The press release doled out to the usual suspects attending this opening night states that it is “the ENO’s first production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg in over 30 years”. I assume they’re being punctilious in observing the difference between production and performance, since I clearly recall seeing Moshinsky’s staging at the Coliseum in the 1985/6 season which would belie one reading of their assertion. But then, the house’s generally informative and apropos programmes always keep quiet about any given work’s in-house performance history, to my ongoing aggravation; whereas the ROH’s often risibly random jottings, both verbal and especially pictorial, do invariably include at least the rudiments of one. So, it’s not quite thirty years since Wagner’s only mature comedy was last given in St. Martin’s Lane. Since then, Covent Garden has mounted – and now apparently jettisoned – a staging by Graham Vick; and even Glyndebourne has muscled in on the act, with David McVicar’s very striking show. Between the two, Welsh National Opera mounted the work in 2010, in a production by Richard Jones which is now rehashed here, to very limited visual effect indeed.

ENO Mastersingers Nicky Spence and Andrew Shore (c) Catherine Ashmore

Upfront I might as well say that this is easily the worst designed Meistersinger I ever recall seeing, with utterly hideous, cartoonish sets (by Paul Steinberg) – Act II looks like a cheap touring version of Jack and the Beanstalk: you half-expect the Jolly Green Giant to wander on – all confined at back-wall level by the inevitable facsimile of flock wallpaper without which no Richard Jones production would be complete. The outer acts are both set in flat, shallow boxes of gangrenous green presented in ruthless symmetry at 180° to the proscenium plane at a scale so reduced from the theatre’s actual size that both the stage’s width and (even more so) height have to be heavily masked. And “flat” is the operative word here, a space of little more than concertizing, untheatrical functionality, unevocative of anything and in the outer acts utterly unrepresentative too (this is a cathedral interior? this is an open meadow?). The amazing collection of junk in Sachs’ house is all tidied up in symmetrical rows of shelving (and though in the printed interview the director helpfully locates his staging in 1868 – the year of the opera’s premiere – someone ought to tell him that there is no such thing as domestic electric lighting until the 1890s, and then only in the homes of the very, very rich, so the incandescent bulbs inside, and the preposterous spotlights outside, are a nonsense even within the parameters of the updating). Act I is the least offensive-looking, though by the time twelve apprentices are wheeling what look like portable toilets around in an elaborate formation dance whilst poor David is trying to teach Walther the “tones” we are already well on our way to the tacky-looking visual bathos of the heroically dire Act II, from which the opera alas never thereafter recovers.

ENO Mastersingers Rachel Nicholls and Iain Paterson (c) Catherine Ashmore

What goes on in these silly, twee sets is for the most part unexceptionable: unexceptional too. Wagner’s stage directions, which he considered as important as his words and music, are virtually all observed, though in the process they can look ridiculous (Eva and Walther “hiding” in full view of everybody on stage’s sightline in Act II would be hilarious if it weren’t so dramatically feeble). And there is the odd droll gloss that works – Walther assuming the couch-prone position of an analysand as Freu(n)d Sachs scribbles down his “dream” behind him – though that doesn’t include the finale’s show-and-tell of the German (and very many Austrian) great and good as depicted throughout on the front-cloth, on which, inter alia, a typically snotty-looking Hugo von Hofmannsthal eyes us querulously whilst the nearby Richard Strauss eyeballs him in profile, across the expanse of Marlene Dietrich’s bosom. As one does. But other “ideas” go badly astray, none more so than that which disfigures the Quintet, cringe-makingly staged in rigid symmetry, seated, all eyes upraised to a shining sheet of Walther’s poetic inspiration hauled aloft on a washing line, which is not so much bathetic as plain old pathetic to have to watch.

ENO Mastersingers Quentin Hayes, David Stout, Iain Paterson and Gwyn Hughes Jones (c) Catherine Ashmore

Enough. I’m starting to lose my temper now at the mere reminiscence, so I’ll rapidly circumnavigate Buki Shiff’s temporal rag-bag of costume designs and move on to the musical side of things. Except my temper won’t necessarily improve in the process, unfortunately. Well, first the good news. There is amongst the cast one unequivocally great voice: that of James Creswell, the best American bass I’ve heard since Sam Ramey debuted at Glyndebourne in the late 1970s, magnificently rich, dark and wholly secure, with flawless emission – something pretty much at a discount nearly everywhere else – and of quite thrilling scale. But he’s Pogner (and looks about twenty years younger than his prospective son-in-law, and sounds it too, which does nothing for dramatic verisimilitude). Iain Paterson’s Sachs – also far, far too young-looking – is for the most part well sung, and he at least gets through Act III without tiring: but of tortured angst, depths of feeling, indeed anything by way of enlivening characterisation, I can’t say there’s much on offer. This is a light-weight Sachs in all senses, theatrically as well as vocally, and wholly lacking in the spellbinding communicative power that Michael Volle demonstrated at the Met barely two months ago. Nor does he command the kind of life-and-soul-of-Nuremberg charisma that Terfel managed so memorably (even when audibly on the ropes in Act III, as he was when I heard him). And a Meistersinger without a charismatic Sachs is always going to be Hamlet without the Prince, I’m afraid.

