La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Wagner at the Welsh National Opera

By Frank Cadenhead

Wagner as compelling dramatist?  Who knew? The wordy, inflated and repetitive tales we are so accustomed to were nowhere to be seen in the new and revelatory production by Richard Jones of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürenburg with Cardiff's Welsh National Opera.   

This Meistersinger boasted an enjoyable cast that would be envied in Vienna, New York, Berlin, London or Paris, led by the grand Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Hans Sachs. Terfel only seems to grow as an artist. After his definitive Don Giovanni at the Verbier Festival last July, his Hans Sachs could be a model for any aspiring singer of that role. With impeccable German, a compelling stage presence and outstanding musical artistry he is deservedly a leading star of our time. With the help of the towering man of the theatre, Richard Jones, his Sachs was seen as an anguished giant, torn between his physical attraction to young Eva, who was clearly offering herself, and his proud, high-minded role as artistic leader of his town. 

The new production, by the grand stage designer Richard Jones, was evocative without getting lost in Medieval detail and told the tale with a humanity of remarkable impact. It gave a surprise boost to the the reputation of Wagner as a dramatist, something not often revealed in more typical productions. Beckmesser was not your usual clown but a nuanced yet grandly flawed man. The costumes were not historical. In the first act the chorus resembled a 1930s American mid-Western town meeting and the last act seemed more like medieval costumes as imagined by 1950s Hollywood. But the stage pictures were uniformly handsome and always contributed to the focused drama. 

Terfel was supported here by a radiant Eva by Amanda Roocroft and a carefully drawn and droll Beckmesser by Christopher Purves. The one weak cast link was tenor Raymond Very as Walther von Stolzing; his voice seemed mostly under duress, although there was no announcement. The orchestra, after an unfocused overture, sharpened considerably to provide keen and passionate support under their musical director, Lothar Koenigs. 

My seat, in the center of the top balcony, cost a very democratic 15 pounds: less than one fifth of the same seat at London's Royal Opera. The sound was luscious, the stage was not far away, the seats comfortable. Londoners who want a sample can try for an already scarce ticket when the same forces appear (without the staging) as the second offering of the summer Proms series on July 17. 

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