Despite being nearly six hours long in duration, the English National Opera’s current production is a roaring triumph. Lily German reviews.
The opening night of Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg was a success, to say the least. Richard Jones’s production of the three-act comedy opera was originally created for the Welsh National Opera in 2010. The eight performances at the ENO mark thirty years since the company first performed it. The conductor and ENO Music Director, Edward Gardner, triumphantly leads the 89 musicians of the orchestra and 90 chorus members in this celebration of Wagner.
Based in the 16th century German city, Nuremberg, the opera evolves around the guild of Meistersinger (Master Singers) – a group of musicians and poets. These Master Singers saw the art form of singing as a craft and vocation with rules and regulations as to how a song should be performed. The plot follows the complications of a goldsmith’s daughter, Eva (Rachel Nicholls) falling in love with a knight, Walther von Stolzing (Gwyn Hughes Jones).
Eva’s love for Walther unfortunately contradicts her father’s wishes. He has promised her hand to the winner of a Master Singer song contest. Under the tuition and knowledge of the great Hans Sachs (Iain Paterson), Walther must learn the vast and challenging role of the Master Singer to win Eva’s hand in the competition.
The former ENO company principal and tremendous bass-baritone, Iain Paterson, leads the cast as the wise Hans Sachs, the shoe-making Master Singer and poet. Paterson sets a precedent in a role requiring as much endurance as a marathon, while Andrew Shore performs his debut in the role of Beckmesser (Walther’s competitor) with exuberance. The town clerk who is absurd, witty and foolish is left disrobed and defenceless with all but a Lute in front of his manhood at the end of Act Two, providing brilliant comic relief.
Nicky Spence’s debut as the apprentice, David, was a generous performance, bringing vigour to parts that sometimes lack gumption – for example, Act One’s long description of rules for the contest.
This extravagant surrealist production is successfully completed and realised by the creative team, comprising of set designer Paul Steinberg, costume designer Buki Shiff, lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin and choreographer Lucy Burge. The stage was embellished with colossal pieces of set, decadent wigs and UV floral wallpaper.
Although fathomless in comedy, Wagner is sincere in regards to the arts. Throughout the opera, art is declared and continually referred to as being honourable and something to preserve. Hans Sachs declares that art is the most important part of society. This is especially poignant considering the current state of the arts in this country. The opera celebrates the German arts in particular and at the end of the production placards reference the many German contributors to the arts. Some would argue that this is artistically unnecessary and nationalistic but I found it a welcomed sentiment and surprise.
Although an opera of long duration I would encourage anybody to go see this remarkable production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Performed in English with subtitles, the production is contemporary, colourful and furiously creative. Let’s hope for more of these lustrous productions from the ENO and that it does not become victim to the tyrant arts funding cuts.
UPDATE: The ENO have fallen victim to even more commotion and convulsion. The company had an unfortunate start to 2015 with the loss of a chairman and executive director within a week of each other in January. Nevertheless after an exemplary first night of ‘The Mastersingers of Nuremberg’, Arts Council England seek to cut funding and have removed the organisation from the national portfolio of arts funding.