Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Antonio Pappano
Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
25 March 2017
Royal Opera House Covent Garden London
Recording Type
  live  studio
  live compilation  live and studio
Hans SachsBryn Terfel
Veit PognerStephen Milling
Kunz VogelgesangAndrew Tortise
Konrad NachtigallGyula Nagy
Sixtus BeckmesserJohannes Martin Kränzle
Fritz KothnerSebastian Holecek
Balthasar ZornAlasdair Elliott
Ulrich EißlingerSamuel Sakker
Augustin MoserDavid Junghoon Kim
Hermann OrtelJohn Cunningham
Hans SchwartzJeremy White
Hans FoltzBrian Bannatyne-Scott
Walther von StolzingGwyn Hughes Jones
DavidAllan Clayton
EvaRachel Willis Sorensen
MagdaleneHanna Hipp
Ein NachtwächterDavid Shipley
The Guardian

A myriad of concertina folds, fluted facades and slatted wood, the set for the Royal Opera’s new Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, stole the show or rather, nearly killed it. Had musical standards, under the supreme baton of Antonio Pappano and starring the bass baritone Bryn Terfel as the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, not been so bristling, alive and compelling, it might have succeeded. No toy-town medievalism here for Wagner’s troubled comedy. This Meistersinger has the look of an airless art deco mausoleum, a place in which to bury obsolete traditions with maximum ritual and, if you have the courage, face up to change. Kasper Holten’s final production as director of opera at Covent Garden made a statement, not always comprehensible or sensible but undeniably grand.

After an insecure prelude, the orchestra settled into a magnificent performance, beautifully paced by Pappano, with the musicians seemingly tireless across the five hours’ duration. They never overwhelmed the singers. What a communal effort. Choruses resounded, the great quintet blazed, the Prize Song deserved that winning title. But who are the characters, where are they, what story are they telling? If a staging answers these questions, there is hope that the audience will follow. By Act 2, long before the riot which closes that act, the compass was spinning. By the third and last, the set was revolving too, albeit in very slo-mo. Tradition by now is an empty husk, the song contest central to the plot mere pageantry. Holten thinks hard and with care. His time at the Royal Opera has been an exhilarating gallop. His seriousness and amiability are not in doubt. There are moments in this Meistersinger of such integrity that the insuperable problems of the staging almost retreat. Almost.

Designed by Mia Stensgaard (with costumes by Anja Vang Kragh and lighting by Jesper Kongshaug), action has been updated to a gentlemen’s club. It might be Germany 1933, or Freemasons’ Hall, Covent Garden, built that same year. It bears a spooky resemblance, with its dark, receding enfilades interrupted by shafts of light, to the painting by Hitler that went on show for the first time in Italy last week (“crap”, as one curator described it). There is, however, no reference at the Royal Opera House to Nazis or antisemitism. This hymn to German art is delivered without irony, a reflection of Wagner’s era. (The opera was premiered in 1868, Germany unified as an empire in 1871.) Beckmesser the town clerk, dolefully and winningly played by Johannes Martin Kränzle, a veteran in the role, had no obvious characteristics beyond narcissism and pathos.

Costumes are generic modern. Magdalene (Hanna Hipp, enchanting but occluded by the staging) wears a headset in her role as events manager. Guild aprons and insignia are the men’s dressing-up clothes of choice, exchanged for easy-iron suits. A choir rehearses for the midsummer festivities – giving ROH chorus director William Spaulding a walk-on role, to “train” his already superb choral forces. With towering floral displays, plinths, dining tables with glassware, candles and starched napery, the stage is clogged. Given the monumentality of the set it was inevitable that it would remain in situ throughout. Allan Clayton, one of the most versatile younger tenors around, made lovely comic impact as the apprentice David, but would that he had been allowed more space for his big Act 1 aria. Stephen Milling (Pogner), Sebastian Holecek (Kothner) and, untroubled at being got up as a cloven-hoofed satyr, David Shipley (Nightwatchman) added strength to the ensemble cast.

