mon 22/07/2024

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera

No joy or lightness in Kasper Holten's messy Wagner, despite high musical values

Hans Sachs's nightmare - and ours: Bryn Terfel in the Act 2 finale All images by Clive Barda

Recent British-based productions have taken Wagner's paean to creativity, the reconciliation of tradition and the individual talent, at face value.

Graham Vick's long-serving Covent Garden colourfest, with its brilliant staging of the night brawl; David McVicar's sunny Biedermeier celebration at Glyndebourne; best of all, Richard Jones, making Wagner's immaculate all-about-art proposals crystal clear first for Welsh and then for English National Operas: all three have had their share of joy and lightness. Not so Kasper Holten's semi-mess of a show, which is nothing to laugh about at any point.

The darker than usual ending isn't the problem. Harder to take are the vagueness with which the crucial human relationships are sketched and the botched topography of a second act which is the clumsiest realisation of anything I’ve seen on an operatic stage since Katharina Thoma’s Royal Opera Un ballo in maschera. So much the worse given a cast which, on paper at least, looked close to perfect - three of the principals, the great Bryn Terfel included, have passed their tests with flying colours in previous productions infinitely better than this one - and conducting by Antonio Pappano which, if it sometimes lacks a certain amplitude, certainly has plenty of the grace, drive and suppleness Holten's leaden-footed vision so catastrophically lacks.Final scene of Die Meistersinger in Royal Opera productionIf you're going to throw out the four settings Wagner envisaged - a church doubling as a morning meeting-place for artistic guildsmen, a balmy midsummer evening in a city square, a cobbler's humble abode and festive water-meadows in bright sunlight (the alternative pictured above) - you'd better find something convincing with which to replace them. It's not immediately clear that Holten has failed in the task: within Mia Stensgaard’s theatre or civic building, richly wooded but in ungainly 1970s style design, a choral group are rehearsing under the watchful eye of Mastersinger Hans Sachs. It could be communist Eastern Europe until outsider Walther appears in grubby contemporary get-up.

“Apprentice” David’s explanation of the song-rules to this contender for the hand of the goldsmith’s daughter – though excellently delivered in high musical style by Allan Clayton, surely a Walther in the making with a timbre not dissimilar to the present, vocally tireless incumbent, Gwyn Hughes Jones – takes place to waiters and waitresses mugging horribly as they set up tables for the “club members”. Where Jones illustrated the song-types entertainingly, Holten clearly doesn’t trust this sequence and it’s back to otiose exposition as usual. The Mastersingers appear in Masonic aprons, complete with (ungreeted) trophy wives. To judge from this, and the photos of civic UK ceremonies in the programme’s centrefold obviously advised by Holten, a central point is missed: that for all their innate conservatism, the practitioners are working men who really care about the meaning of art, not just about hollow ceremonials. Artistic, all the same, are the considered Pogner of Stephen Milling and Sebastian Holeck's clarion Kothner.

You have a queasy feeling that Act 2 isn’t going to deliver on the perfumed summer night airs and blossom-scent rife in Wagner's score. Sure enough, we’re stuck in the theatre, with a bit of ominous dry ice and two lilac “trees” in pots having to make do as the context for Sachs’s great monologue. It’s soulfully sung, as at Welsh National Opera, by Terfel, albeit in generally more declamatory mode but with real artistry aided by Pappano in the throbbing-horn coda. Yet the stage picture needs to be in complicity with Sachs. It isn't. There are no cobbler’s or goldsmith’s houses either side of the stage, of course, no balcony from which maid Magdalene (Hanna Hipp, excellent) can impersonate her mistress, and Sachs happens to have brought his work with him.Scene from Act 2 of Wagner's Die MeistersingerJohannes Martin Kränzle (pictured above with Terfel), so funny as malicious pedant and rival suitor Beckmesser for McVicar at Glyndebourne, does his shtick at a harpsichord, not with a lute, getting only a few titters, though later he manages pathos well; Hughes Jones, stuck up the steps and out of sight for many people in the audience with his Eva for much of the act, resorts to an angry rasping which makes him more a third Nibelung brother for Mime and Alberich rather than an impetuous young man. The tenor overacts, while Terfel keeps movement to a minimum; his Sachs can never have less than star quality, but how much more of a real person he was at WNO. The brawl is an unspeakable mess: a seething costume pageant, not a fight, giving Sachs nothing to react to over human folly in the Third Act other than a quick flick of newspaper.

Act 3 Scene 1, set backstage on a slow revolve, allows more focus on relationships, but the love-triangle between Sachs, Eva and Walther is botched, not least when she kisses first the older and then the younger man on the lips. Rachel Willis-Sørensen (pictured below with Terfel), a golden-toned Marschallin in the second Royal Opera Rosenkavalier cast, isn’t the light lyric soprano required for Eva in the first two acts, but she comes into her own for the rhapsodic salute to Sachs – the point where all previous Evas I’ve seen have been suddenly overtaxed – and leads the best, because stillest, moment in the evening, a golden Quintet.Terfel and Willis-Sorensen in Die MeistersingerThe song festival isn’t much fun from the start; the guild parades and the dance sequences are cramped and undeserving of the ecstatic applause of the onstage crowd in evening dress. Kränzle’s Beckmesser botches well, Hughes Jones soars to win the prize, but when Terfel’s Sachs tells him to accept it, integrate with tradition and respect “Holy German Art”, someone isn’t happy. It would actually be a spoiler to reveal all, since to my surprise Holten’s alternative take on the nationalism which Wagner belatedly – and, in most people’s eyes, mistakenly – injected into his warm romantic comedy really does work on its own terms, even if it's a bit of a volte face for this Sachs. Pappano compels the orchestra and chorus to reflect it too, turning genial ritual brutal at the last minute (you can do the same to Beethoven’s Ninth).

