Mastodon Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera House (ROH) Review Roundup - The Wagnerian

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera House (ROH) Review Roundup

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 21 December 2011 | 1:54:00 pm

“Wahn, Wahn, überall Wahn” while Wagner – and indeed Schopenhauer if he had done so – was certainly using it in a very different way, it is a phrase that I am often reminded of when reading a variety of reviews on the same production.  Let us forget for a moment any thought of the “Will” (either to “live” or indeed “power”) and let us also ignore any associations with clinical psychosis - or neurosis even.  Further, let us remove the usual translation of “madness” (very unlikely to be taken literally in any clinical sense given Wagner’s favoured philosopher and its use within the opera) but instead let us use a different and no less valid translation:  of delusion or self deception. Although again not the only translations but the ones that best serve our purposes here.  Now, with that very weakly established definition, one can say with some certainty that all “delusion” is the result of a combination of the sense receptors and perhaps most importantly, in most cases, sense processing facilities of the individual in combination with our ”personal history”  - as I am sure pop psychology books would say.  And we are all of course prone to these “delusions”. In its extremes this is as simple as one person reading Dan Brown and finding it, to them,  fine literature with great secrets to be revealed while another  can’t help laughing at its, again to them, inane prose, ridiculous plot, and badly stolen, and already well investigated  concepts.  Indeed, is this not the very centre of all conflict? Militarily and political? Economic and social? Perhaps not, but it certainly doesn’t help.  And with that pop psychology firmly in mind, let us now turn to our review round-up where I think we will find our very loosely argued concepts of individual sense processing never so clearly apparent – especially in regard to the performances. “Wahn” indeed seems to be “everywhere” -  although, not completely everywhere.


Graham Vick’s production is now nearly 20 years old and to me has always seemed even older, holding many of the sensibilities of a certain type of 80’s theatre – primary colours a plenty and a certain “naivety”, and even escapism, that seemed to be the response of some to the large scale social changes at that time – especially from the late 80’s onward (and of course, the “80’s”, extended longer into the 90’s than many might admit).  The City was collapsing (again) but those dear old yuppies where looking to escape it all in “highbrow” but “cheerful “theatre.  They may have really wanted a “prawn cocktail” for “starters” but they weren’t letting on just yet.    Saying that, it is easy to see such things in hindsight – assuming I am even mildly correct – and it was without doubt a critical success leaving many reviewers and ordinary “punters” with fond memories, but has it passed the test of time? 

Let us turn first to now noted Wagnerian Mark Berry (regular contributor to the Wagner Journal and no mean musical academic now) , who admits this was his first Meistersinger “back in the day” in 2000 (this all makes me feel very old indeed) . Mark (MB)? What did you think of it back then?

“It was the first (I) 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.

Good to hear, a first production can make or a break a person’s response to an opera for some time. But now Mark, do you still have the same response?

"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"

Oops!  So it is hasn’t dated well Mark or perhaps this response is a maturing in your understanding of the work? No? There may be other reasons?

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.

So, Mark, was not what enamored, but what of Barry Millington over at the London Evening Standard (BM – LS)? 

Barry, unlike Mark, you seem reticent about expressing your previous responses to the production, but are you feeling as shy about your present feelings?   

The pantomime season is upon us and there's no escaping it even in this revived production of Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Clod-hopping apprentices, outsize codpieces, poorly timed gags: they're all there in Graham Vick's 1993 staging, newly revived by Elaine Kidd.

The ham quotient may have been artificially enhanced by the fact that the new cast was clearly under-rehearsed. But to be fair, an element of guying the genre (particularly welcome in the thigh-slapping bonhomie on the festival meadow) is suggested later in the show, though the borderline between postmodern self-reflexivity and dramaturgical ineptitude is perilously narrow

Obviously not and he didn’t enjoy it either - I think: “...borderline between postmodern self-reflexivity and dramaturgical ineptitude is perilously narrow”? Don’t they give the London Evening Standard away free on street corners nowadays?

Anyway, on to Stephen Jay-Taylor at Opera Britannia (SJT: OB). Stephen, thoughts please. You loved it didn’t you? Not all grumpy like these old Wagnerians? Less jaded, less tired? That is the reason surely?

Loved it?

It was left to Elaine Kidd, who “appears by kind permission of Scottish Opera”, to supervise matters theatrical. Without ever managing to suggest any great level of penetrating insight into either character or motivation, she at least gave a well-drilled if somewhat tired-looking account of this very strange and unpleasantly designed show

Oh dear. Well, unlike Mr Berry at least you aren’t blaming poor Ms Kidd. But “...strange and unpleasant”? Seems a little hash. Could you give some examples?