Terfel as Sachs and Gwyn Hughes Jones as the new arrival Walther von Stolzing – Welshmen both – repeat roles they played triumphantly in Richard Jones’s 2010 staging for Welsh National Opera (later seen at English National Opera). Here their singing is once again gloriously rewarding, their wooing of Eva (Rachel Willis-Sørensen, golden-voiced if inscrutably portrayed) persuasive. Their characters are more muted in Holten’s production. This Walther, more of an old rocker and decidedly lacking dress sense, sings radiantly, but you can see why, once he joins the master singers and puts on that ridiculous square cake of a hat, Eva might have second thoughts. Sachs, noble in viridian, is surely a better bet. With all his majesty and despair, his flawed wisdom, Sachs is Wagner’s greatest role. It’s also a huge sing. Terfel delivered a performance of acuity, perception and fine judgment. The moment at which he picks up a newspaper and cries out “Wahn!” – madness, folly – is all too chilling. Especially this past week.

Fiona Maddocks | 19 March 2017

The Guardian (II)

Kasper Holten stages elaborate farewell

Kasper Holten is going out with a bang. The final production of Covent Garden’s outgoing director of opera is of Wagner’s four-and-a-half-hour comedy, and it’s bigger than anything he has yet done here. Pretty much every musician the Royal Opera has on its books must be involved at some point – even chorus master William Spaulding has an onstage cameo.

Holten sets the work in some kind of livery hall. The towering marble walls of Mia Stensgaard’s set suggest Albert Speer – this is definitely Germany – but the ambience starts off somewhere between Downton Abbey and ’Allo ’Allo.

The Mastersingers are liverymen, glorying in ever more delightfully elaborate gowns and hats – Anja Vang Kragh has had fun designing the costumes. We first see them arriving for dinner and cigars wearing masonic bibs, and some of them even arrive with – gasp – women, though these are quickly led off to pass their evening somewhere out of sight. Eva, whose hand is the prize for their singing competition winner, ends up trussed into a gold frock shaped like the trophy she is.Into this world comes Walther, looking like he rode in on the Hairy Bikers’ sidecar, with a greased-back mullet and wearing a band T-shirt under a tailcoat. In Gwyn Hughes Jones’s performance his arrogance and anger is very close to the surface; he moulds his penetrating tenor voice into honeyed lines for the winning song, but when he vents his frustration earlier on it’s as though he’s auditioning for Mime, the Ring cycle’s poison dwarf.

The problem – and it’s a big one – is that while Holten’s proud yet claustrophobic setting works well for the public scenes, he’s stuck with it for Act 2, where it’s an uneasy fit. There’s no insight for us into the community within which this little liveried world exists; instead we seem to be receding into our cobbler-hero Hans Sachs’s head. The riot at the end of the act is a full-on nightmare scene – including, incidentally, what might be a sneaky tribute to the much-loved production by Graham Vick that this one has replaced.

And then, the morning after: Act 3 uses the revolving stage to show the livery hall as merely a stage. Everything is a performance. All this might work for Wagner’s gods-and-monsters operas, but Die Meistersinger is a very human drama, and there’s a distance between us and the characters that even these vivid yet slightly unfocused performances can’t bridge.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen brings an incisive soprano to pouty Eva. Bryn Terfel is charismatic as ever as Sachs, and touching in later scenes as he realises Eva is going her own way, but his once infallibly smooth baritone is taking on a pronounced beat when he pushes it. And, though the warmth and precise colour of their playing for conductor Antonio Pappano is mostly to be relished, the orchestra needs to take things down in the conversational passages. Allan Clayton shines as Sachs’s apprentice David, and Johannes Martin Kränzle gives a performance of wonderful nuance as poor, insufferable Beckmesser.

“Kinder, schafft Neues!!” Walther scrawls on the wall at one point, quoting Wagner, who was imploring his future interpreters to shake things up a bit. Holten, whose tenure here has seen its share of artistic controversy, might have included this in his own defence. In any case, he’s leaving the company with a production nobody will forget in a hurry.

Erica Jeal | 12 March 2017

Financial Times

Terfel saves the day

The Welsh baritone’s Hans Sachs is by far the best thing about this laboured production

The timing could not have been better. After a number of reverses, Kasper Holten, the Royal Opera’s soon-to-depart director of opera, hoped to go out on a high with a new production of one of Wagner’s most challenging works; and, only days before, Bryn Terfel, the star of the cast, was pictured in the papers receiving his knighthood from the Queen. What could go wrong?

Actually, put a Wagner opera into a thinking director’s hands and the scope for disaster is limitless. Holten sees Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner’s only mature comedy, as a still relevant opera about the need for art always to offer something new, but he labours desperately hard to put across a simple message.His updated production opens in a glamorous Art Deco hallway, part Freemasons’ Hall, part private dining society (Holten’s equivalent of Wagner’s medieval guilds). The second act starts to deconstruct it; and the third reveals that it is merely a stage set for a Wagnerian Germany’s Got Talent, played out in ludicrous, pseudo-medieval costumes. A few, nice points are made along the way, but nothing to compensate for what is lost — the opera’s warmth, its humanity, its comedy.

