Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera, 19 December 2011

Pogner (Sir John Tomlinson)
Images: Clive Barda/Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Walther von Stolzing – Simon O’Neill
Eva – Emma Bell
Sixtus Beckmesser – Peter Coleman-Wright
Veit Pogner – Sir John Tomlinson
David – Toby Spence
Magdalene – Heather Shipp
Kunz Vogelsang – Colin Judson
Konrad Nachtigall – Nicholas Folwell
Fritz Kothner – Donald Maxwell
Hermann Ortel – Jihoon Kim
Balthazar Zorn – Martyn Hill
Augustin Moser – Pablo Bemsch
Ulrich Eisslinger – Andrew Rees
Hans Foltz – Jeremy White
Hans Schwarz – Richard Wiegold
Nightwatchman – Robert Lloyd

Graham Vick (director)
Elaine Kidd (revival director)
Richard Hudson (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Ron Howell (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Hans Sachs would be the first to counsel us of the dangers of extolling past achievements at the expense of the present. It is an apt warning in the case of Wagner, for whom great performances, whether recorded or in the theatre, sear themselves with into the memory with perhaps unusual tenacity, acting as Mastersinger-guardians of the imagination. That said, whilst we should all beware the tendency to act as Beckmesser or worse, not every newcomer proves to be a Stolzing. At a time of year when some midsummer warmth, even magic, could hardly be more welcome, glad tidings were, sadly, thin onstage or in the pit.

Walther (Simon O'Neill), Eva (Emma Bell), congregation
This Marker has fond memories of Graham Vick’s production. It was the first he saw in the theatre, in 2000 and again in 2002; it seemed so full of joy and good humour; above all, it provided a seemingly perfect backdrop for the unforgettable greatness of Bernard Haitink’s conducting. (Mark Wigglesworth was far from put to shame in 2002.) Now, alas, it looks tired: there are few cases of production styles failing to date; in this, as in so much else, Patrice Chéreau’s Ring offers a near-miraculous exception. The evocation of Nuremberg in Richard Hudson’s sets seems as much of its time as John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ (not that David Cameron seems to have noticed). Where once one saw Breugel, now one registers the lack of darkness in a work every bit as Schopenhauerian as Tristan und Isolde. What once was joyous now seems evasive. The ‘amusing’ antics of the apprentices now merely irritate. Time has passed, yes, but a good part of the problem seems to be the revival direction. Perhaps matters would have been different had Vick himself returned, but there seems to be precious little to Elaine Kidd’s direction beyond having singers don their costumes and sing: it resembles a repertory production in a provincial house rather than a performance on one of the world’s great stages. Oddly, the chorus often seems better directed than the singers. As for the codpieces, it would be an act of charity for all concerned to consign them to the dustbin of history.

Beckmesser (Peter Coleman-Wright) attempting to sing the Prize Song
 The contrast becomes all the more glaring, however, when one turns to the Old Master, Haitink. Though Tristan was his final production as Music Director of the Royal Opera, he chose the final scenes of Die Meistersinger as the culmination of his gala farewell to Covent Garden. Indeed, there is perhaps no opera more strongly associated with him. It was a great privilege to receive one’s theatrical baptism from him, though Christian Thielemann at Bayreuth, just a few months later in 2000, also lingers in the memory. Where, under Haitink, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded every inch a rival to Bayreuth, Vienna, or Dresden, here too much was lacklustre. The horns too often found themselves all over the place; woodwind were untidy; strings and brass lacked bloom. More seriously, Antonio Pappano’s direction failed to probe. Where every line should not only glow but take its place in vital counterpoint with every other, the work emerging almost as if an enormous Bach fugue, this reading remained very much on surface. The Prelude to the first act lacked any distinguishing feature beyond a strangely prominent tuba line: that extraordinary moment of recapitulatory arrival, heralded by adorable triangle, went for nothing. It is not a matter of speed as such, for the act managed both to sound hard-driven and well-nigh interminable. To follow and to guide the Wagnerian melos is no easy task, but when one has heard Haitink, or Thielemann for that matter, Wagner as soft-focus Verdi will not pass muster. There were better passages: the music following ‘Merkwürd’ger Fall!’ was nicely characterised, though it did not arise as it should from what had gone before, nor did it lead where it must. Even the third act, better in a good few respects, suffered from a Prelude that was merely slow: again, speed, or lack thereof, does not equal profundity. The strings now played beautifully, but it was the wrong kind of beauty, the shimmering more akin to the third act of La traviata. The closing bars were not, admittedly, helped by premature applause – surely the music is loud enough to enable one to hear when it has finished – but Pappano harried them so as to sound inconsequential; I have never heard the final chord register in so perfunctory a fashion.

