Monday 2 January 2012

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg at the Royal Opera, or, A Little in the Shadow of Past Glories

It came as something of a shock to me to discover from the programme note that this production was first done (and I first saw it) in 1993, and that there have already been three revivals. This was likely its final outing and although it doesn't command as a total experience as it did when I saw it in 1993 and 1997, and the experience was further shadowed by the magnificence of McVicar's recent Glyndebourne production, there is still much to enjoy both visually and musically.

The two strongest performers musically and dramatically are Toby Spence (David) and Wolfgang Koch (Hans Sachs). Spence is a lively presence whenever he's on stage, an effective actor with the measure of both the comical and serious sides of the part and sings it very finely. Koch is very good vocally, bringing real (and in my view needed) heft to the street song of Act Two, and having the stamina to sustain the taxing Act Three. Sachs is a part that for true greatness needs a great singing actor and Koch has the makings of that greatness – he improved steadily as the performance progressed and moved me in Act Three especially. If he could conquer his tendency to the declamatory gesture and be a little less obvious in his relations with the audience it would be a really fine performance, if not yet in Gerald Finley's league (in acting terms).

The rest of the cast were generally weaker, but I think this was linked in some cases to the fact that Vick's staging seen in the light of McVicar's just does not have the same depth of characterisation. Thus Peter Coleman-Wright was not as good as my memory of Thomas Allen in the part, nor did he erase Kranzle at Glyndebourne, but some of this is to do with the fact that the production doesn't draw him as strongly, in particularly McVicar's decision to keep him on stage during the Prize Song and through almost to the end packs much more dramatic punch than Vick's having him depart after his failure. It should perhaps be noted here, since I often complain about lack of textual fidelity, that in this instance Vick is of course being faithful and McVicar is not – I still think McVicar's departure was entirely justified!

Emma Bell made quite a convincing Eva from a dramatic point of view and the voice generally seems to be powerful enough but she didn't always sound completely secure and somehow I wasn't wholly bowled over. John Tomlinson boomed his way through Pogner – irritating me in his Act One monologue as a result, drawing my attention to the little vignette when Pogner muses on his motives in Act Two which I don't remember really noticing before, and rather moving me in Act Three – although I can't help feeling this was a little more to do with the laying on of hands ex-Sachs to current rather than the characterisation of Pogner. Heather Shipp was a serviceable Magdalene.

The observant among you may have noticed that I have not yet mentioned Simon O'Neill's Walther. It was announced at the beginning of the afternoon that he was suffering from a throat infection which had turned bronchial was on numerous antibiotics but had agreed to sing. It seems plausible that without this decision there could have been no performance and I commend O'Neill for his heroic efforts. Yet it was clearly a real struggle, and if in fact it was possible to get a substitute I do think he would have been better advised not to attempt it. Given his situation I think it is impossible to form any judgement on his normal capacity for the part.

The chorus and orchestra both performed superbly, as did Pappano in the pit. Up to now I have not been convinced by Pappano in Wagner but he convinced me in this opera. He kept the momentum going, he had a real sense of drama, and he shaped many sections beautifully. I was not so overpoweringly moved by Act Three as at Glyndebourne, but the reasons for that lay elsewhere.

For coming back to this production after my Glyndebourne experience earlier in the summer one becomes aware of its limitations. These are not visual, it looks beautiful. Nor is it a complete absence of intelligent direction – many sharp moments are drawn between the various characters. But ultimately, it doesn't have the depth of McVicar, and this is shown most clearly at the conclusion. Now I dissent from those who seem to feel that Sachs's final paean to German art has clear overtones towards some of Wagner's and others unsavory political views and actions. It seems to me at least as much about the power and endurance of art. As Sachs admonishes Walther:

“not to your coat-of-arms, spear, or sword,
(but) to the fact that you are a poet...
to that you owe today your highest happiness.”

The translation yesterday also had a reference to “gentleness” somewhere here, though I can't find it in the CD text I'm referring to. Anyway, my point is that this doesn't have to be about anti-semitism or Nazism, or the darker sides of German character, but about the endurance of greater German qualities. However, I think you do have to decide as a director what you think it's about and at least in this revival it doesn't feel like Vick has done so, Koch rather falls back into his declamatory style from earlier in the evening. This is in strong contrast to what struck me at Glyndebourne as McVicar's deeply thoughtful take on the same moment, when the threat of “wahn” is brought out all through Act Three, and Finley's Sachs was much more deeply conscious of his own weaknesses and the dangerous side to the popularity of which he was, in that version, the unwilling recipient. Couple that, as McVicar does, to further action in respect of the Sachs-Beckmesser relationship and the whole experience was overpoweringly moving. Vick's ending is, perhaps inevitably, pale in comparison.

Overall, this is not a first rank revival, but hearing this opera is becoming, for me, rather like hearing Strauss's Rosenkavalier. Even when it doesn't quite come off there's such great humanity in the plight of these characters that it is worth putting up with a few shortcomings, and they are far fewer here than in many an operatic production, for what is still the relatively infrequent joy of seeing this opera performed live.

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