Ensemble Mastersingers

22 Feb

The Mastersingers is an iconic work for ENO. It was with this opera, in 1967, that they gave notice of their ambitions which they then went on triumphantly to achieve. At a time when they are in one of their worst crises, it is at least reassuring to see them, artistically at least, in excellent form. I got to the performance on 21st February.

It’s fitting that this should be included in Edward Gardner’s last season. He’s done a vast amount of work for this company and it is a triumph for him that, as with the 1967 production, this could be cast almost entirely from the company’s regular singers. Gardner’s conducting was clear, assured, occasionally slow and was seconded by excellent playing from the orchestra and chorus. There was no question of making allowances. It was a hugely assured confident performances.

Richard Jones’s production was bought in from the Welsh. It’s a really fine piece of work, typical of Jones. He’d updated it to 1868, the time of its first performance and managed very deftly to get the tension between tradition and modernity reflected in the costumes. He gets round the resonances that the work has these days by stressing that it’s about German art rather than German nationalism, partly through a drop cloth that’s a collage of German artists post Sachs but also by a brilliant coup at the end. It contains lots of his trade-marks – the very precise choreography and stylisation. He also directs the characters really well, suggesting an emotional journey for Sachs and the lovers. What I missed was the element of chaos that is a part of the opera: this was the least chaotic riot scene with very little sense of danger or of things getting out of hand – Walther and Eva disappeared for most of it and simply having David chase Beckmesser round the houses a few times wasn’t enough – though the end, Beckmesser only in his socks with his lute to cover his modesty, was perfectly judged. I also missed the Breughel-esque detail of the last scene that Vick got so well at the Royal Opera House. And the sets looked cheap – rather like a touring production.

Iain Paterson was singing his first Sachs. I’m a big admirer of him as a singer. He presented a youthful, no-nonsense, warts and all Sachs. He and Jones caught all the anger and sadness of the character in Act III, together with the strength and fun of it elsewhere. He did the writing of the Prize Song really absorbingly. This was a very individual, very convincing portrayal. Vocally, he sounded just a bit small for the role and was tiring towards the end. But this is a really strong portrayal that will, I hope, develop.

It came as a surprise that this was Andrew Shore’s first Beckmesser. He created a priggish, rule-bound town clerk, desperately in love with Eva but also very conscious of his own dignity. Vocally, I’d have liked just a bit more heft, but this was a beautifully judged and detailed portrayal.

Gwyn Hughes Jones was Walther – a large, grateful voice who sang the Prize song really well even though, again, you felt that he was tiring at the end. Rachel Nicholls was a lovely Eva – impulsively, generously acted and very, very well sung.

Nicky Spence was in excellent form as David – well up to the role and making me realise what a large voice he has. This suggested a very promising career ahead. Madeleine Shaw was a very nice Magdalene. James Creswell was predictably excellent as Pogner. He caught the pomposity, the sense of his wealth but also glimpses that there were bits about life that he just didn’t get. His diction was outstanding.

The other Mastersingers was cast to the hilt and very good, too, and Nicholas Crawley was a strong Night Watchman.

The company is still using the Frederick Jameson translation but spiced up a bit (I bet he didn’t make Eva say “That’s all I need” on hearing that Beckmesser would be serenading here). Hearing it in English helps you with characterisation and the flow of the text. It also makes you realise that, perhaps, the text could benefit from some shortening and how wordy it is. This was possibly accentuated by Gardner’s broad tempi. It felt like a long, leisurely opera – which is fine for a Saturday afternoon.

The reviewers had gone overboard about it with five star reviews. I can sort of see why. It wasn’t a perfect performance. Gardner isn’t yet Haitink and Graham Vick caught more of the chaotic joy of the piece. All the singers will, I hope, go on to give deeper performances. On the other hand, this was a joyous performance and one where there was no question of making allowances. I just hope that the ENO can get through its present crisis and that this won’t mark the beginning of the end of the company.

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