Apprentices, David (Toby Spence), Walther
Save for a generally strong performance from the chorus – as usual, Renato Balsadonna had both learned and conveyed his lessons well – and from Toby Spence as David, there was little vocally to lift the spirits. Even Spence had the occasional moment of crooning, but his was otherwise an alert, carefully shaded reading, which married tone and word as his character outlines. The contrast with Simon O’Neill’s Walther was, to put it mildly, stark, nowhere more so than in the Quintet, where O’Neill stood out like a pneumatic drill. The unpleasant, metallic sound of his voice rendered the Prize Song more of a trial song – and for the first time made me think the naysayers might have it right: do we simply hear that music too often? You do not have to be Sándor Kónya, but it undeniably helps. Where Spence used, indeed relished, Wagner’s language, O’Neill seemed uncertain as to what it meant; maybe the words were not learned by rote, but that was how it sounded. Emma Bell’s intonation was variable as Eva: again, the beginning of the quintet was a glaring casualty. Too often, her delivery was blowsy; the best one could say was that she looked good in a white dress. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Beckmesser sounded and often looked over the hill: a comparison with Sir Thomas Allen for Haitink goes beyond unfortunate. Even Sir John Tomlinson, who sang Sachs in 2000, was out of sorts, loud and yet threadbare as Pogner. This was an instance too far of all-purpose raving and bluster: it was as if Bluebeard, or at a pinch, Wotan, had wandered in from another performance entirely. Wolfgang Koch was a musical, verbally attentive Sachs, but his voice sounded at least one degree too small for the theatre. Midsummer, as so often in this country, was postponed until another year. 


The Wagnerian said...

One will say one thing for you Dr Berry, you're a bloody fast writer.

I am presently compiling my list of reviews for my normal review of the reviews. It is interesting to note that so far those with any intimate knowledge of Wagner - yourself and Millington over at the Standard were less than complimentary while nearly everyone else is overflowing with praise. Interesting

Doundou Tchil said...

Everyone has an opinion but not all opinions bear equal weight. Some I've read show no basic knowledge of the opera at all. The only thing is to know the score well and assess from there.

Evan Tucker said...

I'm listening over the BBC feed right now, and I can't say that I detect the faults you hear in Pappano's conducting. In fact, this strikes me as almost exactly the style in which Haitink conducts Wagner - a firm grip on the piece's structure, gorgeous playing, phrasing on the clipped side. If I can lean upon you to humor me, what are the particular differences between the two in style?

Mark Berry said...

I'm afraid I cannot comment on the radio broadcast, since I haven't heard it. People tell me that Pappano's readings have in the past often improved during the run, so it is possible that something similar has happened here. (For what it is worth, when he came around to conducting the Ring again, I certainly found it better than before, though in no way comparable with Haitink and the same orchestra...)

So with the caveat that you and I have heard different performances, the orchestra on the first night sounded far from gorgeous, rather often anonyomous and at times brash. There were several mistakes, and the strings at times sounded surprisingly thin. Pappano, to my ears, simply does not hear Wagner's music as it needs to be heard: he conducts it, at best, as if it were occluded Verdi, with little if any sense of the music's roots in Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Weber, et al. That, and the elusive command of line or 'melos' are what I have heard in abundance in Haitink's Wagner, whether the Ring, Tristan, Meistersinger, or Parsifal. He also made - or helped - the orchestra to sound as if it were a German ensemble, the music always founded upon the bass line and where it tends.

Though I have no idea at all about timings - it is not an issue that interests me - I can say that Haitink's Wagner never sounded a minute too long, having captured perfectly the ebb and flow, whereas Pappano here managed both to sound peremptory and to verge upon the interminable, especially during the first act. Several people I know left after the second act, having had more than enough.

Evan Tucker said...

