Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Antonio Pappano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
1 January 2012
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsWolfgang Koch
Veit PognerJohn Tomlinson
Kunz VogelgesangColin Judson
Konrad NachtigallNicholas Folwell
Sixtus BeckmesserPeter Coleman-Wright
Fritz KothnerDonald Maxwell
Balthasar ZornMartyn Hill
Ulrich EißlingerAndrew Rees
Augustin MoserPablo Bemsch
Hermann OrtelJihoon Kim
Hans SchwartzRichard Wiegold
Hans FoltzJeremy White
Walther von StolzingSimon O’Neill
DavidToby Spence
EvaEmma Bell
MagdaleneHeather Shipp
Ein NachtwächterRobert Lloyd
The Guardian

Hours of fun with Pappano’s crowd-pleaser

It could have been a long night, but thanks to a fine cast and newly knighted Antonio Pappano, Royal Opera’s high-wire Meistersinger flew by

Every opera production is a high-wire act. Will it sound right, will it work on stage, will it pay for itself? It’s not only the singers and the audience who, in different ways, hold their breath. Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, vast in scale, with an outsized cast and orchestra and a chorus of townsfolk who have to be able to riot without coming to grief, makes nerve-racking demands on every person in the company.

Not content with these existing hazards, Graham Vick’s amiable, politics-free production for the Royal Opera House, new in 1993 and last seen in 2002, opts for real funambulism. In the nocturnal mayhem of Act II, acrobats tumble from trapdoors in the ceiling and swing and somersault perilously over their fellow rioters in the square below. Windows of light, in Richard Hudson’s Brueghel-inspired medieval-toytown designs, open one by one like an advent calendar with naughty angels in nightgowns being ejected from on high, though I doubt those sitting up in the gods could see them.

The setting for Meistersinger is of course Midsummer – St John’s Eve – but the colour and light of Vick’s staging proved a mood-lifter last week as the winter solstice approached. Not everything worked. There was an excess of under-rehearsed fussy detail. Yet in this five-hour masterpiece the success of the music matters more. The Royal Opera’s music director, Antonio Pappano, achieved the near miracle of showing that this work has no longueurs – only badly paced performances.

Even the laborious Act I debate about art and tradition sped by, not least because the part of the esteemed, veteran Meistersinger, Pogner, was taken by the esteemed veteran Wagnerian John Tomlinson. He created the role of the shoemaker poet Hans Sachs for this production and has now graduated to this senior role – a character who had always appeared frankly an old bore, as well as an idiot in offering his daughter, Eva, in marriage to the winner of a song contest. But Tomlinson graces every role he plays with freshness and imagination (I have said this before? Several times? Even critics have weaknesses).

The Royal Opera’s new Sachs, the German bass-baritone Wolfgang Koch, gave a formidable performance, quite different from Tomlinson, or from Bryn Terfel, who sang the role so movingly in Welsh National Opera’s recent staging, and will sing it with the ROH at a concert performance at Symphony Hall, Birmingham next week. By contrast Koch is circumspect and self-contained, measured and calm until the music demands otherwise.

This made his “Wahn!” outburst, in which he shouts of the world’s madness, all the more disturbing. His is almost a verismo Sachs, an odd description, perhaps, given that word’s association with the harsh realism of later Italian opera. But Koch manages a relaxed stillness rarely seen in Wagner performance. This was his house debut. Despite some gainsaying elsewhere, I found it powerfully sung, true and convincing.

Peter Coleman-Wright, making his role debut with the Royal Opera as the lampooned Beckmesser, attempts similar understatement. I like the absence of caricature. It makes the cruelty towards Beckmesser brutally uncomfortable, but more is still needed. Wagner knew his Shakespeare and this is his Malvolio. Toby Spence’s apprentice David, glossy as a shiny conker in voice and manner, was impeccable. What a star he is.

As the lovers Walter and Eva, Simon O’Neill and Emma Bell negotiated their taxing parts with musical skill, if little in the way of characterisation. O’Neill is a stiff stage presence, singing an impossible part in an impossible costume: shoulder-padded Star Wars garb with Cuban heels and thigh boots. That stiffness at times extends to his vocal tone, but he can certainly deliver. Bell sang with vitality and warmth but her exchange with Sachs, the widower who loves her but urges her into the arms of her young lover, didn’t pull at the heartstrings as it usually does.