Insofar as those elements survive, they are all rolled up in Terfel’s thoroughly absorbing Hans Sachs, the role with which Wagner himself half identified. The years are starting to tell on Terfel’s noble baritone, but nobody else sings the German text with such simple eloquence. It is as if Hans Sachs is speaking to each member of the audience individually, and from the heart.

Aside from Johannes Martin Kränzle’s delightfully fussy Beckmesser, nobody else is on Terfel’s level. Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s petulant Eva and Gwyn Hughes Jones’s disruptive Walther make an unloveable pair, and neither has the ideal bloom on the voice, though for different reasons. Allan Clayton and Hanna Hipp are more successful as David and Magdalene. As always, music director Antonio Pappano deserves applause for his verve, but the sheer weight of sound coming out of the orchestra pit does militate against the best conversational Wagner style.

Ultimately, there was only one saviour of this dull show. Arise, Sir Bryn, for services to dud opera productions.

Richard Fairman | March 13, 2017

The Telegraph

Flawless music let down by needlessly extravagant staging

Why do certain opera directors try too hard? Why are they so afraid of a libretto’s specifications, and why do they set out to confuse rather than clarify? Such were the questions nagging me during Kasper Holten’s restless and irritating new interpretation of Wagner’s comedy.

Compared to the wonderfully economical lucidity of Richard Jones’s recent ENO production, this seems to me little more than a sophomore exercise in intellectual obfuscation, needlessly extravagant and fussed-up with superfluities. It must have cost a bomb.

The first act is set in what looks like a gentleman’s club designed in the 1920s, in which David and Magdalene are stewards. The Masters convene for a Rotarian dinner, into which Walther – an uncouth, greasy rocker – intrudes unceremoniously. So far, so good: but what sense in such a context Pogner’s decision to sell off (in effect) his daughter as a competition prize can make is unclear.

Things get steadily sillier. The second act takes place not in the streets on a balmy summer’s evening, but inside the club’s salon, where Sachs cobbles implausibly out of a tool-box. The delicate geography of the scene is clumsily represented without allusion to its essentially open-air nature and the final riot becomes a nightmare pageant, apparently happening inside Sachs’s head, with the Nightwatchman presiding as a cloven-hoofed Pan.

The fancy footwork gets even more intricate in the last act, culminating in Eva stomping off in rage at Walther’s surrender to the Masters’ codes. It’s all impeccably rehearsed and the acting is generally vivid, but the wood can’t be seen for trees – Wagner’s delicately humane exploration of the role of art in a bourgeois community, the creative tension between tradition and innovation, and the artist’s struggle to preserve his vision goes unaddressed.

After an oddly joyless Prelude, Antonio Pappano conducts the magnificent orchestra flawlessly: I’ve never heard the architecture of the first act so beautifully shaped or the third act open in such exquisite melancholy. Allan Clayton and Hanna Hipp make an enchanting David and Magdalene, Rachel Willis-Sorensen’s Eva uttered gorgeous if verbally indistinct noises, Gwyn Hughes Jones sings most eloquently as Walther and Johannes Martin Kränzle is superb as a prissy but pitiable Beckmesser. Bryn Terfel’s downbeat Hans Sachs was slightly disappointing – vocally pallid in the first two acts, if more focused in the third. Perhaps he was as bemused as I was by the muddle of Holten’s staging.

Rupert Christiansen | 12 March 2017


Pappano, Chorus and Orchestra Excel in Holten’s Farewell Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the longest of Wagner’s works still commonly performed today. It can sometime last about 5 hours (excluding intervals) though Antonio Pappano brings it in with over 30 minutes to spare. The setting is mid-sixteenth century Nuremberg, one of the centres of the Renaissance in Northern Europe at the time and the story is about a real-life Mastersinger guild who established a complex system of rules for the composition and performance of songs. The opera realises much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the guild’s traditions and one of its main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure (1494 – 1576): perhaps Wagner’s greatest character, he features as a wise and compassionate man.