Ultimately, then, I’m glad that critical duty alone prevented me from bolting like said character, and much earlier, after the direst part of an often enervating evening. Funny how a good production and high musical values can save an uninspiring score (Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale at ENO); while bad direction can almost sink a musically superlative performance. It's a sad end to Holten's regime as Director of Opera, which began well with Eugene Onegin, faltered on the side of his own stagings but achieved good things on many other fronts. Advice: catch this Meistersinger on the radio, though you'll have wait until June.

Pappano's conducting has plenty of the grace, drive and suppleness Holten's leaden-footed vision so catastrophically lacks


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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This review is absolutely spot on.

I would beg to disagree!

The Onegin wasn't much good either with the dancer representing young Tatiana giving an entirely inappropriate distancing in what is one of the most directly emotional scenes in all opera. His Krol Roger on the other hand was masterly

I would beg to disagree on that one (for reasons given in reviews here of its original production and revival). Had problems with Krol Roger, found the Don G almost as troublesome as this.

Now, perhaps Mr. Petit would like to give reasons for his disagreement, and then we might have an interesting debate.

I really enjoyed this production on many levels -- singing, playing, the production itself -- and it's left me thinking too, which is a good sign. Enjoyed the other productions mentioned too, including a traditional one from the Met; but this was valuable, and the singing and playing were wonderful too.

Thanks. I so wanted to give Kasper Holten the benefit of the doubt but this production is an unmitigated disaster however you cut it. Especially so when as you say there have been some very good recent ones especially Richard Jones's. So this is the problem of having a Director of Opera. I suppose it was a parting gift to allow KH to direct this but a very expensive one as it should​ never be revived.

I agree entirely with David Nice; I thought the KH Meistersinger production dire, no poetry, no magic, no beauty , no sense but excellent musically - why should it not be with such a cast. Walther, an aristocrat appeared like someone dragged from the gutter. As to Holten's record I thought Nabucco and Il Trovatore dire. Krol Roger was good, but one or two good shows don't excuse so many bad ones.

To be fair, the Nabucco (which was so meh) and Il Trovatore (which I admired) were not Holten's work, though he was responsible for their introduction. But he also brought in the baffling Martin Kusej - whose Idomeneo at least had the merit of some discipline - and of course the infamous Guillaume Tell.

Totally agree. Meistersinger doesn't necessarily need a C16th staging but the disaster offered by Kasper Holten does not work on any level.Act 2 was particularly dire with no hint of the summer evening street, characters coming and going in and out of the set at random points giving the audience no clue as to where they actually were. The 'riot' was an expensive embarrassment, irrelevant and wrong. Act3 scene 1 was not helped by the slowly revolving stage revealing yet more backstage mechanisms- to what end? Overall, the worst production I have seen of Meistersinger in 50 years. Goodbye Mr Holten and please don't come back. Having said all that- the singing and orchestral playing under maestro Pappano were among the best i have ever heard. I saw this production twice by the way, the second time with my eyes mainly closed- and enjoyed it all the more!

"Act3 scene 1 was not helped by the slowly revolving stage revealing yet more backstage mechanisms- to what end? " This exposed the theatricality of the whole opera by exposing its inner mechanism. It highlighted Sach's metatheatrical role as director of the opera.

Just to add to my comments above- I'm convinced that Mr Holten has missed his calling in life. For me he is a furniture removal man manque- under his watch we have had Act 1 of Guilleame Tell where nothing happened onstage except a load of tables and chairs being carried on and then removed, Norma, the same thing and now Meistersinger with the Act 1 pantomime of waiters bringing on tables and chairs again. He seems to believe that this constitutes dramatic action. Do his contracts with other producers specify that they have to move a lot of furniture about to avoid building sets which actually show where the action is taking place?? On the plus side at least Meistersinger did not feature Kalashnikov toting soldiers, although I did fear that the nightwatchman might have carried one....

The trouble with his dreadful production is that we are stuck with it for years to come. But at least we won't have any more awful new Onegins and D Giovannis to come. Or at least we hope so! Thank heavens last night for the singers, the orchestra and Tony P who were in such good form. One point though on Bryn Terfel who I thought was struggling for most of the evening, particularly in the last act. He usually sounds so effortless, but not having heard him for a bit, thought he was having a few problems last night.

I have now seen this production five times and think it is the best thing Holten has done at Covent Garden. The act 2 is a wonderful riot of the imagination including characters from other Wagner operas and golden phalloi evoking Wagner's desire to write a satyr play. This is very clearly "delusion" I feel many take a literal view of the stage business. This is the clearest production I have ever seen. Sachs is cast as a metatheatrical character manipulating the drama and ultimately undone by it. He moves from cautious reformer to populist demagogue and yet is left perplexed when confronted by a prize that refuses to be that. The end is stunning. Each time my heart leaps when Eva refuses to play ball. Stunning production.

Kind of you to interpret for those of us too stupid to understand. Actually I sort of got all that, though it's a director's job to make things clear, or at least to stage them well. This Act 2 was just a mess in terms of blocking. Glad you enjoyed it, anyway.

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