Yet by the end, the inexplicable communal feeling this opera arouses had worked its magic. No one can doubt that this was really Pappano’s night. It has also been his Christmas, and indeed his year: yesterday he was knighted in the New Year’s honours – none more deserved. Meistersinger is being broadcast live this afternoon on Radio 3, and on Christmas Eve BBC2 showed the Royal Opera’s star-studded Tosca,, with Pappano conducting. A TV natural, he also fronted a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary showing Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel preparing their roles. Both will be repeated on 14 January: worth watching if only to hear the great Angela admit that on stage as the diva Tosca she is really “playing herself”. Whoever would have guessed?

Fiona Maddocks | 1 January 2012

The Telegraph

What a treat to escape from a grey wet December afternoon into the summer glow of Wagner’s comedy of midsummer madness. And if you could feel the sun shining brightly on the St John’s Day parade or smell the elderflowers on which Hans Sachs muses in his evening monologue, then all praise to Antonio Pappano’s orchestra, which, after an uncertain start, went on to play with unfailing imagination and energy, keeping a spring in its step and joy in its heart.

Tempi were always buoyant: Pappano makes this music sparkle and dance, never letting its high spirits become tiresomely flat-footed. There was rapture in the Quintet too, and a reflective melancholy for the opening to Act 3. A lovely reading, which will surely mature over ensuing performances.

For this revival, the Royal Opera has assembled an interesting cast featuring several debutants not altogether comfortably suited to their assignments. I’m not persuaded that Eva is a perfect vocal fit for Emma Bell – a more girlish sheen is called for – but she sang and acted with spirit and grace.

Simon O’Neill is a heroic rather than lyrical tenor and although he projected Walther’s music cleanly, I missed a certain romantic bloom in the Prize Song. Nor has Peter Coleman-Wright yet found his way into Beckmesser’s troubled psyche: he wasn’t quite caricature, but he wasn’t a character, either, and one neither laughed at nor felt pity for his humiliation. Toby Spence’s longer experience of singing David told: his breezily confident charm almost stole the show, leaving me wondering whether he might be ripe to step into Walther’s shoes. John Tomlinson did his usual shtick as Pogner, Robert Lloyd sang flat as the Nightwatchman. The masters sounded pretty good, the augmented chorus absolutely terrific.

I have never shared the general enthusiasm for Graham Vick’s production, first seen in 1993 and revived here by Elaine Kidd. With its Legoland models and whopping codpieces and blank walls (designed by Richard Hudson), it seems more like something out of a kiddies’ picture book than a wisely mature disquisition on art’s place in society and the balance between tradition and inspiration which the artist must negotiate.

The void was most evident in Wolfgang Koch’s bland portrayal of Hans Sachs: vocally alluring and secure it may have been, but where was the poet, the sceptic, the man who sees further than the rest of them?

Rupert Christiansen | 20 Dec 2011

Opera Today

Perhaps it’s no accident that Graham Vick’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg returns to the Royal Opera House for the Christmas season. Red, green, gold, sumptuous colours that warm a long, grey evening.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a comedy and here’s it’s presented as the ultimate up market Xmas show. It’s extremely enjoyable, and an ideal introduction to the opera experience. Richard Wagner, though, gets sidelined.

Sir John Tomlinson is a definite reason for catching this revival. The days when he could sing Hans Sachs are past, but he creates an unusually vivid Veit Pogner. Tomlinson plays Pogner powerfully, as if he was a former Sachs, whose reasons for committing his daughter to this bizarre marriage make sense. He’s dedicating his daughter to art, not too shabby politics. Luckily for him, and for Eva, Walter von Stolzing arrives in the nick of time. Indeed, Beckmesser very nearly persuades the Meistersingers to drive Walter out of town. Things could so easily have turned out quite differently. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg may be comic, but it evolves against a background of tension. At any moment anarchy could breakout. Unless the Meistersingers adapt, they might not survive.

Wagner builds tension into the music. The Meistersingers sing at cross purposes, and in the riot scene, the turbulence of the chorus evokes the violence which comes with all revolution. That’s why the Night Watchman sings “bewahrt euch vor Gespenstern und Spuk, dass kein böser Geist eu’r Seel’ beruck’!” The music for the apprentice boys is energetic, a warning for those who remember Wagner’s protosocialism. This time, however, no dangerous ideas. We’re treated to a good natured Meistersinger, where the apprentices dance with little vigour, and the blows Sachs throws at David have no menace. Antonio Pappano received the longest applause of all on the first night,. Most audiences can relate better to joyful Romaticism in music better than to Wagner-on-edge, so it’s understandable. He clearly enjoys the life-affirming elements in this opera, which come over well. Christmas is not the right time for radical ideas, and this is not a production that would support them.