Wagner’s only ‘comedy’ is a favourite for many. Of all his works it is the most accessible and potentially least disturbing, perhaps because Wagner ignored all the rules he had proposed for opera in his 1850s theoretical prose writings. The work has a historically well-defined plot – rather than mythological or legendary one – and is the only mature Wagner opera based on an entirely original story, devised by Wagner himself. Deliberately using many of the operatic conventions that Wagner had railed against in his essays, including a ballet, rhymed verse, choruses, arias, the work even has five different characters singing together at one point (the celebrated Meistersinger Quintet.) The whole thing is a huge metaphor about the meaning of Art, reflecting on the response to the foreign or unfamiliar in music and asking whether everyone can be sufficiently open-minded to value the modern. In this essentially autobiographical treatise, Wagner propounds his view that there is a greater chance of being understood by the masses than by essentially conservative professionals.

Attempts have been made over many recent years to taint the work with the accusation that it displays Wagner’s anti-Semitism through the character of Beckmesser as a Jewish stereotype. It is well known that I have never fully embraced this thesis and I was pleased to see it effectively laid to rest in an informative programme essay (Being Beckmesser) from Chris Walton who concludes: ‘For while Wagner openly fancied himself as Sachs and Walther, he knew he had once (almost) been a Beckmesser – a critic, a would-be composer, a marker, someone to whom laurels had been denied, someone who runs away from singing competitions when faced with public embarrassment [Wagner failed to join the jury at a 1852 festival of song in Basel]. An author should always identify with his creations in order to bring them to life; but the bond that Wagner shared with Beckmesser was rather closer than we have hitherto suspected.’

Earlier in the same essay Walton writes: ‘For the generation who saw the likes of Geraint Evans or Hermann Prey in the role, Beckmesser remains unforgettable, while it’s more difficult to remember who sang Eva or Walther alongside them.’ Indeed, my first Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden in 1982 was with Evans (with a young John Tomlinson as the Nightwatchman) and I subsequently saw Prey and this performance was also memorable for Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser who was undoubted star of this show. I suspect this had nothing to do with Kasper Holten’s farewell production as Kränzle’s Beckmesser was basically the same he gave at Glyndebourne, at the Met (review here) and will give at Bayreuth this summer.

Director of Opera, Kasper Holten, came to Covent Garden trailing plaudits for his Der Ring des Nibelungen for Royal Danish Opera, but he never seems to have achieve similar success during his tenure which is coming to its end. Here with his Danish compatriots he has developed a Konzept into which he tries to fit Die Meistersinger, but often seems more like the settings for some other productions he is now unable to bring to Covent Garden.

I am not propounding slavish adherence to Wagner’s stage directions; goodness knows I could even find positives in Katharina Wagner’s much-derided staging at Bayreuth (review here). However, if you are dispensing with a church interior and somewhere for the guild to meet (Act I), a street (Act II) and Sachs’s workshop superseded by a sunny meadow for Act III; you should have something logical and thought-provoking to replace them with. Here Holten and his team seem to have a few random thoughts which they fail to cogently realise.

Of course, those coming to Die Meistersinger for the first time will undoubtedly have different reactions than me and I accepted that. The evening had its moments and these were often musical ones. Leading the way were the Royal Opera Chorus who were on inspired form for ‘Wacht auf!’ in the third act and Antonio Pappano inspiring some of the best Wagner I have heard from him and his reliable orchestra. Pappano’s reading had the requisite autumnal glow, with the musical line frequently sculpted with revelatory nuance and character-rich detail. My only criticism is that it mostly sounded rather quiet – at least from where I was sitting – and I suspect Pappano needed to support his cast some of whom might have had trouble riding any full-on orchestral climaxes he might have unleashed.

So what did we see? On TV currently there is a series – ‘A Very British Hotel’ – set above and below stairs at London’s Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in Knightsbridge and Act I reminded me of that. In Mia Stensgaard’s indeterminate setting with its elaborate wood panelling we are clearly in a luxury hotel hosting an alcohol-fuelled masonic dinner with musical entertainment. There are bustling waiters and waitresses and Magdalene as head of hospitality. Hans Sachs is onstage at the start during a choral rehearsal conducted by the company’s chorus director, William Spaulding! For Act II – despite references to house, window or street – we are still in the hotel lobby with a couple of potted lilac trees for Sachs’s reflective Fliedermonolog. There is also a spinet which Beckmesser plays instead of his lute. Later in the opera Sachs bemoans he is ‘Forever cobbling’, but we never actually really see him make any shoes. In Act II he taps on his shoemakers’ last for no apparent reason. The full-blown riot at the end of the act seems no more than a nightmarish Dionysian carnival – complete with the Nightwatchman (David Shipley) as Pan, conjured by Hans Sachs apparently having a migraine.

