Perfect Production Builds On Brilliant Opera At The Coliseum

By Sam Smith Last edited 38 months ago
Perfect Production Builds On Brilliant Opera At The Coliseum ★★★★★ 5

Wandering knight Walther pleads his case before The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★★

It’s always the way. You wait ages for a Wagner opera to appear and then two turn up at once! His early masterpiece The Flying Dutchman has just opened at the Royal Opera House, and now The Mastersingers of Nuremberg appears at the London Coliseum. The former is certainly worth seeing, but it is the latter that surely stands as one of the greatest creations in all of opera, if not mankind!

The measure of the brilliance of the piece is that many an opera-goer who normally avoids Wagner like the plague will make a special exception for Mastersingers. Unlike virtually all of the composer’s other mature works, it is not about gods, grails, rings and potions, but rather flesh and blood human beings. By exposing all of the foibles and frailties of this strangest of species it also proves very, very funny.

Set in Renaissance Nuremburg (though here the action is successfully moved to the nineteenth century), the plot concerns a wandering knight, Walther von Stolzing, who tries to win the hand of the fair Eva Pogner. To do so he must first join the Mastersingers, an esteemed band of poets drawn from the city’s powerful guilds, and this involves writing and performing a song that meets a ridiculous number of rules concerning rhythms, rhymes and stanzas.

As we see what Walther is up against, it is clear that much of the humour derives from watching people taking themselves so seriously. Richard Jones’s production, which is new to ENO having first been created for Welsh National Opera, brings the comedy out to the full without ever pushing things too far. The straight rows of church pews, or buildings that stand at clear angles to each other, in Paul Steinberg’s sets bring a degree of formality to the proceedings, but also offer ample room for people to scurry around as they would do in real life.

A similarly fine balance is achieved between seeing the twelve Mastersingers act as a unified group, and having each possess their own distinct character. The performance is in English, and Frederick Jameson’s slick translation also helps to bring out the humour. For example, the cobbler’s satirical story in which Eve curses her expulsion from Eden because of the strain that the walking puts on her feet feels rather more immediate than usual.

Edward Gardner conducts superbly, while the cast is excellent with Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther, Rachel Nicholls as Eva, Nicky Spence as David, Madeleine Shaw as Magdalene and David Stout as Fritz Kothner all playing their parts to the full. Special mention, however, should go to James Creswell as Eva’s father Veit Pogner, whose bass voice is a wonder to behold (he also has the Flying Dutchman to his credits). The top honours though go to Iain Paterson as the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs (who is based on an historical figure) and Andrew Shore as the villain of the piece, Sixtus Beckmesser. The story involves a battle of wits and wills between the pair, and the process whereby they bounce off each other is brilliantly rendered down to the very last detail.

The Mastersingers has sadly — and rather unfairly — been dogged with Nazi connotations ever since the Third Reich. Many directors have responded to this difficulty by trivialising the final ‘nationalistic’ scene in order to make it harmless, but in the process they have rather destroyed what it is all about. Jones, on the other hand, is clever enough to make it a celebration of German history as it should be, but in the most positive way. This proves perfect because, as the ending shows, Richard Wagner is far from the only incredible person to have been produced by the country.

Until 10 March (eight performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane WC2 4ES with start times of 3.00pm and 5.00pm. For tickets (£16-£155) visit the English National Opera website.

Londonist saw this opera on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 08 February 2015