As I am becoming a frequent attendee of the ENO, I am starting to notice patterns in their productions – starting with the consistently brilliant interpretations of opera director extraordinaire, Richard Jones. In his 25th year with the company, Jones has brought to the coliseum stage a production worthy of the quarter of a century celebration. Being a relatively naïve Wagner listener, having only been to one other opera of the composer, I was relieved to be watching the Mastersingers of Nuremburg in English, a trademark feature of all ENO operatic productions. The fact that the translation is one of immense artistry and delicacy merely helped make the production a memorable and beautiful gem in the ENO 2015 programme.
Visually, the production is engaging and enchanting. From the beginning of the rousing overture, the audience is presented with a game of ‘who’s who’ in the form of the front cloth; it is covered in faces of German cultural figures from Handel to Freud which firmly establishes Wagner’s ideologies of culture as the basis of the opera rather than the less fortunate reputation that the opera has acquired of extreme nationalism. As the overture comes to an end, the curtain rises to show a large ensemble – one of the largest I’ve seen on the Coliseum stage – in the midst of a church service. The 90 strong chorus are magnificently accompanied by the steadfast ENO orchestra under the sensitive and musically fluid baton of musical director Edward Garner. It is in this first scene that the audience is introduced to the blossoming romance that will keep the momentum of the opera and the storyline going.
The enormous scale of the production would deter many able and talented singers; however, every one of the 17 main singing parts were performed with such gusto and aplomb that the heavy demands of this lengthy opera seemed irrelevant to them. Hans Sachs is one of Wagner’s most developed and multi-dimensional characters. Often, performers fail to convey the depth of this character, but Iain Peterson’s interpretation was nothing short of faultless. His body language, acting and voice coalesced so well that from the second he entered the opera (running late to the mastersingers meeting), his presence dominated the stage. The ‘love-to-hate’ character, Beckmesser, was masterfully performed by Andrew Shore who played more on the insecure rather than outright malicious features of the character. Shore infused light comedy into the role, a welcomed feature for such a thematically gigantic opera. Having said that, Mastersingers is, on the whole, not a very heavy opera with many comedic parts and this was excellently carried out by the ENO company.
This production provided many moments that justify a prominent place for it in The ENO’s history, however, for me, the crowning glory was the beautifully choreographed quintet in the 3rd act. The two pairs of lovers, Magdalene (Madeleine Shaw) and David (Nicky Spence) and Walther (Gwyn Hughes Jones) and Eva (Rachel Nicholls), and Hans Sachs sing the enchanting song in his exquisitely busy cobblers workshop and create something of a religious experience for themselves and the audience. The song is meant to act as a ‘baptism’ for the stunning prize song that Walther has created – the piece of paper is hoisted into the air, much like a symbol of the holy spirit and the lighting is done in such a way that the paper seems to glow. This, paired with the breathtaking execution of the quintet was an incredibly moving moment in the already affecting opera.
Do not let the nearly six-hour running time deter you – this is a production worth making the time for. It is an art lover’s masterpiece and justifies the ‘noble German art’ of which Hans Sachs sings at the end, as a vibrant component of today’s performing arts repertoire.
Show continues until 10 March, more information and book here.
Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.