Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - WNO at Birmingham Hippodrome, 6 July 2010
The reviews for Richard Jones’s new WNO Meistersinger have been overwhelmingly positive, and rightly so. It opened in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago, but I caught it on its mini-tour to the Birmingham Hippodrome (two nights, the second this Saturday).
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Bryn Terfel’s first Hans Sachs was the big draw. He didn’t disappoint, but the greatest achievement was the production itself. Most Meistersinger productions are a series of snapshots grouted with waffle – and they get away with it thanks to Wagner’s reputation for long-windedness. But it's unfair to blame the composer. Jones’s great achievement is to weave the contemplative into the narrative, revealing that every note Wagner wrote actually counts.
He’s created a dramatic flow that lets the action unwind in one great unbroken sequence. And surprisingly (after his iconoclastic but incoherent Munich Lohengrin), he does it without diversionary concepts or any other sort of trick. Fundamentally Jones cleaves to the composer’s stage directions, with a little decorative latitude. It’s a revelatory production in the best possible sense. Lothar Koenigs' conducting isn’t as mould-breaking, but after a creaky overture, his pacing and balance were superb.
Time and place are only loosely suggested. Dress is vaguely of Wagner’s own time, but the mastersingers uphold their traditions by donning medieval costumes for their meeting. The church and town street are simplified and stylised (wallpapered roofs and sky), but the workshop of down-to-earth Hans Sachs is as realistic and meticulously detailed as a movie set. Making the Night Watchman (beautifully sung by David Soar) an expressionistic silhouette is a surreal touch that really works to accentuate the midsummer madness of the second act riot, here a choreographed Benny Hill chase.
Bryn Terfel doesn’t so much play Hans Sachs as release him from somewhere deep within. Despite a few vocal wobbles at the start, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer embody a role quite so fully. In this production Eva (Amanda Roocroft, singing at her best) really throws herself at him, making his sacrifice all the more poignant. Right now Terfel's at the perfect age to play Sachs, too, young enough to be alive to hope and the possibility of change, old enough to be wise to the practical obstacles.
Christopher Purves’s Beckmesser is a perfect foil, his light caricature throwing Sachs’s humanity into sharper relief. Raymond Very certainly looks the part as Walther, but his voice was often pinched and poorly-projected. But once you’ve heard the jaw-droppingly unearthly voice of Klaus Florian Vogt in this part, everyone else falls back into distant second place.
A gallery of famous faces selected to represent German Art forms a front cloth and, held up individually in front of the townsfolk’s faces, a neatly symmetrical ending to the show. But there’s one telling omission – Richard Wagner. I wonder why?
note - for those interested in timings for Proms purposes, start to finish was 5 hours and 50 minutes, including two intervals of approximately 25 and 55 minutes.
production photos by Catherine Ashmore for WNO
curtain call photos by intermezzo.typepad.com