After years of waiting, Welsh National Opera and Bryn Terfel have finally come together to present Wagner’s only comedy in Cardiff. In an exhilarating, triumphant and often deeply moving evening the company and Terfel earn themselves a well deserved triumph. There have been so many false starts to Terfel’s Hans Sachs that many of us believed it would never happen but it was worth the wait.
Terfel, even at this first performance, seems an almost perfect vocal fit for the part and presents us with a rounded and often surprising portrayal of the cobbler-poet. Younger than often presented and a clearly viable alternative suitor to Eva, Terfel makes this relationship one of the two central relationships of the work. Therefore the moment when he realises that he must let go of her is doubly poignant. This dramatic pivot-point when it appears Eva might choose Sachs and the appalled Walther realises the depth of their relationship is one of the highpoints in a superb production by Richard Jones.
I have been no fan of much of Jones’ work, loathing his Ring cycle and his over praised Pique Dame, but this production is superb in almost every way and the director’s detailed personregie is evident throughout the huge cast.
The other central relationship is, surprisingly, the Sachs/Beckmesser one. The customary point scoring borne out of years of semi-friendly sparring is nevertheless underscored by a mutual respect. Christopher Purves’ superb Beckmesser is vital in giving an unusual depth to the interplay with Sachs. Purves, splendidly bewigged, is again younger than normal and though often comic is never grotesque and his malice is born out of exasperation and frustration rather than genuine unpleasantness.
Inevitably some of the other cast members do not rise to the heights of Terfel and Purves. Amanda Roocroft’s Eva is superbly acted but she doesn’t have quite the silver tone that Lucia Popp and, more recently, Dorothea Röschmann have brought to the part. “O Sachs, mein freund” lacked that ultimate sense of overarching rapture and the start of the quintet was not ideally steady. I would venture that she would now be better suited to Elsa or Elizabeth.
Raymond Very’s Stolzing was a touch small scale – He had many good moments and gave us some lovely quiet singing at the start of the Preislied. Unfortunately he lacked the big vocal guns to allow him to soar over the chorus in the third verse. Andrew Tortise was a good David if, again, one might have wanted a touch more spinto thrust to the Act 1 lesson scene. He was fortunate to be paired with the unusually sexy Magdalene of Anna Burford. Brindley Sherratt was a very fine and non-decrepit Pogner. His moments of self doubt about the course he has set were genuinely moving.
Also at the top of their game were the WNO orchestra under Lothar Koenig and the augmented chorus. Their astonishing rendition of “Wach auf” hurled out into the auditorium reduced me to tears and their beautifully detailed interplay, especially in the meadow scene cemented the feeling of a community onstage. Here again, as in his work with the whole cast, Jones’ production stimulates without ever resorting to cheap gimmicks. A superb, moving and heart-warming evening – I passed the 200 mile journey after the performance as if on a cloud.