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Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

by on 12 August 2019

Masterful

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

by Richard Wagner

Fulham Opera, Greenwood Theatre, Southwark, until 17 August

A review by Andrew Lawston

I must preface this review with a confession: I know rather less about opera than Walther von Stolzing knows about the process of becoming a meistersinger. So Paul Higgins’s new production of Wagner’s comic opera Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg came as something of a revelation.

The full four and a half hours of Wagner’s work is presented here, but the 16th-century setting has been updated to the grass, trestle tables and indeed wellies of a 21st-century music festival. This plain set is embellished by back-projected images for occasional comic effect (act II’s raucous climax being a particular highlight in this regard). Jessica Staton’s simple and economical design allows for rapid scene changes, and draws the audience’s eye to the performers.

Die Meistersinger photo 4

From the opening, where Walther von Stolzing (Florian Thomas, giving an impassioned performance throughout) tries to attract the attention of Eva Pogner (Philippa Boyle, a hugely powerful voice from whom we definitely wanted to hear more) during a church service, the orchestra, conducted by artistic director Ben Woodward, gamely filled the venue with a broad sound that constantly suggested a far larger ensemble.

There are two casts for this production, with Eva and Walther being portrayed by different performers on alternate performances. After one of the Hans Sachses was forced to withdraw from the production during rehearsal, however, Keel Watson is playing the role for all performances, and singing from the score in places as a result. Watson’s performance as shoemaker–poet Hans was a highlight of the production, his rich voice and controlled gestures bringing this rather sad and philosophical man to life wonderfully.

Die Meistersinger photo 3

The plot of Die Meistersinger is light – essentially a knight must be accepted as a master singer in order to win the hand of the girl he loves – but even the lightest plot needs a villain, and this role is pulled off with gusto and relish by Jonathan Finney as ageing hipster Sixtus Beckmesser, Walther’s unlikely love rival and marker for the master singer trials. It’s hard to completely dislike Sixtus in this production, as his attempts to serenade Eva in act II are consistently frustrated by Hans, mischievously hammering at his shoes. Finney deserves triple plaudits for not only embodying such a wonderfully charismatic antagonist, but also training the chorus, and arranging the score for the 18-piece orchestra!

Mirroring the burgeoning relationship between Walther and Eva, Sarah Denbee’s spirited Magdalene is also courting Edward Mout’s put-upon but energetic David. Their sub-plot, which could easily have faded into the background, provides consistently entertaining light relief thanks to the charismatic performances. Veit Pogner, the town’s goldsmith and Eva’s father, is portrayed with great dignity by Gerard Delrez. His wonderful voice even manages to smooth over the eyebrow-raising crack in the plot that Pogner intends to marry off his daughter to the winner of a song contest.

In fact, there is much in the libretto for Die Meistersinger that is problematic by today’s standards. Above and beyond the problem of Wagner’s lingering association with anti-semitism, Hitler and Nazi rallies (the programme notes don’t attempt to excuse the composer’s own views, but do point out sensibly that Richard Wagner died before Hitler was even born), act II briefly veers down a very troubling path as Eva and Hans discuss their love, with Hans commenting that she can be both a wife and a child to him at once. Boyle and Watson tackle the material with a playful edge, suggesting the two are teasing each other jovially rather than … well, rather than whatever else was supposed to be going on there. Throughout, the production treads an assured line that keeps the audience on side.

Die Meistersinger photo 2

The rest of the meisters provide gravitas for the show’s big scenes: Andrew Mayor as Frith Kothner has a great time questioning Walther as he prepares for his trial in act I. Then in act III, the meisters have their time to shine at the singing contest: Robert Barbaro as Kunz Vogelgesang, Tom Asher as Konrad Nachtigall, Philip Clieve as Balthasar Zorn, John Rodger as Ulrich Eisslinger, Holden Madagame as Augustin Moser, Ian Wilson-Pope as Hermann Ortel, Simon Grange as Hans Schwarz, and Henry Grant Kerswell as Hans Foltz. It’s a fantastic ensemble, and even Robert Byford’s nightwatchman (or festival security guard, in this update) entertains.

Given its sheer length and the size of its cast, Woodward is probably right to describe this production as ‘surely the maddest thing ever attempted by a fringe opera company’. But dedication, skill, and passion have combined to produce a truly remarkable production.

Andrew Lawston
August 2019

Photography by Matthew Coughlan

From → Opera

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