Note: This is a review of the performance on Saturday 21st February 2015
Wagner's Mastersingers, the programme advises, hasn't been seen at English National Opera for over thirty years. That it returns now, just as the company has been placed in special measures by the Arts Council, is ironic to say the least. On its own terms this is a very strong performance which shows the company at its best. What it tells us about the company's possible future is considerably more open to doubt.
But first let us look at this performance on its own merits. The finest work across the whole evening was unquestionably that of Edward Gardner on the podium and the ENO Orchestra in the pit. They delivered an account of this glorious score that was spacious and heartfelt but never lost momentum. Just occasionally I thought a little more attack was needed – the riot didn't quite reach the pitch of chaos it needs though the staging was also a factor here – but this is a minor quibble. Unlike many, I have a fondness for the Coliseum sound which I still feel has more warmth (if that's the word I want) than Covent Garden. I've long dreamed of hearing this score in this house, and I wasn't disappointed.
The soloists were a little more mixed but, and this is important, even those who I thought struggled in places in these tough roles produced strong, often excellent work elsewhere. You might well hear greater voices in all these roles in other houses – though it is rare to hear outstanding voices in every one on one occasion – but this was a company ensemble of which ENO can be rightly proud. Iain Paterson's Sachs was especially strongly sung, and emotionally moving, helped by direction and costuming which seemed aimed at making him stand out – I particularly felt it brought out the ambiguities of the street song scene. Among the other Masters the standout was James Creswell's Pogner, a rich voice again linked to a strong stage presence. Gwyn Hughes Jones's Walther has strong qualities at the top of the voice capturing that ringing heroic note that things like the Prize Song so badly need and so often don't get. This is the most important thing in the part for me, and I therefore minded less the fact that he tended to sound less clear lower down so that, for example, those little exchanges say with Eva in Act 2 didn't come across as strongly as they should. Nicky Spence (David) often sang very beautifully but occasionally sounded a little strained and outside his comfort zone in some of the really exposed top notes. Rachel Nicholls's Eva had the requisite power, and contributed effectively to a marvellous quintet, but at the top at full volume occasionally sounded just a bit sour to me. Madeleine Shaw gave a nicely characterised Magdalene. Among the smaller roles both David Stout's Kothner and Nicholas Crawley's Nightwatchman were strongly taken. Astute readers will have noticed that I haven't yet mentioned Andrew Shore's Beckmesser. Here I seem to have had a completely different experience to everybody else, and I wonder whether where I was sitting in the Upper Circle just happened to be the wrong place for hearing him properly. All I can say is that from there the voice often sounded rough and struggled to be heard over the orchestra. He was stronger in Act 3 but for me he didn't beat the performances of Johannes Martin Kranzle at Glyndebourne or, long ago, Thomas Allen at the Royal Opera. The ENO Chorus sang strongly, especially in Act 3.
I've tended not to get on with Richard Jones as a director but this is an exception. Jones mostly eschews busyness (though I would cut the ghostly Masters who suddenly turn up when Walther is reliving his trial) and, unlike in his Glyndebourne Rosenkavalier really focuses on and takes seriously the individual characters and the relationships between them. Ultimately it isn't a reading that has quite the depth, for me, of David McVicar's Glyndebourne production (my thoughts on that can be read here) – for example Jones can't quite seem to decide how to play Eva and Sachs's relationship and her suddenly pursuing him round the shop when he breaks out in frustration in Act 3 didn't seem to link clearly to all that had gone before. Similarly, I think McVicar found greater power in the latter stages of Act 3 in terms of the Beckmesser-Sachs relationship, Sachs's ambivalence before popular acclamation, and the never quite banished threat of madness (though I heard a note of that madness in the music as Eva accepted Walther that had not so caught my attention before). In comparison, I wasn't altogether convinced by Jones's ending. Everybody suddenly producing portraits doesn't quite seem to fit with how all those people have been portrayed prior to that point, and while I can see the point about German masters it lacked punch. I also have yet to see a staging of the riot that betters Graham Vick's in the current Royal Opera production – here there weren't quite enough bodies to fill up the stage and the movement looked a bit too obviously managed to my eye. But Jones's production, despite these niggles, is still a very strong one which packs real emotional punch. He brings a welcome lightness of touch to Act 1 which can get bogged down. And the first half of Act 3 including spellbinding performances of the monologue and the quintet (the voices blended beautifully here) was marvellous. Set and costumes, again unlike Rosenkavalier, generally worked well (though did we really need the rather busy external roofs in Act 2?). Two other small points seem worth mentioning – was it really not possible for the half dozen stage hands who pushed the crowd seating forward in the final scene to exit without being clearly visible to the audience (at least in the Upper Circle, family who earlier saw this show from the Stalls report no sighting)? And, would it not have been a more sensible decision to give Eva a second costume in Act 3 – the text after all specifically indicates that she is finely arrayed – one can only assume Sachs had not noticed she was wearing the same dress throughout.
Overall though this is one of the strongest shows of John Berry's reign at the Coliseum. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to pick up a ticket. It is one of the great operas, and it doesn't come around so very frequently. And that brings us to the final question – where does it leave us with respect to the current crisis facing the company (we'll draw a veil over the Company's persistent, ludicrous claim that everything is going swimmingly). I could say a great deal about this, and about some of the misguided commentary on it, but having reflected I conclude that it actually boils down to one very simple point. This was a powerful high quality opera performance. There have not been nearly enough such performances during the ten years John Berry has been Artistic Director of the company. That, in my opinion, is the fundamental reason why the company is in its current mess. Thus, the company can be proud of this performance but it is not, in my view, sufficient evidence in itself that the current management has learned from a decade of far too many mistakes. The company's future, despite this success, remains doubtful.