Note - this is a review of the concert broadcast.
Roger Wright's answer to the question of how does one top an opening concert of Mahler's 8th symphony was always set to be big event: a concert performance of Wagner's massive comedy, all too infrequently staged in this country, with the added draw of a top name singer headlining it. In the end, it proved more than up to the task.
Bryn Terfel, as Hans Sachs, was very good indeed; he sang well and commanded the Albert Hall stage, not to mention making it through without seeming to tire - by no means a given. True, his acting was at times a little over the top, but in a concert performance this is a pretty minor quibble. Excellent though his performance was, he by no means upstaged the other principals. Christopher Purves's Beckmesser was a particular treat, clearly sung and superbly acted, making one wish to have seen him in the stage version - his misplaced joy in thinking he had obtained a winning song was wonderful (indeed, his exit prompted a flurry of applause - I can understand why), so too the way he climbed atop a chair to sing it. Then there was his mounting fury at Sachs's mischievousness as he attempted to serenade Eva (Terfel thumping his shoe furiously with the hammer) - Purves looked like he might burst a blood vessel.
There were also good performances from Amanda Roocroft as Eva and Ramond Very as Walter and Anna Burford impressed greatly as Magdalene. However, it is a massive ensemble cast, and assembling one that is uniformly of the highest standard is, much like any Wagner opera, a near impossible task, and lower down the batting order things were less solid. Andrew Tortise's David was somewhat weak in chasing away Beckmesser in act two and David Soar's Nightwatchman was disappointing. However, comparatively speaking such blemishes were minor.
As a semi-staging it was fairly successful, though not quite on a part with the 2005 Proms HMS Pinafore (which I regard as a gold standard for this). In particular, it would have been nice for Beckmesser to have had a slate in act one on which he could audibly score Watler rather than scribbling inaudibly on some card. That said, there was no shortage of drama conveyed.
Beneath it all, Lothar Koenigs wielded the baton over the orchestra and chorus of Welsh National Opera. He didn't bring the absolute intensity of a Furtwangler, nor the sparkle that exists in Mackerras's reading. Instead it seemed very straight-laced, often beautifully textured, intensely lyrical, allowing the music to breath and wonderful details to emerge. It is a mark of the strength of his reading that for several days after the music has still been ringing in my head as though Koenigs had imprinted it there. He worked his forces up to suitably electric climaxes at the end of each act.
It seemed to have been a memorable night for all in the hall, and this carried over well in the broadcast. The acid test - given the access available in the living room to many excellent CD recordings and DVDs, was it worth tuning in to five hours of this? Emphatically yes.
The BBC4 transmission was fronted by Stephen Fry (presumably because he's famous and likes Wagner). At times, especially early on, I found his style a little over the top, but he seemed to calm down after the first interval. Together with Nicholas Payne he did a lovely if brief tribute to Charles Mackerras. The brief exert they showed from his Wagner documentary didn't leave me in a hurry to see more. Sadly Charles Hazlewood was on show with a roving microphone - so much for any hopes of losing him.
As was the case for the opening night, at least on Freeview, sound quality on TV was rather flat and uninvolving when compared to the Radio 3 broadcast (which remains the best way to listen). Listen again here.