivers his keynote speech, the townsfolk one by one hold up their portraits of composers, artists, performing musicians, actors, filmmakers. There couldn't be a more wonderful, euphoric or moving way of expressing what Meistersinger means to us today.

Jones's imagination surfaces in sudden, telling and often tear-inducing moments

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Comments

First of all I'll admit to a slightly biased opinion of the production and the question of the optimum length of reviews. Or put more succinctly - I was dazzled by every minute of the performance and am very glad that a reviewer gave the evening the time and thought it deserved. As much as I was happy to see the unanimously well-received reviews it did irritate me to see the efforts of so many people whittled down to "blink and miss them" reports. The beauty of the internet is that it caters for all types of creativity - and not just bite sized snippets that are once read, twice forgotten. Newspapers may care little for opera or the arts - that doesn't mean we should allow their desire for shrink wrapped brevity to reduce thoughts to generalised responses. After all - we are humans, not machines, and Meistersinger is a lovely thick slab of humanity that should be celebrated to the full.
Emmanuel - no-one was able to hear Pap's Sachs last year. He pulled out of the Berlin production and has decided not to sing it in the immediate future. Robert Holl is probably the finest "senior" Sachs around, but he's over 60 and we need to move onto the next generation. Hard to think of anyone in their mid-late forties who would sing it better than Terfel right now.
Again opinion presented as fact. More people have commented with opposite feelings that they LIKE the length, and I do too, and I don't see how some of these very detailed points could have been covered in less. If you want a short review without, as Minnie so brilliantly put it below, tiring your lips out after 200 words, stick to the papers. The Arts Desk is clearly trying to do something different.
* surely the point of 'comment' is that you say what you think about something music_lover - you could just say that you disagree with me. I like this review but I see no reason why a review need be so long and waffly when what our reviewer says could easily be done in half the length. It's a shame that this kind of internet forum, by its very nature, does not impose a word limit (as newspapers do) and therefore allows too much text which is, in the end, counterproductive since it clouds the intention of the article.
@Joseph Alder Prichard: having seen the work on the 23rd, I think you're too harsh on a number of points. Terfel's stab seemed to me as good as I've heard from anyone tackling this giant of a role for the first time. He handles Act II beautifully, both monologues are very well phrased and paced and he anchors the Quintet as well as anyone. I agree that he doesn't have the full range of the role under his skin and seems really unsure how to frame the final aria (which can be sung much more thoughtfully and without forcing the beat). Still, his 'Euch macht ihr's leicht' made me shiver. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to hear Rene Pape do Sachs this year, but I can't see much competition from elsewhere. Terfel will grow and grow in this role. (By the way, I agree with your assessment of the rest of the cast. Walther was particularly weak. I've had the joy to hear Ben Heppner and Robert Dean Smith sing it in Berlin and Munich respectively and there is no comparison) I also take a much more charitable view towards the production. It seems to me that Jones hit on a simple and effective idea: Meistersinger is a work about the instability of tradition and the primacy of art. The collage that bookends the production drives the point home very directly and stylishly -no politicians there, many iconoclasts, some humble workers, some unclassifiable geniuses but all contributors to a vibrant and shifting stream of tradition (The fact that Terfel was holding Sachs's own picture moved me very much in its own right). Sure, Jones doesn't explore the class divide in the work and does not make anything of what we now see as the dark undertones of the final aria, but I've had enough of productions eager to come up with something shocking/profound about that scene at the expense of the balance of the Act and the whole opera. Perhaps Harry Kupfer got it even better (with Sachs laying down the wreath and Beckmesser stealing it as the curtain closes), but Jones's take was by no means lazy. If anything, his keen eye for discreet comedy keeps all dramatically challenging passages moving both swiftly and interestingly (the handling of Hans Folz a particular delight!). To my ear, Koenigs has the measure of the score but needs to decide more clearly where the heart of each Act is and manage the built up accordingly. I thought he tended to lose the woodwinds a little in Act II, but front stalls seats are not good places to judge that. Still, he supports his singers well and, most importantly, doesn't get in the way of the music. This is, after all, a singers' opera.
An Illuminating, thoughtful critique - a rare treat for those of us able to read more than 200 words without wearing our lips out. And, as ever, elegantly-written. Tastes will differ, which is as it should be; but I find this writer a consistently reliable source of interest and helpful information. As I was unable to be there in Cardiff, this piece was surely the next best thing to seeing the production for oneself.
I was there. Spot on. Short enough Andie?
Spot on review, especially about Lothar Koenigs magnificently paced, detailed conducting of the marvelous WNO orchestra. There were poltergeists in the lighting equipment (kobolds?) but did little to impede the flow of Richard Jones' direction. Bravo!
Oyez, oyez, only John Alder Pritchard tells it how it is and everyone else knows nothing. I wonder why we haven't heard more from this oracle of truth.
Sadly none of the reviews written about this production so far tell it like it is. So many of these critics have never heard a good 'Meistersinger' lately or know (remember?) how it should be sung. How anyone can make a virtue of the tenor making a right royal Act III c++k up is beyond me? Roughly - and in short - this is the problem ... it is an unbelievably traditional staging for the 21st century. It was just an hommage to Wolfgang Wagner's Bayreuth productions. I was interested in Beckmesser as Richard Wagner but whether the Mastersinger - intentionally or unintentionally - performed as Wolfgang himself in decline was entirely appropriate I wasn't sure. Sadly not a hypodermic or paper bag in sight so Richard Jones has joined the conservative coalition we must assume? A rather lazy production from a director happy to bank his pay cheque. Jones has done so much better in the past for Wagner. Good role for Terfel of course, though he seems to have lost some vocal quality and there is a rather bland/gruff sameness to his singing, David, Eva (I think she was singing the Welsh version) and Magdalene not that great. Neither is the Walther who starts well then runs out of top notes. I know that woeful Act III memory lapse can happen - but it shouldn't. The chorus are worth hearing and all is worth seeing for the world class Beckmesser - though even he is replicating the performance of Hermann Prey! I had to check at the first interval he wasn't German! The conductor is not yet up to the task despite some good moments. Shame Anthony Negus never gets any Wagner at WNO.
A very perceptive review, well written. I was in Cardiff for the performance on 19 June and am going again next Tuesday. Lothar Koenigs is a fine successor to Carlo Rizzi at the WNO.
thought the review was great! well-captures what was a fabulous evening....!! and commentator Andie, why does the world need to know that you have problems with long texts....?
Thanks for this review. Worthy both of the piece (the longest opera?) and great production. Not pithy enough for the tweeting generation maybe but great for the rest of us.
It's a shame this review has to be so long and rambling since I'd like to read it all but can't really hack it to the end.

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