Well, gorgeous is not the same as flawless and I'm certainly noticing a number of slipups and thin-sounding passages. The brashness is certainly present, but it doesn't bother me much - Wagner would not have designed the Bayreuth pit as he did if he didn't want to encourage brashness and blare.

I do find it interesting that you see it so far removed from the German tradition. My initial reaction was that this is very nimble but still quite in line with a kind of Germanness, Meistersinger done as a close relative to Cosi fan tutte or Elias. I remember a radio broadcast from a while back in which Rattle commented that he viewed Tristan as Schubert on steroids. That seems quite appropriate to me, particularly as it does not discourage the innig quality. If you're feeling risky, I'd recommend the first half-hour of Act II, which I think was really wonderful. I remember a broadcast a far worse proms performance a few years back with the WNO and Lothar Koenigs, now THAT was anonymous, trivialized Wagner.

As for the tempo, Haitink was certainly as fleet as Pappano when he was in his early 50's. I don't know how much Wagner he'd yet conducted, but there are certainly a number of great conductors who went a similarly fleet, and strict, route in Meistersinger.

Mark Berry said...

I must admit that I was unaware Haitink was conducting Die Meistersinger in his 50s. In general, his interpretations of works have tended to deepen - at least to my ears - as time has gone on. I only heard him when in his 70s (save for the recording, which is from 1997). However, my point was more that, whatever the truth about actual hours and minutes, Haitink never seemed to take too long, whereas Pappano seemed both to drag and to rush, sometimes simultaneously. (Others seem to have heard him differently.)

I suppose part of what I was implying in the review was that memory can play tricks upon one - as indeed in the work itself. I shall never know how I should respond were I to hear again the same performance as my first time, or to see Vick's production on that first occasion. Whilst I am strongly believe that there was quite a discrepancy, there is a limit to how sure one can be in that respect.

By the way, what did you think of the singing? Were you more impressed than I was?

Evan Tucker said...

I have no idea if Haitink was conducting Wagner operas at all until he came to ROH - certainly not at Glyndebourne, where as I'm sure you know Wagner only made his debut this summer (another fine though very light production from what I could see/hear from America). But if one compares Haitink's readings of virtually anything back in the 60's/70's to now (save Beethoven), he was a fleeter conductor back then - albeit he's never really been anything but a moderate pacer at any point in his career.

I'm more than aware that Pappano is not quite as good in Wagner as he is in Italian repertoire. But ironically, it's because his Wagner is nothing like his Verdi. In the Italian repertoire, he leads with enormous freedom and impulsiveness, and most importantly he knows where to be free and where to be strict. Pappano's Wagner is almost invariably strict, which tells at least me that he doesn't have the natural understanding of Wagner you get from Barenboim and Thielemann, but then again, neither does Haitink IMHO. Instead, they both get by with pretty excellent basic musicianship.

Oy, the singing. It's probably impossible to get through this without a long diatribe, so apologies in advance. In any event, I've long since reconciled myself to the thought that Wagner performances will not be great vocal events. In nearly every contemporary Meistersinger I've seen, the second string singers - Beckmesser, David, Pogner, Lena - are almost invariably more impressive than the leads.

Wolfgang Koch (whom I honestly don't think I've never heard until now) had much too light a voice for the role, like a less intelligent Jose van Dam. Tomlinson was always too heavy for the Hoherbass roles, but he was certainly better than this guy, and has a near-ideal voice for Pogner, perhaps now more than ever since it's dried out. Simon O'Neill is no Melchior, but he's nearly as good as we're going to do right now. He's clearly not a real Heldentenor, but I certainly prefer him to Botha's unidynamics and even at his best, Heppner was a little too small for the Wagner roles. Emma Bell came through the speakers as a very fine actress, not much of a Wagnerian singer - nearly spinning her voice out of control. Toby Spence struggled a bit with the high notes, but he was really wonderful. Somehow, David is always the highlight of nearly every production. I did not like the 'understated' Beckmesser, I'd much prefer the kind of sniveling Geraint Evans caricature to a Beckmesser with no actual descriptive qualities.

