Wagner, it has to be said, is a composer that provokes strong reactions from audiences. There are those who cherish every single second and those who would never be caught dead enduring over five hours of complex music drama. I probably fall somewhere in the middle of this continuum – enjoying the music but not worshipping the man.
Having said that, I am so glad that I have been able to see Welsh National Opera’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. 6 hours in a theatre have never passed so quickly!
For me there were a number of highlights. Firstly, and probably most importantly, is the outstanding performance of Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. This is a towering portrayal of a complex character from a singer who is in complete command of his voice. His Act 2 monologue and the opening part of the third act are simply some of the best singing you will ever get a chance to witness. Also, Terfel is one of the most accomplished actors working in opera today. Every look and gesture is perfectly pitched and his use of language is exemplary. I only hope that he continues to sing this role for many years to come – it would also be a shame if it were not captured for posterity.
A second highlight is the conducting of Lothar Koenigs. All too often, Wagner can seem heavier than it needs to be. Koenigs crafts an almost chamber-like performance from orchestra and singers. There is a delicacy and intimacy that makes the drama all the more human. This lightness of touch does not take away from the score but rather allows the detail to emerge fully and for the singers to project both character and music with enormous clarity.
Credit must also go to the rest of the principals – all of whom made sterling performances. Andrew Tortise is a near-perfect David – innocent, cheeky with a clear, ringing lyric tenor. Christopher Purves brings a Malvolio-like hauteur to the role of Beckmesser and uses his considerable acting skills and warm baritone to good effect. Both women, Amanda Roocroft and Anna Burford shine through the orchestration with ease and bring touching sincerity to their interactions with the men in their lives.
There are a couple of directorial decisions which, for me, stop this from being a perfect production. Richard Jones does excellent work with his principal characters and the central thrust of direction is masterful. However his work with the apprentices is somewhat distracting throughout. They are often too present in the action – drawing focus from other, more significant characters. The ending of the production is misjudged. The clumsy holding up of portraits of significant German cultural icons in the final moments simply does not work. The audience for this sort of work is intelligent enough to work out that the references to German Art in the text are mirrored by the front cloth we have been shown on a number of occasions through the piece without it being reinforced. The cast, it has to be said, looked embarrassed to have to participate in this moment which undermines the success of the production as a whole.
Overall, this is a significant contribution to the world of opera. Five star performances in a four star production. There are just too few opportunities to catch it unfortunately. Let us hope for a revival!