Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg The Royal Opera, conducted by Bernard Haitink Royal Albert Hall, Wednesday 31 May 2000 (SD)
Graham Vick's 1983 production has recently been revived at Covent Garden. This simpler, RAH staging is smaller in scale and quite intimate, focusing more on the interaction between individuals rather than the teeming streets of Nuremberg. But the sparse props and lack of scenery did not prevent one from becoming involved in the action, and the English surtitles were invaluable, despite the excellent German diction of the soloists. The only disappointment was that the chorus, in concert dress, seemed less involved in the action.
Haitink conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a relaxed yet sumptuous performance, managing to remain amazingly inconspicuous throughout. The overture was smooth and flowing with immaculate string articulation. The orchestra's ensemble was never in question and the balance was held so it never seemed to drown the soloists. They produced an enormous range of sound, powerful when appropriate, with, for example, menacing brass while Eva and Walther made hasty plans to elope, sublime, dreamy love music, and cosy Biedermeier-style passages in the prelude to Act 3. Individual instruments brought out various themes well, particularly the oboe's diminished 5ths leitmotif in Act 2 as Sachs meditates on Walther's Trial Song.
The chorus sang with a convincingly heavy, Germanic sound and the excellent cast was headed, as in 1983, by John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen. Robert Dean Smith brought a highly lyrical tenor to Walther (I overhead someone comment that 'he makes Wagner sound like Schubert'), catching the dignity and romance of what is basically an ideal 'type' rather than a rounded character. In the same way, Eva and Walther's liaison was in the 'boy meets girl' vein, unlike the very 'human' relationship between Eva and Sachs.
The crusty dignity of the Mastersingers was portrayed very clearly by the singers, and Beckmesser's smallmindedness and Vogelmeister's rather pious manner were a striking contrast to Walther's romantic spirit. Tomlinson acted to perfection the role of the cobbler-poet bridging the gap between their two worlds. He brought out at once both the humour and the immense integrity of Sachs. Though his voice was somewhat strained on the high notes, it was utterly compelling elsewhere, which was rich compensation. Thomas Allen's Beckmesser was more than a stereotype character; his singing of the Trial Song was so fine that his pitiful nervous twitches were all the more poignant. By the end of the opera he had the audience's sympathy.
Soile Isokoski, as Eva, sang with a bright, lithe voice which, though small for Wagner, really soared on the high notes. Nadja Michael's bigger sound seemed inappropriate for Eva's maid, but as David, Gert Henning-Jensen's precise, florid tenor and boyish enthusiasm were a delight. They all blended effortlessly with Sachs in the truly heartstopping Quintet of Act 3.
This was a highly polished performance - albeit one heard in a sparsely filled Albert Hall.
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