Richard Hudson’s sets amount to little more than a variably raked wooden floor, a vilely-coloured, pus-green false proscenium repoussoir some twelve feet upstage of the real one which effectively reduces the stage width by a good fifteen feet, and a selection of plain back cloths, with the same dinky tree doing duty for both Act II’s Flieder (a Lilac, not an Elder as translated here) and Act III’s Festwiese, plus a clutch of miniature buildings, including the cathedral, simply carried on to denote the Nuremberg skyline....

Ok, ok, one or two would have done – you can tell us about the rest in your full review. But tell me, no one has yet mentioned the costumes – except for the every present codpieces of course - more of this later (I told you it was all very late 80’s - just check a Madonna or Cameo video from this time). Any thoughts Stephen? What about Simon O’Neill’s costume. Held up to the test of time? What? They have changed it?

...complete redesign of Walter von Stolzing’s costumes. Gone are the semi-Shakespearean doublet-and-hose, breastplate and Raleigh-esque cape: he now appears in the first two acts dressed as the Jolly Red Giant, camp boots and all, and looking for all the world like a fugitive from seasonal panto, ... wearing Grandma Giles’s old hat. Tarted up to wow the crowd at the Festwiese, he appears in the identical drag but now in shining white, which might work if he didn’t in the process resemble a Pullman carriage with lamp-shades attached to his shoulders.

And trust me SJT was not that flattering about everyone else’s dress neither.

Rupert Christiansen at the Telegraph (RRC: T) has never been a fan of this production it would seem, explaining:

With its Legoland models and whopping codpieces and blank walls (designed by Richard Hudson), it seems more like something out of a kiddies’ picture book than a wisely mature disquisition on art’s place in society and the balance between tradition and inspiration which the artist must negotiate.

Oh come on, if someone doesn’t admit to liking this soon I am going to have to re-write my opening paragraph. Andrew Clarke at the FT (AC: FT) you know what a pain it is re-writing. Help me out would you?

Graham Vick’s production is showing its age . To return now to Graham Vick’s deliberately naïve reconstruction of medieval Nuremberg is like trying to reclaim the Garden of Eden after the Fall, or pretending that 20th-century German history never happened.

Yeah, thanks for that Andrew. Looks like I am re-writing after all. Hang on! Tim Ashley at the Times (TA: T) help us out would you?

First seen in 1993, Vick's staging, now reworked by Elaine Kidd, is a gaudy, swirling affair, warmhearted but at the same time gliding a bit too determinedly over the work's deeper resonances. Richard Hudson's Breugelian designs are garishly colourful, down to the cerise codpieces worn by the men, and whiffs of cheerful bawdry underscore the work's latent eroticism.

Thank you! Ok, not overwhelming perhaps, but better than we have seen so far. Anyone else?

George Halls at the Stage:

Graham Vick’s 1993 production of Wagner’s vast comedy, conscientiously revived by Elaine Kidd, makes a welcome return to Covent Garden. Neither a provocative nor a deeply exploratory staging of the piece, its strengths lie in straightforward narrative values and some exceptional set pieces - the riot in Act II and the processional celebrations of Act III are brilliantly realised. It remains one of the director’s finest achievements.

Edward Seckerson at the Independent (ES: I)

The years have undoubtedly taken their toll and what seemed so fresh and new in 1993 - the pristine abstractions of Richard Hudson's design, the washes of orange and gold light, the assertively jolly Brueghelesque costumes - now looks a little pantomimic.

And yet the Shakespearian artifice of Graham Vick's thoughtful and much-admired staging of Die Meistersinger retains a dream-like quality where we the audience can be a part of the midsummer madness....

Sam Smith at MusicalOMH (SS: M)

It is packed with humanity and humour, and Graham Vick’s 1993 production for the Royal Opera House, revived here by Elaine Kidd, brings out every ounce of both. All of the ‘set routines’, such as Hans Sachs interrupting Beckmesser’s song with his hammering, and the ‘comedy song’ preceding the beautiful innovation in Act III, are obviously there. In addition, however, we see afresh the more subtle jokes such as the Meistersinger wishing the ailing Niklaus Vogel well in a sympathetic but somewhat routine gesture.

More? Well, David Nice at the Arts Desk, (DN: AD) felt it depended on what you were looking for in a Meistersinger at Christmas:

Yet only folk determined on seasonal jollity to the exclusion of all else might not feel a certain want of the darker side to the human predicament which ought to pave the way to comic reconciliation.

Go on...

Graham Vick's long-serving Royal Opera show is a cosy, almost cartoonish vision of Dürer's golden age with prominent roles for codpieces, model city landmarks and mullets.

