English National Opera – Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg – Iain Paterson, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rachel Nicholls, Andrew Shore; directed by Richard Jones; conducted by Edward Gardner

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer [sung in English with English surtitles]

Walther von Stolzing, – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Eva – Rachel Nicholls
Magdalene– Madeleine Shaw
David – Nicky Spence

The Mastersingers:
Hans Sachs – Iain Paterson
Sixtus Beckmesser – Andrew Shore
Veit Pogner – James Cresswell
Fritz Kothner – David Stout
Kunz Vogelgesang – Peter van Hulle
Konrad Nachtigall – Quentin Hayes
Ulrich Eisslinger – Timothy Robinson
Hermann Ortel – Nicholas Folwell
Balthazar Zorn – Richard Roberts
Augustin Moser – Stephen Rooke
Hans Folz – Roderick Earle
Hans Schwarz – Jonathan Lemalu

Nightwatchman– Nicholas Crawley

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner

Richard Jones – Director
Paul Steinberg – Set Designer
Buki Shiff – Costume Designer
Mimi Jordan Sherrin – Lighting Designer
Lucy Burge – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 7 February, 2015
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The Mastersingers of NurembergPhotograph: Catherine AshmoreEnglish National Opera is making a stand against its current misfortunes with Richard Jones’s inventive and wittily profound staging of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. It originated with Welsh National Opera in 2010, and is now taking its first bow in London. It’s one of Jones’s most perceptive and affectionate productions.

Jones, adept at bending time and period, is here at his sharpest, viewing the opera from the 1860s, the period it was composed, back to a quaint, idealised Renaissance Nuremberg, the setting put in a contemporary context by the first thing we see during the Prelude – a front curtain covered in images of great German and Austrian artists through the ages gazing confidently out at us. Jones uses it not only to re-visit the cycle of artistic creation and decay but also to defuse the Holy German Art moment that the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs celebrates at the end of the stage-work, which has often caused directorial embarrassment over its nationalism and perceived anti-Semitism.

Buki Smith’s excellent costumes neatly lay down the idea of the Nurembergers re-enacting their antique heritage for the midsummer song contest, and a compulsive need for order settles over the whole production. Jones’s signature love of big patterns and precisely drilled choreography play a significant role in keeping the disorder of originality at bay, beefed up by Walther’s vision in Act Two of the Mastersingers blinded by their own inflexible rules.

The Mastersingers of NurembergPhotograph: Catherine AshmoreThe characters are just as incisively drawn, with Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser (surprisingly his debut in the role) sympathetic rather than the more familiar grotesque caricature of malice and envy. Shore makes us feel that Beckmesser’s ambition and outraged propriety have a touch of heroism about them, and there is an unusual empathy between him and Hans Sachs.

Sachs is a triumph for Iain Paterson in another role debut. His singing exudes Sachs’s warmth and nobility, and I was completely drawn in by the pragmatic, wry humanity of his portrayal, capped by a superb ‘Wahn’ monologue, and Jones’s direction of Sachs’s assumption of responsibility for the growth of German art is, in its way, as moving as Neil McGregor’s recent Germany exhibition at the British Museum.

In a role bigger than Tristan or Parsifal, Gwyn Hughes Jones was magnificent and tireless as Walther, his expansive and lyrical tenor clinching the passionate high points and building to an ecstatic ‘Prize Song’, and, as with Beckmesser, his revolutionary relationship to Sachs was vividly drawn.

On the Wagner heroine spectrum, Rachel Nicholls’s Eva was nearer to Brünnhilde than, say, gentle Elsa meek and mild, an Eva who knew her own mind with a big, penetrating soprano to match. Even so, I was not prepared for the intensity of her outburst of love and gratitude to Sachs in Act Three; and, crucially, she had the purity of tone for Eva’s mesmerising start to the ‘Quintet’, Jones’s staging of which, in one simple, brilliant piece of direction, explains the point of the whole opera.

Nicky Spence made yet another strong role debut as David, staking out his claim as a potential Mastersinger with powerful singing and bluff comic acting, well matched by Madeleine Shaw’s decisively sung Magdalene. James Cresswell’s Pogner led a strongly-cast line-up of Mastersingers, and the ENO Chorus was on spectacularly good form – its ‘Awake’ in Act Three unforgettable.

You knew from the Prelude that this was going to be a special evening. The ENO Orchestra played superbly and the score was beautifully conducted by Edward Gardner. He showed off the music’s capacity for intimacy and glowing transparency as well as its power; the playing was bursting with character, and, importantly, Gardner was with the singers all the way. This was the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner’s dreams, everything coming together to make you fall in love again with this astonishing work. It’s unmissable.

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