Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Royal Opera House, 19 December 2011 (first night)
The scene above is the most imaginative one in a production that otherwise sticks doggedly to the letter of the text. As midsummer madness or Wahn grips the Nuremburgers at the end of Act II, the featureless walls are suddenly pocked with openings. Bodies froth out from high, low, and even above the stage. The boundaries are breached; the city can no longer contain the human activity within. It's subtler than it looks.
Graham Vick's ageing production may look a little tired these days, but it's still one of the best of the ROH's variable Wagner stable. Even if it leans more heavily on the tradition the opera challenges rather than the creativity it seeks to encourage, it doesn't ignore the underlying themes altogether. And at least the laughs come in the right places. The holiday season brings a lot of first-time operagoers into the house. They'll get a lucid introduction to what for many is a forbidding opera (and composer). But it's in no way dumbed-down. Take away the pseudo-authentic costumes (and the codpieces - please) and what you have are bare, generic sets and a clearly-characterised drama, where the often vast forces are marshalled with expert and telling detail that never slips into fussiness.
Pappano created an equally fluid narrative from the score, though a lack of clarity in his contouring sometimes lent a curious backing track-effect. Whenever he's in the pit, he energises the orchestra magnificently, and they play with real passion and commitment. But this work needs more than that - specifically, a bit more air than he gave it. Hopefully the interpretation will develop as the run progresses.
No Wagner cast is ever quite up to the job - the world ran out of Birgit Nilssons long ago - but this one does a pretty good job. Toby Spence was outstanding as David, a role I first saw him play in Edinburgh a few years ago. His interpretation has matured and everything was perfect - the enthusiasm, the deference, the eagerness to please. He coloured the words as if every single one mattered. John Tomlinson too had a terrific night, cunningly working the natural ageing of his voice into his befuddled and slightly doddery Pogner.
Emma Bell made a vibrant Eva, but her dark tone and often thrilling power lend her a knowing quality that's not quite right. If the world needs saving from Nadja Michael, Emma Bell's the woman to do it - I'd love to hear her in a more dramatic role.
I wasn't keen on Simon O'Neill's Walther at all. He has an almighty pair of lungs, but sounds pinched and nasal in the register where most of this part lies. If you want to hear how it should be done, check out the Bayreuth Meistersinger DVD (Katharina Wagner's much-derided production) for the Klaus Florian Vogt version.
There was a jarring hint of the Graham Nortons in Peter Coleman-Wright's Beckmesser, and a bit too much approximation in the vocal line of an otherwise polished performance.
Which leaves us with the nominal centre of the work, Hans Sachs. I've actually seen Wolfgang Koch several times in German productions, but never felt moved to write about him. Why? He generally sings, as he did last night, quite beautifully and appropriately, without strain or apparent effort. And he doesn't lack stage presence. But there's an anonymous quality to every performance of his I've seen, a lack of generosity.
Close-up, as I was last night, his acting skills compensated. What's not in the voice is there in the face. He's very highly rated by some people whose opinions I seriously respect, so perhaps I've just been unlucky in the few performances I've caught - and to be fair, he did at least start to catch fire towards the end. But on the basis of what I saw last night, he needs to give more of himself to flesh out the part.
production photos (above): Clive Barda
curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com