There was, unfortunately, more than a whiff of Panto about the Royal Opera’s latest revival of Wagner’s great (some might say dubious) paean to holy German art, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Coming in at fifteen minutes short of six hours, this may not be everyone’s idea of a festive night at the opera and there were times when one’s mind wandered – mine kept harking back to the last time I saw this work in this house – well, the old house to be precise, as I was lucky enough to be present at the last performance in 1997 before the major renovation project began.
Bernard Haitink conducted a flawless performance which is thankfully preserved on disc, and whilst fourteen years have elapsed since then, I couldn’t help but feel short-changed by this latest revival. Time can be very harsh on opera productions and whilst Graham Vick’s staging in Richard Hudson’s designs seemed vibrant and daring back then, now it looks ready for the great production skip in the sky. Cod cod-pieces abound and the whole look and feel is of a Breughel painting, but somehow re-imagined by Beryl Cook. Glimpses into the dark side of this opera were there none, and perhaps more damaging the whole crux of the work – an artist’s position in society and art’s place within it, was barely touched upon on. There’s plenty of ‘kunst’ in the text – precious little reflection upon it on stage.
Maybe all my doubts would have been swept away if the performance had been thrilling, but alas this was not to be either. The first chord of the Overture needs to glow, here it is more of a slap round the face and after an uncommonly scrappy start, the orchestra eventually settles down to provide workmanlike, if hardly inspired playing as the evening progresses under Antonio Pappano’s over enthusiastic baton. This work needs to breathe – here it is rushed, but I’m sure that will sort itself during the run.
The cast is a mixed bag too. When the most engaging performance of the evening comes from David, you realise something’s not quite right, although that is in no way intended to belittle Toby Spence’s mesmerising and faultlessly sung assumption of the role. He seems to do no wrong these days – if only he’d been singing Walther. Tenor Simon O’Neill not only looks awkward on stage, but the new costumes that have been specifically designed to ‘accommodate’ him are more Dick Whittington than German Knight. I last heard him as a blazing Otello at the Barbican two years’ ago, but it seems as though the intervening years have not been kind on his voice. His singing is at best monochrome but the pinched, nasal quality that seems to be the only vocal armoury at his disposal grows tiresome as the night progresses. He mars an otherwise sublime Quintet in the final act. That Covent Garden have pinned their Wagnerian hopes on him is indeed worrying as he is scheduled to sing Siegmund in the forthcoming Ring Cycles and Parsifal in 2013.
John Tomlinson, this staging’s former Sachs, certainly makes his mark as a slightly dotty Veit Pogner, and although the signs of wear and tear on his voice are noticeable, he is a strong dramatic presence. Emma Bell is a forthright Eva, Heather Shipp a younger than usual Magdalene, Robert Lloyd a bluff Nightwatchman. Peter Coleman-Wright needs time to settle into the role of Beckmesser, as his interpretation is currently too fussy and his singing lacks focus.
In the central role of Hans Sachs, house debutant Wolfgang Koch, is anonymous and bland. He should stand out from the crowd, but here almost blends into the chorus. His voice is baritonal, and this role needs more bass-weight, which he just can’t provide. Yes, he sings tirelessly but having such a vacuum at the centre of the work ultimately skews the whole balance of the piece.
The chorus sings lustily but the parade of assorted burghers and craftsmen in the final scene is more redolent of Walmington-on-Sea than Nürnberg.