A five-and-a-half hour long Wagnerian opera could seem a daunting prospect for anyone. However, rest assure that the English National Opera’s production of Wagner’s comic music-drama leaves one wanting more.
Richard Jones sets this opera in the 19th century, at the time when it was originally composed. The opera is set in Nuremberg and revolves around a guild of the 16th century – The Nuremberg Mastersingers – a group of middle-class amateur singers and poets who present singing competitions throughout the year. The prize in this particular competition is the hand in marriage of Veit Pogner’s daughter, Eva. Eva has fallen for Walther von Stolzig who tries to win the singing competition in order to marry her. Savvy cobbler-man Hans Sachs decides to help Walter succeed and the audience witness a wonderful witty drama unfold.
The set design is beautifully co-ordinated by Paul Steinberg, with coloured patterns and clear indicative prop sets. There are certain liberties taken with the periodic style as Steinberg seems to move towards a more modern layout, particularly in acts one and three. However, costume design by Buki Shiff is well committed to the period style and precisely paints the social classification of the principals and chorus.
Although the libretto is originally in German, this English translation is sung beautifully with impeccable diction from the entire principal cast. Bass-baritone Iain Paterson never falters to connect extensive melodic phrasing with a rich and expressive tone. His even vocal line and intuitive acting combine to create a compelling performance of Hans Sachs.
A personal favourite is the wonderfully distinctive tone of Nicky Spence. He characterises David with a romantic youthfulness that is often expressed in the higher register of his lyrical voice. As he delves into the fuller passages, he conveys the action with striking engagement to the text.
Andrew Shore’s refreshing interpretation of Beckmesser cannot be left unmentioned – it is somewhat more timorous than one would suggest as the main potential rival of Walter. As one of the main components of the comic injections in this opera, Andrew Shore almost compromises the ugly, ungenial manner of Beckmesser, serving a more sensitive and insecure character to great effect.
Often in Wagnerian operas the music is set to serve the drama of the storyline and by combining the theatrical power of the orchestra with inflections of vocal tenderness, conductor Edward Gardner spares no opportunity for a static or dull drama.
Ending with a magnificently choreographed performance from the chorus, this production offers an array of comical and dramatic moments and is an opera worth going to see.