I thought Gwyn Hughes Jones had a very respectable stab at Walther von Stolzing, and certainly succeeded better than the ROH’s last exponent (Simon O’Neill) with less pinched tone and a more musical manner. But like Botha at the Met he’s unprepossessing to a degree, and no kind of a stage animal: worse, with what I take to be his own facial hair, dominated by a silver beard, he looks easily the oldest of the male principals (Beckmesser excepted, who here, conversely, I think is played – and alas sung – rather too old) which simply makes nonsense of the whole plot. But he does have all the notes, uningratiating as some of them are, and to be fair to him, he – like everybody else – would sound a thousand times better if only he was allowed to sing in German rather than the creaky, ill-fitting English that weighs on the work like a lead overcoat. Nicky Spence as David actually has more of a Walther sound in his voice, at least until he hits the ledger lines, where he has recourse to all manner of falsetto crooning in order to cope with the high As, and managed to miss the solitary high B climax of his “tones” narration altogether (and though this isn’t entirely his fault, the “fight” with Beckmesser in Act II – resulting in the latter ending up stark naked except for his strategically-placed lute – was pitifully unconvincing to have to watch, as indeed was the whole badly-blocked and executed brawl, complete with the director’s trademark formation autism for the chorus, yawn).

ENO Mastersingers Iain Paterson and Gwyn Hughes Jones (c) Catherine Ashmore

Rachel Nicholls struck me as wholly miscast as Eva, a big, hard-edged, rather sharply shrill voice with plenty of pitch-blur on account of the biting depth of her vibrato, all of it the very antithesis of what the role should sound like (pure, silvery, youthful, effortless, none of them in evidence here). The – far too young – Magdalena of Madeleine Shaw, albeit properly a mezzo, made a more securely focussed and pleasing sound, which is ridiculous vocally (though bizarrely enough exactly the same thing happened when this staging was new, Amanda Roocroft’s blowsy Eva comprehensively outsung by Anna Burford’s glorious Magdalena). As I’ve suggested above, Andrew Shore is not a good age-match for Iain Paterson’s Sachs – though the text makes it clear they’re actually of one, and should neither of them be wooing Eva – but he gives a performance of great skill, if not much tonal lustre, and is evidently a good enough sport to not mind having to strip at the end of Act II as well as bare much of his backside in III in an imaginary fourth-wall mirror – i.e. facing out to us – to examine his livid bruises (I thought the woman behind me was going to have a conniption at the sight, pro or con I’m none too sure). And sure enough, in the spirit of whatever’s going on up in the gangrened bleachers at the end, this humiliated and defeated Beckmesser reappears to rejoin the other masters as if nothing had happened (I dare say in similarly cuddly PC-spirit Jones would bring back Malvolio in Twelfth Night when the whole point is that they’re self-serving social outcasts who stay outcasts).

There was nice work from a very steady and sonorous if somewhat tightly-wound sounding David Stout as Kothner, and the rest of the masters made a fair showing, one of whom, Nicholas Folwell, was in the opera’s last performances at this address 29 years ago, bless him. But truth to tell, the opera’s real star-turn, Pogner aside, was the ENO’s musical infrastructure, with some superbly fluent, if unexpectedly spacious, conducting from Edward Gardner, and quite luminous playing from the orchestra, the strings and brass of whom are of an altogether superior cast to that which is heard 500 yards up the road in Bow Street, with far more body and sheen on the former, and far greater accuracy in the latter (even if the offstage trumpeters in Act III missed their first entry). The much-augmented chorus – more than doubled, to 90 – made such a splendid sound that I even forgot temporarily that they were singing in the wrong language (for this relief, much thanks). Quite how I am supposed to rate this performance overall I don’t know, so I propose to cheat, and say that I personally wouldn’t give the direction more than 3* (and I’m being generous); the set designs precisely 0* (ditto): the soloists range from 1* to 5* whilst Gardner gets 4* (the occasional longueur creeps in, notably during the unfunniest, most long-winded “joke” in human history, Beckmesser’s Act II serenade. Laugh? I thought I’d never start); and the orchestra and chorus get 5*. If that sounds like a curate’s egg – good, but only in patches – then that’s probably about right.

Stephen Jay-Taylor 

(Photos : Catherine Ashmore)