I always think that if a director runs out of ideas they set something backstage at a theatre. Act III opens backstage at a theatre which revolves for no apparent reason, before the final scene which is turned into a version of the parade – in more historically-traditional costumes – at the Lord Mayor’s Show with onlookers in evening dress on tiered seating on either side of a catwalk. Prior to this the Quintet was sung with the five singers facing straight out into the auditorium: the simplicity of it all made this sublime moment a very effective interlude. This final Festwiese scene was complete with an onstage photographer and Hans Sachs – who earlier in the act had cuddled a small teddy bear like Mr Bean – happily signing autographs and posing for photos. Unlike some Beckmessers – Thomas Allen particularly – who have sung too well at this point, Johannes Martin Kränzle gave a masterclass of how to make a good song sound unforgivably bad.

I am grateful to Chris Walton for providing the evidence of how Wagner saw his one-time muse Mathilde Wesendonck as Eva and himself as Sachs adding: ‘It is now Wagner, aka Sachs/Walther who wins the laurels before the adoring masses, and who manages to both get the girl and renounce her at the same time.’ Holten never genuinely illuminates the Sachs-Eva-Walther love triangle and, in fact, at the crucial point in Act II Eva kisses Sachs as passionately as Walther and this comes out of the blue. Eva is the character who has undergone the most revisionism: she notices how all the Mastersingers’ trophy wives are shunted aside before they settle down to drink and smoke, and falling in love with the scruffy outsider Walther is not keen for him to conform. When he does she has a strop and flounces out at the end of the opera.

Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Walther is a known quantity having sung it for English National Opera (review here), but I believe this is the first time he has sung it in German. Hughes Jones is clearly a Wagner singer who is able to balance sweetly lyrical tone with some vocal heft. He inflects his words meaningfully and manages to sound for all the world like the dashing young hero Wagner wrote; though like his great Walther forerunner, Alberto Remedios, who he brings back memories of – both vocally and physically – he does not look like him. His character is somewhat of a petulant rebel and appears to graffiti Wagner’s ‘Kinder, schafft Neues!’ (Children, create new things!) on a hotel wall at one point. I did not find Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Eva easy on the ear – but that might just be me – and I prefer the role to be sung rather more tenderly, though that might not have suited Holten’s view of her character. In the modern way, Hanna Hipp’s Magdalene was more typically girly than Wagner’s ‘old maid’. She began with some perky and high-spirted involvement in the Scene 1 ensemble and her rich mezzo impressed by making this relatively small supporting role seem much bigger than it is. I was impressed with Allan Clayton’s David who seems always puppyishly eager to please. His long Act I explanation of the Mastersinger’s art can be somewhat of a trial in its own right, but I have rarely heard it delivered better. From the sound of his voice Clayton clearly has a more significant Wagnerian career ahead of him if he wants it. Stephen Milling was the sternly paternal Pogner and Sebastian Holecek a stentorian Kothner and they were animatedly supported by the mix of youth and experience amongst the Mastersingers.

This leaves Bryn Terfel whose voice I have known since he auditioned for – and won of course – the Wagner Society’s Bayreuth Bursary when I was on the panel more years ago than I care to remember. Wagner in the intervening years has taken a toll and his plainspoken, larger-than-life, slightly gruff Hans Sachs is more like his predecessor at Covent Garden, John Tomlinson, than the warm, expressive and sympathetic paterfamilias Hans Sachs of Norman Bailey who I grew up – in a Wagnerian sense – listening to. Like a semi-staging Holten positions Sachs almost continually at the front of the stage. Throughout, Terfel downplays the more philosophical side of his character, whilst in typical fashion, he delivers the text masterfully and retains sufficient stamina to get right through to the end of his clarion closing ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ without running out of steam; something Tomlinson never quite could in my experience.

Jim Pritchard | Covent Garden, London, 11.3.2017

The Spectator

Nothing could prepare me for so deep an abyss of idiocy

Kaspar Holten’s production left me feeling depressed but even the music was uneven and sometimes quite bad

I don’t think that I have left a theatre many times feeling as depressed and irritated as after the Royal Opera’s Die Meistersinger, in the new production by Kasper Holten. The run of the Royal Opera’s recent productions of Wagner — appalling Tristans, a dire succession of Parsifals, mediocre Rings — hadn’t prepared me for so deep an abyss of irrelevant idiocy as this. I thought I had reached the stage where, having seen so many fearful operatic productions of works I love, I was able to enjoy myself purely on account of the music, almost inured to what I was seeing. On this occasion, the musical level was uneven and sometimes quite bad, but even if it had been uniformly wonderful it would have been sabotaged by Holten’s direction, as Eugene Onegin and Don Giovanni were, only far more so.

