Adapting an epic opera is not the easiest of tasks. Audrey Oswald sizes up Theatre N16’s production of Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and how it transcends time and space in this 21st century adaptation of Richard Wagner’s seminal opera.
Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an epic, 16th century set opera by Wagner presented in three acts, causing some productions to have gone on as long as six hours – thankfully Theatre N16 cuts it down to an hour and a half. The audience is seated at candlelit tables in the intimate, Bedford Theatre – and by intimate, I mean trains and motorcycles seem to race by the window at the plays most pivotal moments (unfortunately never during the actual arias’) but it’s still nice.
In true classical tradition, Alison Latham’s virginal, nymph-like heroine, Eva, and Robin Pietas’ soulful but feeble Walther (I think he’s intended to be a lot younger than his actor – this manifestation could only be described as one of a ‘man child’) fall in love at first sight, but – gasp! – she’s about to be auctioned off in a vintage rendition of the X-Factor – I almost can’t believe a canonical figure like Wagner has allowed me to write that – which, without years of studying poetry, enunciation, cobbling and every other scholarly and artistic pursuit known to man, Walther cannot hope to win. He is first chewed out by the hot-headed David (Benjamin Castle-Gibb) in a rhythmic narration of the rigorous journey one must take to become the elusive, great and powerful Meistersinger, then trained in the art of miracles by the sly and goodhearted Hans Sachs, an archetypal joker, to whom Shaun Aquilina brings humour and mischief without malice.
Castle-Gibbs performance as a former soldier and Meistersinger-in-training is a standout one – he is the swaggering but accessible lover to mirror and contrast Pietas’ soppy Romeo, pining after Eva’s confidant Magdelena, played with audaciousness and cheek by the earthy Rachel Maby (it’s much more fun to watch these two plot schemes and get into brawls than it is to watch Eva and Walther parrot schmultzy repeated variations on ‘I love you this much!’).
This is the thing this play does best: character. Each archetype is easily recognisable, but a talented cast brings a creditable amount of depth to their parts. The pristine and virginal Eva is revealed, through careful acting, (the kind only possible in this small a space) to have an acute awareness of her situation’s ridiculousness, along with a surprising amount of dry wit. Foolish rival Meistersinger Beckmesser (Daniel Anderson) is not a mere fool – his short temper, petty arrogance and distinctive physicality make a funny and engaging adversary.
Now, the thing this play does worst – the music. I can’t fault any composer besides Wagner, but I can fault the poor producing. The human voice can be a beautiful instrument and is the most difficult to play (the Meistersingers are right about that). Pair Pietas pompous, drawn-out vocals with minimalist, uninspired keyboard, and Walther’s soppy soliloquys are stronger than Valium. I know Walther is supposed to be a novice, but they couldn’t at least make him an entertaining one?
By setting the play forward three centuries, a striking and vaguely disturbing quality appears. The full title is The Master-singer of Nuremberg. To anyone in the West ‘Nuremberg’ is now a metonym of ‘Nazis’. So, why did director, Ella Marchment, shift the time? Did she just think Germany in the 1940s would be a more familiar setting? Or did she decide ‘If people will hear ‘The Meistersinger of the Holocaust’, lets just give it to them.’ Whatever her reasons for the change, it’s not a lazy one. The repeated use of ‘Heil Hitler!’ is completely naïve and sincere; when Walther triumphs he’s awarded a medal bearing ‘the portrait of our most glorious Führer’ to the nervous laughter of the audience. The play seems to be saying ‘Everyone here is a little bit racist, but it sort of doesn’t matter!’
Having previously criticised the score, I must commend the play on its conclusion – everyone gets married and sings an English rendition of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ in a genuinely soothing and uplifting conclusion. The ultimate concern of the best comedies is the concept of Joie de Vivre, and Theatre N16 hits the right notes to capture something quite elusive in its restorative dénouement.