In Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner affirms the importance of the arts in forging cultural identity. This The Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the Coliseum is a timely reminder why the ENO is vital to the creative health of this nation. For Hans Sachs, the arts are an essential part of the identity of his beloved city. Get to this production, which runs until 8th March, if you care about the arts in London.
It is a rare privilege to catch this production, which hasn't been revived since it was first produced by Welsh Natiional Opera in 2010. It was a vehicle for Bryn Terfel, who five years ago was new to the role. (Read my review here.) The ENO budget doesn't run to Terfel, who, in any case is busy with Der fliegende Holländer (more here). But it does the next best thing, by bringing Iain Paterson back to this country. Paterson is one of the Wagner singers of choice these days, but in the early stages of his career he was a company principal at the ENO. His first fully staged Hans Sachs is a triumphal home-coming. Paterson's characterization of Hans Sachs is refreshingly individual. There's no reason why Sachs should be an old man past his prime. Forty-something Paterson makes us feel Sachs as a strong and vigorous man who stands up for his principles. In the Act III scene where Sachs encourages Walter, Patterson conveys genuine empathy, showing how maturity is a continuum, a constant process of learning and sharing. When Paterson sings "Mad, mad, eveything's mad" (Wahn! Überall Wahn), he suggests the way a man of Sachs's wisdom might feel in a world where basic human values are going awry: ineffably moving. One day, Paterson will be an outstanding Sachs. Hear him now at the ENO, so you can remember his staged debut.
Gwyn Hughes Jones is an impressive Walter von Stolzing. Although he needs to work on the very top of his range, overall he has an interesting and very fresh voice. He starts singing the Prize Song lying flat on his back, a handicap which I think must be deliberate because it's one of the worst positions to sing in, but his innate lyricism wins over. This Prize Song was illuminated by sincerity, flowing naturally with unforced freedom. Also very impressive was Nicky Spence's David, vibrant, cheeky and irrepressible. Sachs gives David a hard time, but nurtures him so he, too, will take his place as a master craftsman. The significance of apprentices in this opera cannot have been missed by the chorus, not all of whom are young, but who provide firm support., The ENO chorus is excellent. Even those who weren't part of the Harewood scheme seem galvanized by its ideals. The ENO is a great house for developing the singers of the future, providing a unique springboard for English-speaking talent in a business where most work isn't in their native language. Even the relatively small but crucial role of the Night Watchman (Nicholas Crawley) was well delivered, though his costume tried to steal the show.
Richard Jones's productions, designed here by Paul Steinberg, are bright and upbeat, perfect for comedy, but Jones's work is almost invariably even more astute about music and meaning. The Mastersingers wear identikit uniforms, the apprentices snappily marching about with the paraphernalia of office. I loved the the giant pretzels, representing the baker's guild. Significantly, Jones doesn't portray the townsfolk as automatons. Buki Schiff's costumes range over a 500-year period, and cover different regional styles and social classes. The mastersingers aren't the only ones who uphold "Holy German Art" : without this community of individuals, Nuremberg might not thrive as it did. For "Holy German Art" flourishes in many forms. The frontcloth shows a montage of German thinkers from Sachs's time to the present. You don't need to identify them all. As in the opera, part of the fun comes from learning afresh.
Sachs's Nuremberg was prosperous, but the Midsummer festival commemorates times of war and famine. The townsfolk go to bed on Midsummer's Eve, but it doesn't take much to rouse them to riot. As if released by devilry, they swarm over the stage, their arms raised in diagonal salute. If nice, supposedly artistic people can mindlessly destroy what they have, we cannot be complacent. Beckmesser very nearly got the Mastersingers to kick Walter out of town. Were it not for Hans Sachs and his non-conformist wisdom, where would Walter be, or Nuremberg, or the future of art ? This Mastersingers of Nuremberg at the ENO gives much fuel for thought.
Please also read my other posts on Wagner, Die Meistersinger, stagecraft etc. Also, my post on the current situation at the ENO "Radical Rethink". Unlike some, I think it's sickening to "enjoy" seeing people kicked when they are down.
photos : Catherine Ashmore