MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Guest Review: An Unusual but Successful Meistersinger in London

Fulham-Opera-Meistersinger

Fulham Opera, Die Meistersinger
image: Matthew Coughlan

Guest review by Tom Luce of Die Meistersinger at the London-based Fulham Opera:

Wagner’s epic comedy is one of the longest and largest pieces in the operatic repertoire. Sixteen solo roles, the semi-chorus of apprentices, and big chorus and orchestra requirements combine with its up to five hours’ duration to make Die Meistersinger one of the most daunting artistic and financial challenges opera managements can face.

Outside Germany and Austria, where some houses do it every year, it is difficult to find performances. I have been lucky this year to see it twice, in Berlin and then London.

In April, the Berlin Staatsoper staged Die Meistersinger with a distinguished and experienced cast, the world-class Berliner Staatskappelle in the pit, and Daniel Barenboim, one of our epoch’s most outstanding musicians, on the podium. It was every bit as powerful and inspiring as one would expect. Andrea Moses’ production presented Nuremberg as a center of global capitalism, with its Mastersingers as major corporate figures. Not everyone appreciated this approach, but the director did interestingly convey the crowd’s response to Hans Sachs’s concluding monologue as a commitment to art rather than nationalism.

The forces involved in the London performance around a month ago could not have been more different. The Fulham Opera is a small fairly new undertaking of the type often characterized as “fringe.” It presented this most challenging of operas without cuts but with a chorus totaling only 23 (including the apprentices). There were 19 musicians in the pit: 9 winds, 9 strings, and a lutenist for Beckmesser. They played Jonathan Finney’s reduced version of the score.

One might think that an ensemble on so small a scale would guarantee failure to deliver Wagner’s expansive epic. But the actual event undermined such prejudgments.

There were indeed some elements not wholly successful — the overture sounded thin and unbalanced, and the brawl at the end of the second act did not fully come off. But other big moments were successful. The third-act prelude was warmly and beautifully delivered, and the great “Wach Auf” Chorus came across powerfully. Throughout, the staging, acting, singing, and playing gave a real sense of the lyrical flow and the interactions between characters that are essential to the piece.

The limited scenery concentrated more on furniture than on the Nuremberg setting but did provide plenty of scope for the comic interactions between the apprentices and their leader David and the Mastersingers in Paul Higgins’ effective and enjoyable staging. All the soloists sang and acted convincingly and were matched by skillful and committed playing in the pit under the fluent and sympathetic musical direction of Ben Woodward.

Rather, I must confess, to my own surprise, l left the Fulham Opera performance with the wonders of Wagner’s great masterpiece resonating not all that much less than I had left the Berlin performance.

The success of this daring enterprise shows that there are a large number of very gifted singing actors in the operatic profession without — at least for the present — the celebrity status expected by big opera company audiences. It also shows that elaborate scenery is not necessary for an effective staging.

This prompts an interesting question. Die Meistersinger has been performed by London’s two big established companies twice in the last decade. Seattle Opera’s last performance was in 1989. Do the glitzy expectations of big companies’ audiences and supporters inhibit their managements from considering less infrequent and more affordable presentations of this astounding and essential masterpiece?
–Tom Luce

Filed under: Wagner

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