Act One takes place in a London club, not a church as Wagner mistakenly thought. So the opening chorale is a chorus practising, with Hans Sachs — who Wagner scheduled to make his entry half an hour later — monitoring events at the front. The contrast between the sacred atmosphere of the church and the urgency of Walther’s passion for Eva is thus removed. Holten, shocked that women aren’t allowed in some London clubs, has them entering with their husbands the Masters, but then having to leave. All the while there are irrelevant little things going on and distracting from what is anyway a fairly complex storyline, and this fussiness gets ever more pervasive as the opera progresses. The club setting is so elaborate that it has to make do for Act Two as well — which Wagner set in the street between Sachs’s and Pogner’s houses — with no atmosphere at all. The famous elder tree is replaced by a couple of potted plants, and the complicated arrangements with Magdalene at the window mean there is nowhere for the lovers to hide. Enter Beckmesser with his lute, except that he doesn’t have one, but a clavichord is at hand, which he plays. It turns up again conveniently for his attempted prize song in Act Three. It’s hard to tell whether the devastating riot with which the act ends takes place or is a figment of Sachs’s imagination. But anyway it isn’t a riot, just lots of people crowding the stage, and failing to disappear in an instant — one of Wagner’s most brilliant but apparently, for Holten, superfluous inspirations — when the cloven-hoofed Night Watchman appears.

Act Three — we are now supposed to be in Sachs’s workshop — is the same only the scenery has moved round so that we see a bewildering array of metalwork, as if Sachs were in charge of a factory. While he sings the concluding passage of his ‘Wahn’ monologue, the most profound and moving passage in the whole score, Walther wakes up from his brief sleep and stretches and does all he can to draw attention away from Sachs’s remarkably elaborate reflection. Holten makes sure that at any moment there is lots going on, most of it his invention. Perhaps the most startling of his improvements is to change the ending, so that instead of Walther and Eva looking forward to their marriage, she is suddenly struck with horror to find herself oppressed by a male hegemony, and rushes horrified from the scene.

There is a good cast, and the orchestra is superb as always. But Antonio Pappano’s conducting is strange. In the podcast on the Royal Opera’s website he explains the structure of the Overture with brilliant insight, yet the actual performance of it never achieved lift-off, sounding as if he was so in love with the innumerable delightful details that it seemed to alternate between bombast and stagnation. And though his tempi were moderate (the performance ended 15 minutes early) they often dragged.

Pappano was, as always, most attentive to and supportive of his singers, though he and Bryn Terfel didn’t always agree on tempi; but Terfel’s Sachs was a great account, though necessarily less moving than in Cardiff, where he had Richard Jones’s ideal production — one that was taken over by ENO and resulted, two years ago, in performances which this doesn’t begin to compare with. Gwyn Hughes Jones’s Walther, dressed from a charity shop, was strongly and intelligently sung, but he was presented as a slob. Stephen Milling was the only serious disappointment as Pogner, that moving role for which a sturdy bass is required. Johannes Martin Kränzle was a reasonable Beckmesser, but shed no light on that intriguing character. Of the women Hanna Hipp made a fine, bossy Magdalene, while Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Eva moved rapidly from schoolgirl to hausfrau, and her lovely singing of the opening of the Quintet was ruined by the scenery starting to move again. But that’s what it was all like.

If it is broadcast, it may come across as a decent performance, but to see it is a disaster.

Michael Tanner | 18 March 2017


There are productions of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger to which one returns at any opportunity. Kasper Holten’s, his swansong as Director of Opera at Covent Garden, is not one of them.

At the top of the printed synopsis is Wagner’s much-quoted “Kinder, schafft neues!” (Children, do something new) – apparently the quote is grandson Wieland’s, regarding the new, post-war Bayreuth productions, repeating the gist of something very similar Richard wrote to Liszt – and, Walther, Wagner’s breath of fresh air oxygenating the stagnating old Mastersingers, scratches the same quote as a graffito on a wall of the set in Act Two. Holten has taken its direction, if not its message, very much to heart.