Graham Vicks’s riot scene is classic because it’s so well imagined. The townsfolk pop out of windows and hang precariously upside down over the stage. One man looks like he’s about to lose his footing (this happened in earlier productions, so it was planned) In their nightshirts the townsfolk look like escapees from an asylum, a good idea but not developed. The Festweise scene is masterfully blocked, so each guild is clearly defined. I liked the acrobats in the background, too. But these scenes aren’t for entertainment but emphasize the traumas in Nürnberg’s past.

Because John Tomlinson so dominates the first Act, Wolfgang Koch’s Hans Sach might be overlooked, but Koch understands the role. Sachs is an observer, who stands apart from the crowd, and who thinks before he acts. Koch’s Sachs is sung with sensitivity, and would be very effective in a more perceptive production which focuses on Sachs and not the scenery. Koch looks and sounds younger than the other Meistersingers and is rather more lyrical than Simon O’Neill’s Walther von Stolzing who is more hoch dramatisch than true Heldentenor. This was the best performance I’ve ever heard from O’Neill, and he was good, but it’s a part better suited to a more luminous timbre. O’Neill was, however, a good match for Emma Bell’s Eva, joyfully created though perhaps more Italianate than Wagnerian. In a cheerful, non-idiomatic production like this, it didn’t matter, and they conveyed the story. Popular favourite, Toby Spence, sang a very good David, but he’s more upper class than roustabout.

It was good to see many teenagers in the audience, another good reason for having a show like this in holiday time. Last week, David Chandler took his daughter to Kurt Weill’s Magical Night at the Linbury, (reviewed here) and she was ecstatic. We can give kids toys anytime, but the gift of a magical experience is beyond compare. And the same goes for adults, new to opera. This Meistersinger may not tell us much about the opera or about Wagner, but it’s an excellent night out.

Anne Ozorio | 23 Dec 2011

Financial Times

Since the Royal Opera first unveiled its Meistersinger nearly 20 years ago, Wagner’s only comedy has become the favourite butt of critical re-interpretation elsewhere: Meistersinger as tool of Wagner’s anti-Semitism; Meistersinger as study of the artist’s ambivalent role in society; Meistersinger as vehicle for mocking every cultural totem from the past. To return now to Graham Vick’s deliberately naïve reconstruction of medieval Nuremberg is like trying to reclaim the Garden of Eden after the Fall, or pretending that 20th-century German history never happened.

Once you have got past the dated look of Richard Hudson’s sets, the comically erect cod-pieces and the intermittently soporific quality of the stage action, some individual performances stand out. John Tomlinson, who sang Sachs for most of this production’s history but is now “elevated” to Pogner, makes an endearingly doddery patriarch. Every time he comes on stage, he lifts the show by virtue of his complete identification with the part. Emma Bell’s lustrous Eva is an exciting discovery, and a well-rehearsed orchestra responds to Royal Opera music director Antonio Pappano with fire and finesse; even when the stage drama is static, Pappano ensures that the musical drama flows.

Wolfgang Koch, making his London debut as Sachs, cuts a fine, eligible figure, but the voice lacks warmth and colour, and the character doesn’t wake up until after the “Wahn” monologue in the third act. Simon O’Neill’s Stolzing is vocally assured but visually stiff. Peter Coleman-Wright struggles nobly but unsuccessfully to erase memories of Thomas Allen, the production’s mesmerising original Beckmesser. Toby Spence is the sprightly David, Heather Shipp an attractive Magdalene.

As revived by Elaine Kidd, the show has a handful of feel-good moments, but they don’t extend far beyond the Act Two riot and the Act Three finale. The former is an entertaining reminder that senseless violence and social breakdown in democratic society were not invented by English cities in August 2011. The latter – part pageant, part paean to art’s civilising power – sends us out on a high, as if sensing the balm of a midsummer carnival in a midwinter recession. It’s too little, too late. The Royal Opera has tried hard to reheat its Meistersinger, but the flavour has long gone.

Andrew Clark | 20 Dec 2011

User Rating
Media Type/Label
Premiere, HO
Technical Specifications
320 kbit/s CBR, 44.1 kHz, 634 MByte (MP3)
Broadcast (BBC 3)
A production by Graham Vick (1993)