Musicweb International
Jim Pritchard
Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Edinburgh, 2 September 2006
Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
For many reasons this final Usher Hall concert of the 2006 Edinburgh Festival seemed an appropriate choice to mark the conclusion of Sir Brian McMaster’s tenure as Festival Director – a position that he has held since 1991.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is the longest of Wagner’s works still commonly performed today, usually lasting about 5 hours. The setting is mid-sixteenth century Nuremberg, one of the centres of the Renaissance in Northern Europe at the time and the story is about real-life Mastersinger guild of who established a complex system of rules for the composition and performance of songs. The opera realises much of its charm from its faithful depiction of the guild’s traditions and one of its main characters, the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, is based on an actual historical figure (1494 – 1576): perhaps Wagner’s greatest character, he features as a wise and compassionate man.

Wagner's only ‘comedy’ is a favourite for many. Of all his works it is the most accessible and potentially least disturbing, perhaps because Wagner ignored all the rules he had proposed for opera in his 1850s theoretical prose writings. The work has a historically well-defined plot, rather than mythological or legendary one and is the only mature Wagner opera based on an entirely original story, devised by Wagner himself. Deliberately using many of the operatic conventions that Wagner had railed against in his essays, including a ballet, rhymed verse, choruses, arias, the work even has five different characters singing together at one point (the celebrated Meistersinger Quintet.) The whole thing is a huge metaphor about the meaning of Art, reflecting on the response to the foreign or unfamiliar in music and asking whether everyone can be sufficiently open-minded to value the modern. In this essentially autobiographical treatise, Wagner propounds his view that there is a greater chance of being understood by the masses than by essentially conservative professionals.

At this, his final bow, the self-effacing Sir Brian squirmed in his seat as a fulsome tribute was paid to him before the concert and might have preferred, I suppose, to let the opera to do all of his talking for him. Reflecting the manner in which the old gives way to the new in the opera, it may have seemed particularly significant to Sir Brian that his successor (Jonathan Mills) comes not from the UK’s classical establishment but is an Australian composer and academic currently based at the University of Melbourne.

There was a veritable 'who's who' of celebrated 'Mastersingers' on stage singing comparatively small parts (William Kendall, John Shirley-Quirk, Jeffery Lawton, John Mitchinson, John Robertson, Phillip Joll, Glenville Hargreaves and Richard Van Allan). They had centuries of experience in music between them and long associations with Brian McMaster from his days in charge of the Welsh National Opera to the present. They contrasted neatly with the 'youthful‘ apprentices (literal and metaphorical) from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama also singing in the performance. A similar contrast balanced the old and young quite judiciously among the principals too.

Toby Spence isn't all that old but is already an experienced David. He was the only cast member ‘off the book’ however, and reminded me of the over-excited Andrex puppy in the TV ads, a little too eager to be admired. His performance was too mannered with an insufficient range of colours in his voice making his long Act I explanation of the Mastersinger art somewhat of a trial in its own right. The younger basses made a substantial impression particularly James Rutherford, the recent winner of the inaugural Seattle Wagner Competition (see review) who was an impressive Kothner. His range is wide - from baritone to bass roles - and he looks to have an exciting future before him. Matthew Rose (a former Jette Parker, if not Vilar, Royal Opera Young Artist) was Veit Pogner, every bit the pater familias he should be. Paul Whelan was luxury casting as the Nightwatchman.

Andrew Shore made his role-debut as Beckmesser. He was fresh from his success as Alberich in the new Ring cycle in Bayreuth and obviously had not had much chance to familiarise himself with the role as he left his head in the score most of the time. Nevertheless this meant he gave us a very interestingly fresh take on the role. It is occasionally the case that Beckmessers these days woo Magdalene (as Eva) by singing too well in Act II – here there was just the right side of the embarrassment that Wagner intended for this character. It was good too that Andrew Shore was not put off by the BBCSSO’s inability to find a lute player, since the guitar used here did not sound right.

Wendy Dawn Thompson’s Magdalene began with her perky involvement in the Scene 1 ensemble and made much of this relatively small supporting role. The stunning Swedish soprano Hillevi Martinpelto was an ideal looking Eva and does not seemed to have sung this role many times. She was totally at ease in the part if not quite girly enough and other Wagner heroines, Elsa or Elisabeth, may be better parts for her.

When Robert Holl (Hans Sachs) came on stage looking flushed with an open collar and generally unkempt, I thought he must have got stuck in traffic on his way back from a relaxed lunch. His involvement in Act I was rather low-key but it proved that he was simply pacing himself for this very long role where he must be at his best at the end of the evening. He was very much the reflective poet rather than the cobbler unlike the best Sachs I have seen (Norman Bailey) who was both. Robert Holl had all the humanity that Sachs needs but little of the necessary innate humour although he coped well with the role. Despite his stage experience in it (and the shoe last he was given in Act II) he retained a certain Dutch 'sang froid' in his pivotal encounter with Beckmesser.

The young German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, was the physical antithesis of the typical heldentenor today – tall, thin and with lots of hair! Again, he was singing the role for the first time and it showed. Not that it was bad, far from it: it was superbly sung but without convincing me that he is a stage Walther of the immediate future – not until he gains more (vocal) weight. By the time he came to sing a compelling ‘Morgenlich leuchtend’ he was using a crooning falsetto more than he should.

All of these artists had come together for this one-off final night festival (proper) offering and it suffered from a choice of conductor (the American David Robertson) without much of a Wagner pedigree (was no one else available?). He did little wrong and kept this oratorio-like event on track but rarely does any Meistersinger pass by swiftly and this one will leave little lasting memory. The secure playing was that of a conductor and orchestra familiar enough with the music not to spoil anything but unable to allow enough insight, colour or magic to intrude and make it special.

However, all was nearly forgiven with Sachs’s stirring closing ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’. Robert Holl delivered all that could be expected of him and with the large Edinburgh Festival Chorus on inspired form (as they had been all evening) it reminded me of the infamous Woody Allen quote ‘I heard so much Wagner at last night's concert that I'm ready to invade Poland’ … but that's another story best not dwelt on here!

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