The opera is very particular about place – church, Hans Sachs’s and Veit Pogner’s houses in Nuremberg, the outdoor setting for the Song Contest, along with many allusions to nature – which is then transcendentally applied to one of the great universal meditations on the nature of art. In a much more risky undertaking, Holten’s contemporary setting moving towards a fancy-dress parade for Johannistag has removed these familiar points of reference to deconstruct the opera, but without going the whole Konzept, Regietheater hog. Ultimately he brings Die Meistersinger back home to its core message of renewal as vital to creativity, but Holten keeps his options open with a very ambiguous ending to do with Eva’s reaction to Walther being received into the worshipful company of Mastersingers.

Apart from the quote, the programme-book also has a number of photographs of the establishment at its most confident, entitled and unassailable in their livery companies, and the imposing set – which dominates all three Acts – is first seen as the dark-brown interior of the Mastersingers’ club, an ugly, modernist riff on bankers’ baroque architecture, bustling with waiters and waitresses. How Walther, dressed in a grubby set of tails, gained admission is anyone’s guess, and ‘anyone’s guess’ is the mantra of the evening as you keep on wondering where Holten is going with his various directorial gestures, exceeding his brief beyond entertaining expansion into sheer bafflement as you try to get your bearings in a very busy staging in which it would be impossible to keep tabs on everything unless you were sitting really close to the stage.

As the curtain goes up, the chorus is not in church but at a choir practice directed by Hans Sachs, within the club (which, and sorry for being literal, mysteriously boasts an organ blazing away). The Mastersingers assemble for a dinner (minus their wives) decked out in full Masonic regalia. Apart from some half-hearted hammering to accompany Beckmesser’s serenade to Eva, Sachs’s trade as a cobbler virtually disappears, only admitted because it’s there but airbrushed out as much as possible. The riot at the end of Act Two is more like a collective midsummer hallucination, presided over by a cloven-hoofed Nightwatchman as a Lord of Misrule, with no bearing as to how we got there.

The set admits a couple of trees in pots to justify Sachs’s elder-scented soliloquy in Act Two, but it seems the sort of gesture grudgingly given only because Sachs sings about it. The rug has been pulled from our feet, but to what end? And it continues to be pulled as the set slowly revolves to become the backstage area of a theatre for the Act Three Quintet, and coming full-circle for the Song Contest, with the chorus in modern evening-dress enjoying the parade of folk in quaint finery. As for the ‘difficult’ stuff about “heilige Deutsche Kunst”, you might extrapolate a contemporary message from it, but otherwise it sits uncomfortably in Holten’s context.

We all have moments when Die Meistersinger hits us hard with heart-stopping recognition where music and drama collide – Sachs’s love for Eva and his Marschallin-like stepping aside for a younger model; Eva’s breaking-down to Sachs, where she kisses him hard on the mouth, then moving on to do the same to/with Walther; the Quintet; the pulverising burst of “Erwach” – but this is the driest-eyed staging I have witnessed.

The biggest casualty is the cast and the relationships, which only intermittently come into focus, and all because the staging submerges them. Musically, though, it fields superb singing from a mouthwatering cast, and Antonio Pappano conducts the music with a subtle sense of irony emanating from the pit that doesn’t make it to the stage. The Prelude, with a wonderfully self-important tuba, set up certainties that we know will be subverted, Pappano’s sure dramatic pace and light, expository touch were beautifully done, and the additional brass appearing in the auditorium for the Act Three carnival was thrilling.

Bryn Terfel, a Sachs of many years’ standing, sounded much more at ease with the higher-written music, and he held the first part of Act Three together brilliantly, delivering a lovely, interior ‘Wahn’ monologue and underpinning the rapture of the Quintet. You can’t help feelings of affection towards him and his Sachs, while you wonder if this is in spite of the staging. Nothing seemed to faze Gwyn Hughes Jones’s effortless Walther in his progress to an outpouring of lyrical passion in the ‘Prize Song’. Rachel Willis-Sørensen came into her own in Act Two, and her full, warm singing and decisive acting make her an Eva to reckon with. Allan Clayton and Hanna Hipp as David and Magdalena both gave great pleasure, although David’s role as an apprentice, along with the excellent chorus of the other eleven apprentices, was odd in context. Johannes Martin Kränzle’s excellent Beckmesser was spared caricature-casting and was all the stronger for it holding the role together with a touching integrity. His despoliation of the ‘Prize Song’ is very funny. There was no notice of a cinema relay or of a Radio 3 broadcast. I advise the latter, if it happens.