It works especially well in the lively finales, the first two of which Pappano springs into miraculously co-ordinated life

Not up to WNO or Glyndebourne’s standards he continues. Oh well they are hard acts to follow. And finally, Hugo Shirley over at Musical Criticism (HS: MC) :

Graham Vick’s production, first seen in 1993 and revived on this occasion by Elaine Kidd, suggests it is an out-and-out comedy, and not a great deal more. Yet, among the gaudily colourful costumes, gallivanting apprentices and comedy codpieces, we lose track of what makes Meistersinger one of the composer’s greatest achievements. Its jokes are clunky, often hammered home—sometimes literally—with workmanlike determination; it’s in the humanity, wisdom and the awareness of the troublingly fluid relationship between rule and rebellion, the fine line between rebel and ruler, that the work’s greatness and longevity lie.

But where was all that

Main Cast:

Ok, so while there is certainly disagreement about the production - with what seems to be more negative response than positive - what about the performance itself? After all, when this production leaves London for Birmingham in the New Year, it will be without sets. Similarly, most people will actually hear this on Radio 3 on New Years Day. Is it worth the effort?

(If I have left out a mention of a performer from one of my selected reviewers it is simply because that mention was so superficial as to not to be worth the bother except perhaps to the artists agent!):

Toby Spence

Most reviewers, even Mark Berry who was generally, I think it would be fair to say, not enamored with the cast overall, had positive things to say about Spence

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 (MB)

Toby Spence's David and Donald Maxwell's Kothner all deserve honourable mention (BM:LS)

As it is, I thought he effectively walked off with the whole show. (SJT: OB)

Toby Spence’s longer experience of singing David told: his breezily confident charm almost stole the show, leaving me wondering whether he might be ripe to step into Walther’s shoes (RC:T)

Toby Spence and Heather Shipp are as good as it gets as David and Magdalene (TA: G)

Toby Spence challenges him for the tenorial honours as a David of soaring tone and impeccable youthful vitality - what a roll this artist is on the moment. (GH: S)

But the high-end casting in this revival brought us an incomparable David from Toby Spence, his act one set-piece full of felicitous bel canto touches (DS: I)

And on it goes. Mr Spence is clearly someone we should continue to keep a close watch on.

Wolfgang Koch

Wolfgang Koch was a musical, verbally attentive Sachs, but his voice sounded at least one degree too small for the theatre (MB

Wolfgang Koch's Hans Sachs only gets into his stride in the final act but never stamps his character with authority (BM: LS)

Koch, on the other hand, achieves something I have never really expected to hear in the role of Hans Sachs: complete tirelessness. When even the mighty Terfel is plainly on the ropes by the end of Act III, it’s extraordinary to hear someone who sounds as if, having finished, he could have a quick cup of tea and start all over again ... (However) truth to tell, does he have the right kind of voice, with no real bass depth or warmth, much less the sort of avuncularity of timbre that made both Hotter and Bailey so memorable in the role.... I’m afraid neither of the great monologues went for much, and that is not due to a failure of voice, but simply of imagination and interpretative grip ... He acts well, and can sing admirably across the role’s surface, but he misses its depths and half-lights almost entirely. (SJT: OP)

The void was most evident in Wolfgang Koch’s bland portrayal of Hans Sachs: vocally alluring and secure it may have been... (RC: T)

Wolfgang Koch, making his London debut as Sachs, cuts a fine, eligible figure, but the voice lacks warmth and colour, and the character doesn’t wake up until after the “Wahn” monologue (AC: FT)

Sir John Tomlinson

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 (MB)

John Tomlinson, exchanging his signature role of Sachs for that of Veit Pogner, dominates the stage with his gold chain, generous tone and sheer presence. But his gestural delivery is often at the expense of a true legato line, and there's something wrong when people wonder which master is Sachs. (BM: LS)

...There’s something about Tomlinson’s fully realised, batty old Goldsmith that’s quite unexpectedly moving, an old man not entirely on top of events and clinging desperately to the past as a lifeline to the uncertain present, which somehow seems to embody more of what Meistersinger is actually about than the performances of all three principals put together. In short, he was remarkably affecting and wholly effective in the role, and I’m minded therefore to take the vocal up-and-downs as incidental and largely irrelevant. (SJT: OB)

John Tomlinson, who sang Sachs for most of this production’s history but is now “elevated” to Pogner, makes an endearingly doddery patriarch. Every time he comes on stage, he lifts the show by virtue of his complete identification with the part. (AC:FT)

Shining with warmth and humanity is John Tomlinson’s grandly sung Pogner, another exceptional portrayal from this magnificent artist. (GH:S)

As Pogner, Sir John Tomlinson’s singing is not always as polished as it can be, but his voice remains sturdy, and his acting is tremendous. (SM:MO)

