Sunday 18 July 2010

Prom 2: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Welsh National Opera, 17 July 2010

(concert staging)

Hans Sachs – Bryn Terfel
Walther von Stoltzing – Raymond Very
Eva – Amanda Roocroft
Sixtus Beckmesser – Christopher Purves
David – Andrew Tortise
Magdalene – Anna Burford
Nightwatchman – David Soar
Veit Pogner – Brindley Sherratt
Fritz Kothner – Simon Thorpe
Konrad Nachtigall – David Stout
Hans Schwartz – Paul Hodges
Balthasar Zorn – Rhys Meirion
Ulrich Eisslinger – Andrew Rees
Augustin Moser – Stephen Rooke
Hans Foltz – Arwel Huw Morgan
Kunz Vogelgesang – Geraint Dodd
Hermann Ortel – Owen Webb

Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera (chorus-master: Stephen Harris)
Lothar Koenigs (conductor)

Most reports of Richard Jones’s new production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg have been laudatory, though there has been a significant minority report decrying a perceived conservative turn. Not having seen it, I am in no position to assess Jones’s contribution, but this visit to the Proms from the Welsh National Opera granted an opportunity to appraise its musical values. There were many virtues to be heard here, but there were also significant drawbacks one might more readily have overlooked in the theatre.

Bryn Terfel was clearly the main attraction for many. It was depressing to note the BBC presented him as such in its television coverage. ‘Bryn Terfel sings Wagner’s Meistersinger’. Nice to see the composer gain a mention, I suppose, though it also makes one wonder what other Meistersinger it might have been, if not his. At any rate, Terfel’s legion of fans will not have been disappointed. This is a role better suited to him than that of Wotan, let alone that of the Wanderer, from which he notoriously cried off for the Royal Opera. His other recent London Wagner appearance, as the Dutchman, ought to have suited him better but was marred by alternate whispering and barking. This was not necessarily a Sachs for the ages, nor was it a profoundly philosophical reading: it was difficult to imagine the folio in which he was absorbed at the opening of the third act being, as has often been suggested, a harbinger of Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. There were, moreover, cases in which important lines and phrases were somewhat casually thrown away. Nevertheless, the cast gained from Terfel’s undeniable star quality: there was a palpable upping of game as soon as he set foot upon the stage. And he generally took great care with his words, all of them audible, most of them invested with meaning. His acting at the end of the Wahn monologue was odd, though, seemingly dissociated from what he was singing, more the ardent, romantic hero.

At least as impressive, to my mind more so, was Andrew Tortise’s David. Deliciously camp, though never excessively so, it was difficult to imagine this apprentice having much interest in Magdalene. But from the outset, one could not be impressed by his careful distinction between the various tones of master-singing, without ever sounding unduly contrived. Wagner helps, of course, but it is no mean feat to bring this off so intelligently and so musically. There were manifold nice touches such as the word-painting, visual too, on the ‘brummt’ (buzz/hum) of ‘Nach dem Wort mit dem Mund auch nicht brummt,’ and withdrawal of vibrato for the ‘eitel Brot und Wasser’ (pure bread and water) melody. In the third act, his intervention to Sachs, ‘Am Jordan Sankt Johannes stand,’ was genuinely funny in its recollection of Beckmesser’s serenade: a trick that can only be pulled off with secure musical and theatrical grounding, sporting just enough crudity to draw the listener into the joke, but without undue disruptive effect. Tortise has an appealing lyric tenor voice that can yet withstand competition with Wagner’s orchestra, and can clearly act too – even in a ‘concert staging’. I hope to hear – and to see – more from him.

Christopher Purves was a fine Beckmesser, credible as the serenading lutenist too (though sadly, he tired a little towards the end of his song). Real anger was imparted during the confrontation with Sachs in his shop – and crucially without sounding a mere caricature. His was a portrayal that clearly itched to be on stage; I wish I could have seen him in the theatre. I have heard more imposing Pogners than that of Brindley Sherratt, but this was intelligently sung. Simon Thorpe’s dry Kothner veered alarmingly in terms of pitch, however. I liked Anna Burford’s colourful Magdalene; as so often, I wished that there were more to hear in this role. Likewise as so often, I found myself wishing that she could trade places with her Eva. Amanda Roocroft’s intonation was not quite so variable as when I heard her as Tatiana at Covent Garden, but in conjunction with intrusive, thick vibrato, this was not a part to savour. Her diction left a great deal to be desired too, and her over-acted style on stage, which may possibly have worked from a distance in the theatre, here simply made her look like a woman too mature for the part. Raymond Very’s Walther was equally disappointing: more accurate, doubtless, but thin, even elderly, of tone and in no sense credible as a charismatic hero. For rendition of the Prize Song merely to sound dull is an achievement I do not wish to hear repeated.

Lothar Koenigs’s conducting had its moments, but could often sound rushed or arbitrarily slow. Koenigs began well, with a first-act Prelude clearly born of experience in the theatre. Woodwind chatter and contrapuntal clarity registered nicely, as did magnificent kettledrum playing from Patrick King – not for the last time, for this was a genuine highlight of the performance throughout. The first act sounded as though it was going to end most impressively, the conductor screwing up the tension well as the bickering began, but unfortunately it degenerated into a rush. (Acting was of a high standard throughout the scene though, perhaps, as I suggested, testament to Terfel’s arrival on stage.) The Preludes in many ways constituted the better part of the conductor’s vision, that to the Second Act duly playful, and the great introduction to the Third gravely and meaningfully slow, cellos digging deep here for a tone that was sadly not always present during the performance. For it must be said that, whilst the orchestral playing was generally committed, the body of strings was simply too small for a true Wagnerian sound unerringly to emerge. One cannot always expect the Staatskapelle Dresden – though who can forget its golden sound under Karajan? – but greater heft is not an entirely unreasonable expectation. What might have passed muster in a small house was not always sufficient for the Royal Albert Hall. Moreover, Koenigs could meander, as during the baptismal scene, when one might have fancied Wagner’s orchestral chorus a mere agent of accompaniment. True choral singing was, however, mightily impressive, especially during the Festwiese scene, for which garlands should be presented to chorus and chorus-master, Stephen Harris.

This was an enjoyable Meistersinger, then, even when shorn of most visual aspects of its production. I did not, however, have the impression that it was born of a production that had penetrated into the darkness, the Wahn, at the very heart of this extraordinary work. This is a rare comedy, in that it should move as does any tragedy. I am tempted indeed to compare it to the greatest of Mozart and Shakespeare. For that, however, I must cast my mind back to the unforgettable performances from Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden – or, of course, listen on record to Furtwängler, Kubelík, and a select few others.