Peter Reed | March 11, 2017 Royal Opera House


Excellent in parts: Kaspar Holten’s new Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Covent Garden

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an opera full of paradoxes: a comedy which deals with some of the subjects dearest to Wagner’s heart, a love story in which the hero forgoes his heart’s desire, a tale of warmth and empathy which contains one of the nastiest racist passages in opera and in which the good guy engages in some truly vile deception, a four and a half hour behemoth which needn’t feel long. Kasper Holten’s new production for the Royal Opera takes on the paradoxes, with uneven levels of success.

We are set in modern times – albeit with a generous slice of 1930s retro in both Mia Stensgaard’s sets and Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes. The guild meeting in Act 1 is a posh affair in a tremendously detailed art deco hotel – or perhaps masonic lodge – with an awful lot of smartly clothed waiters running around. This is no collection of jumped up provincial tradespeople: these are people who see themselves as the crème de la crème, their self-importance exuding from every pore. Holten directs both the master singers themselves and the army of chorus surrounding them with a strong eye for detail, all of which makes for a great start, except that in this company, Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Walther merely looks a bit scruffy, at odds with his nature as the aristocrat trying to make an impression with the lower classes.

Throughout, the staging is attractive to watch and excellent in parts without quite hanging together. Using a single set for a very long opera inevitably risks the set not being quite right for a particular component; here, things get confused in Act 2 where the stagecraft isn’t good enough to move us credibly between Sachs’ workshop and the various other locations. But the end of the act is virtuosic: a nightmare sequence in which all Beckmesser’s medievalist fantasies pour onto the stage to haunt him, done with insane energy reminiscent of Terry Gilliam.

The first half staging of Act 3 – backstage at the theatre that will host the singing competition – is forgettable. In the second half, Holten neatly solves a difficult problem: how to suffuse the great march of the guilds with pomp and medieval splendour while avoiding being impossibly twee or turning it into a Nazi fantasy. Holten gives us a kind of carnival pageant: the audience is in modern dress, but those taking part in the pageant are in lavish period costume. For the most difficult passage of all – the end of the opera, with Sachs’ racist rant about German purity – Holten goes decidedly subversive: I won’t spoil it other than to say that the level of cruelty to Beckmesser is clearly demonstrated, and don’t expect the standard happy ending.

The Royal Opera orchestra always seem to play better for Sir Antonio Pappano than for anyone else, and last night was no exception. Meistersinger is an opera where the brass get their chance to shine, and shine they did, achieving rich depth of sonority in the big marches; strings were full and swelled, and the whole thing moved along apace: as with the best Meistersinger performances, nothing ever dragged. The chorus was on top form throughout, with director William Spaulding obviously relishing the chance to come on stage and do his bit for the opening chorus Act 1. The chorus blew the roof off in the nightmare/fight scene at the close of Act 2 as well as accomplishing impossibly complex stage movement (plaudits to movement director Signe Fabricius).

Sir Bryn Terfel, as Sachs, and Gwyn Hughes Jones, as Walther, both have lovely voices: one of the key requirements for Meistersinger is that you should be happy to listen to the timbre of these two voices throughout the evening, and both fulfilled that. Rachel Willis Sørensen contributed a sweet-toned Eva, and the Royal Opera demonstrated its ever-present ability to provide strength in depth: Stephen Milling as a thoughtful and full-voiced Pogner, Allan Clayton thoroughly enjoyable as the apprentice David, Johannes Martin Kränzle producing perhaps the best vocal acting of the evening as the hapless Beckmesser and a show-stealing cameo from David Shipley as the nightwatchman.

Balance, however, wasn’t always right, especially in the entrance exam scene in Act 1. Both Sachs and Walther have to be able to stamp their authority on proceedings when there’s a lot of orchestra happening in the background, and that didn’t always happen; at many points, I felt that proceedings all got a little too manic. But then balance was superb in the more reflective passages, and most notably in the Act 3 quintet, where the combination of Terfel, Hughes Jones, Wills Sørensen, Clayton and Hanna Hipp’s Magdalena fused beautifully.

So a mixed evening with a lot of things right: it’s an inventive, watchable production that shows many of the virtues of Meistersinger without quite reaching the heights that are possible.

David Karlin | 12 März 2017

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A production by Kasper Holten (2017)