We don't get many real Wagner singers anymore, no doubt things have changed in the training or the concert hall size to make it this way. But the ones we have are much better served by a lighter Karajanesque approach which Pappano goes for. I don't think the massive Knappertsbusch approach could work anymore (not that I ever much cared for that), James Levine clearly tries something like it in most of his Wagner performances and the Met's Wagner has suffered because the singers are clearly not up to it.

Anyhow, apologies for the length of this one :).

Mark Berry said...

It seems to me we disagree more re Haitink than Pappano (though you are more charitable at least!) Haitink seems to me at the very least to have an absolutely sure understanding of harmonic rhythm. (I think he has a lot more besides, but you are not the only nay-sayer: in a recent conversation with a distinguished Wagnerite, he said that he agreed with almost everything in my review save for my 'unaccountable' enthusiasm for Haitink...) But if one does not proceed from the bass, I am not sure what is left, save the very difficult path of a Schoenbergian approach, which I fancied I heard to an extent in a relatively recent concert performance of 'Tristan' conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. That certainly is not what either of our conductors is attempting.

As for voices, yes, you are right: Davids tend to be the star turn. The David in the lamentable Proms performance you mentioned earlier certainly was. (Why did some people praise that to the skies? Part of the reason was doubtless the legion of Terfel fans: another unaccountable enthusiasm to me!) We differ on Botha: clearly he is no stage animal, though neither is O'Neill, who has less excuse, but he can sing the notes, knows what legato is, and to my ears has a far more pleasant tone. We do have someone, though: Klaus Florian Vogt. His voice is not that of a classic Heldentenor either, but something really quite unusual: the tone of a lyric tenor, but one that carries extraordinarily. No bark whatsoever, and an intelligent response to the text.

Evan Tucker said...

I certainly don't doubt that Haitink's understanding of harmonic rhythm is rock solid. But Haitink's approach to music always struck me as far more linear, far moreso than the Barenboims who approach first from harmonic tension. Either approach can work (Furtwangler/Barenboim was harmony first, Bohm/Karajan was line), but given that Meistersinger is certainly the most classically proportioned/linear of the Wagner operas, I think the kind of linear approach one gets in Pappano and perhaps Haitink works better in Meistersinger than in virtually any of the others. And as a sidenote, I genuinely dislike Pappano's studio Tristan, an overrated recording in which nearly everyone (save Stemme) seems to be doing things half-heartedly.

I can understand why people think Terfel a natural Wagnerian, vocally he certainly has more heft than most. But temperamentally he's clearly mismatched, seriousness of purpose has never been his forte.... I still haven't heard much of Vogt so I'm going to reserve judgement on him for a while. But when I first heard him (in a Das Lied recording whose conductor escapes me at the moment) I was shocked by the lightness of his tone and couldn't fathom that a voice like his could be heard over a 100-piece orchestra without huge sound manipulation. Though everyone who's heard him live assures that it's not a problem.

Robert Hudson said...

Right. Again as a neophyte, I enjoyed this a lot. It was the first time I had seen Wagner, I was really looking forward to it, and, being more naturally tuned to the dramatic / historical / philosophical than to the purely musical, I enjoyed those things, and got the bonus enjoyment you get from any first experience of a great work.

My thoughts, therefore, are callow thoughts.

1. I thought Walter was a real problem - I found his voice thin and tinny, and he's a ropy old actor.

2. I liked Koch, but I absolutely see that I could just have been liking the part and this is the first time I've heard it.

3. I'm wholly convinced by what you say about how this particular production has dated. I wasn't particularly aware of this while watching, but it's absolutely how things date and why each generation gets its own definitive biography of Henry VII. I don't know off the top of my head know how I would direct Meistersinger, and the ROH haven't asked me yet, but if they asked me this year, I'd give Beckmesser some gravitas.

4. And (re 1) I'd make Walter handsome. Is it normally a problem that you're sitting there thinking how much better it would be if Eva married Hans? Or was that a Hans problem as much as a Walter one? In my relatively short opera-watching career, I have been riveted by the realisation that the fat ladies don't seem to get to sing as much as they do in jokes. The lead sopranos are mostly pretty and can act. Their lovers, on the other hand, are dumpy and unappealing. There are more problematic sexisms in society, but I find it interesting.

5. In translation / superscript news, I really enjoyed the fact that Beckmesser's terrible lines were swiftly followed by the chorus singing something translated as (I am almost sure) 'It's new and daring, yet well-rhymed and singable'.