John Tomlinson’s Veit Pogner bellowed and flailed in customary fashion, imbuing the character—a personification of bürgerlich propriety—with an inappropriately fiery-eyed earnestness (HS:MC)

Simon O’Neill

... 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. (MB)

... last time I heard him live was as a not so much last-minute as last-second replacement Otello under Sir Colin Davis at the Barbican, and even allowing for lack of preparation and general nerves, he was then altogether quite amazing. This was exactly two years ago. Alas, when Wagner looms large in your intervening schedules, two years can be a very long time in terms of vocal wear-and-tear. (Think was has happened to poor Stefan Vinke over roughly the same period.) What sounded then in O’Neill’s performance as ringing and effortless is now strained, pinched and quite drily brittle... (SJT:OB)

Simon O’Neill is a heroic rather than lyrical tenor and although he projected Walther’s music cleanly, I missed a certain romantic bloom in the Prize Song. (RC:T)

Simon O’Neill’s Stolzing is vocally assured but visually stiff (AC:FT)

Simon O'Neill, is pressured in the Quintet, but clarion and ecstatic elsewhere. (TA:G)

Simon O’Neill makes a vocally and physically solid Walther, his metallic but genuinely heroic tenor keeping pace with Wagner’s inordinate demands. (GH:S)

Simon O'Neill's bravely sung Walther who will, I'm sure, cultivate more beauty in his trumpet-toned sound (ES:I)

Simon O’Neill will not be everyone’s idea of the ‘Romantic’ Walther, but this only makes the character more realistic. In Act II, after he has failed to become a Meistersinger, his clenched fists and wild gestures reveal genuine anguish and despair. For the most part, O’Neill succeeds in combining a light, ethereal sound with real broadness and strength, making his Act I rendition of ‘So rief der Lenz in den Wald’ immensely powerful. His final performance of ‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’, however, does not quite match the standard set earlier, and his voice is far too forthright in the Act III Quintet to blend effectively with the others. Nevertheless, despite these minor criticisms, this is undoubtedly a strong performance. (SM:MO)

Simon O'Neill's bright, stalwart if sometimes under-ballasted tenor takes wing with his rhapsody (DN:AD)

O’Neill’s Walter was secure and reliable, but hardly endearing. The acting was wooden and the singing short on grace and warmth. He seemed so concerned with maintaining a legato line that most of the words counted for little (HS:MC)

There are mentions of the rest of the cast in individual reviews and as normal I would recommend you pursue these by following the links at the bottom of this article – you will of course also find a far more detailed analysis then the brief sketch above.

Antonio Pappano, Orchestra and Chorus

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 (MB)

Antonio Pappano's conducting achieved fluency as the third act progressed. (BM: LS)

three absolute star-turns on display: the utterly lovely playing of the Royal Opera House’s Orchestra; the roof-raising singing of its (virtually doubled in size) chorus; and the conducting of Antonio Pappano. Triple-handedly, they rescued what was otherwise always threatening on stage to descend into undistinguished routine, and made the whole work positively glow pretty much from first to last, with a wonderful architectural grip that shaped each act as a seamless whole. (SJT:OB)

All praise to Antonio Pappano’s orchestra, which, after an uncertain start, went on to play with unfailing imagination and energy, keeping a spring in its step and joy in its heart.

Tempi were always buoyant: Pappano makes this music sparkle and dance, never letting its high spirits become tiresomely flat-footed (RC:T)

Royal Opera music director Antonio Pappano with fire and finesse; even when the stage drama is static, Pappano ensures that the musical drama flows. (AC:FT)

It's wonderfully conducted by Antonio Pappano, in what is easily his finest Wagner interpretation to date. The sweep, energy and passion of it all are immensely persuasive, as are the moments of sadness that lurk beneath the surface (TA:G)

But the heroes of the evening are the Royal Opera Orchestra and Chorus, both on world-beating form, and music director Antonio Pappano, whose spacious reading has a richness and momentum that carry all before them. (GH:S)

In the pit, Antonio Pappano rolls out his first Meistersinger in the house with glorious amplitude and fluency. It moves, it sings, and it reflects. (ES:I)

Antonio Pappano’s conducting, however, more than makes up for the few problems there are. With rich vibrancy and strong attention to detail, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House takes flight, and plays out every expansive phrase without ever sacrificing strict rhythmic quality or genuine musicality (SS:MO)

Most impressive is how much of this multi-faceted score Pappano already has under his belt. The interpretation can only get stronger, and may hit a yet more eloquent, profound stride in the crucial confrontations of the morning before the song-contest, but there's no sense either of slack or rush (DN:AD)

Full Reviews can be found by clicking the links below