Mark Berry said...

Robert: thank you very much for your enlightening comments. As a (sometimes) jaded Wagnerite, one can easily forget what it is like to encounter one of these works for the first time, and the very different standpoint that entails. That was partly what I was hinting at, but even then, I was dealing more with encountering Meistersinger for the first time in the theatre rather than that first time at all.

The dating aspect - of productions, rather than Eva and Walther - is an interesting one. I wonder how many productions one remembers fondly from the past would coincide with those memories now. There is no reason why they should; indeed, it seems to me that there is every reason for different stagings to respond to the preoccupations of the time for which they are conceived, whether consciously or otherwise. That is arguably more pronounced in the case of mythological rather than 'historical' works, but the categories are far from distinct. After all, the music Wagner echoes is not that of the sixteenth century, but the eighteenth (Bach). For what it is worth, your idea of dignifying Beckmesser seems to be rather popular at the moment. (It becomes an even more fraught matter if one subscribes to the thesis that there are elements of anti-Semitic caricature to the portrayal.)

I'm with you 100% concerning the Walther. Since he could not sing the notes, could not act the part, and could not even look credible when just standing there (especially when compared to Sachs), I struggle to understand why some critics could speak in such enthusiastic, or indeed any enthusiastic, tones. Or rather I would, if I felt that those concerned had any understanding of Wagner in the first place...

Robert Hudson said...

Dating, yes, I'm with you exactly. It's (a bit) like when you watch a 1970s Regency movie and you realise how much 1970s-ness there is in the hair of characters who the designers think they are hairdressing as 'pure Regency'

Yes, also, dignifying Beckmesser. I am not at all surprised this is the current trend, for all the obvious reasons, as well as the anti-semitism thing, which I had not seen/thought of.

On first encounters. I'm sort of obsessed with purity. I don't read synopses, I don't read the backs of books, I won't watch previews. People write stories so that other people can enjoy them, and it is exciting to do that.

(Of course, I am in tune with an age where 'story' is the dominant explanatory metaphor/mode (not quite sure which word works best), across disciplines. It can be quite hard to explain to people that there are other modes.)

I am seeing the Ring for the first time in October. It's the double-edged sword of not wanting to know the story, but of being a historian who will enjoy things more if he knows what bees were in Wagner's bonnet, musically and philosophically. I will read some things. Very carefully. Squinting.

Peter H said...

I also thought O'Neill was dreadful, but wasn't sure how much was attributable to a bad cold. Surely in order to get the part in the first place, the singer has to be able to reach (and sustain) the top notes without having to take a running leap ... . Even then, he sometimes missed (I saw it on 4 Jan). There was a top Bb in Act 3 where I would swear he was more than a quartertone flat.

On the other hand, having recently encountered Spence twice (first as Lensky in the ENO's Onegin, and now as David), I would love to hear more - a sound both strong and beautiful, especially in the upper register where it almost reminds one of a countertenor (male alto). Surely great things to come?

Mark Berry said...

Well, I suppose there is no wrong way, just as there is no right way; but I think I can say, having devoted a good deal of my life as an academic historian to the 'Ring', that the more one knows, both of it, and of anything and everything connected with it, the more one finds. The progress of time certainly plays its part in terms of the narrative, but so do all manner of more thematic and analytical approaches. That may be why, when writing a book on the 'Ring', I organised it according to what I saw as the principal political themes, rather than starting at the beginning. (For one thing, there are two beginnings, both alternative and complementary, one appearing in the final instalment!) I never tire of it, yet I truly envy you your first hearing.

By the way, I have only just realised that I am speaking to my college 'father' from Jesus. Please forgive me: it simply didn't register to begin with, out of context...

Robert Hudson said...

Yes, sort of. By which I mean: I plan to have a clean-ish, fresh-ish first hearing, not (fully) knowing the plot. After that, all bets are off and the more I know the better.

Very usefully, I had a) a sideline for a couple of years writing pieces about the mythological underpinnings of Lord of the Rings to go alongside b) having written quite a lot about foundations and nature of German nationalism. I will do more before October, but not sure what.

(No reason for you to remember; I was very pleased to find this when I was digging around for things after seeing the Berlioz Faust.)