Wagner Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg Royal Opera, Covent Garden, 16 May 2000
Graham Vick's rustic production of Wagner's epic comedy Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg was a genuine jewel in the Royal Opera's crown when first presented back in 1993. Brought back in 1997, the staging actually formed the very last show mounted at the old Covent Garden before refurbishment began. Integral to the success of the venture on each previous occasion, as now, are the sterling contributions of three key participants - on stage, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, singing Hans Sachs and Beckmesser respectively; and in the pit, Bernard Haitink majestically conducting the Royal Opera House Orchestra.
Creating the correct orchestral tapestry is vital to the success of any Wagner opera, almost more so than other operatic composer before him or since, for Wagner's interweaving of motifs and themes provides an aural stage picture in and of itself. Haitink seems to know this vast score almost by heart now; and he draws playing of great finesse and also frothy lightness from the orchestra. There's nothing ponderous or long-winded about this reading, with the music, full of detail and nuance, kept bubbling along. Add the fact that Haitink's acute ear always sculpts the accompaniment to the needs of the drama, be it a single voice or the massed ranks of the townspeople of Nuremberg, and the foundations are handsomely laid for a major performance.
And once again John Tomlinson's heroic bass-baritone is up to taking centre stage in what must amount to the longest role in any single opera, and surpassed only by Wotan's appearance in three-quarters of the Ring. Interestingly of course Wagner interrupted his work on the Ring to produce, firstly Tristan, then Meistersinger. Tomlinson brings the gravitas of his own expert interpretation of Wotan to bear on his characterisation of Sachs too, and the moment when the cobbler reaches the self-realisation that he must lose Eva to Walther achieves a similar intensity to that of Wotan relinquishing his favourite daughter, Brunnhilde. At other times though Tomlinson's humane reading of the role produces its fair share of self-deprecating humour, and he is particularly adept at managing to lampoon Thomas Allen's also marvellously articulated and preening Beckmesser, whilst extending sympathy too.
The Tomlinson/Allen double-act is the centrepiece of this always engaging and eminently viewable production. But there is more than enough generous-spirited room left for others to shine. The Finnish soprano Soile Isokowski is a fetching and translucently delivered Eva; American tenor Robert D.Smith contributes handsomely also with a poised and burnished account of von Stolzing; and Kurt Rydl offers a steadfast and stentorian Pogner. Add some marvellous and large-scale choeography and on form ensemble singing from the Royal Opera chorus in the festive scenes and this Meistersinger once more proves one to treasure until its brought back again, and long may it continue to do so.
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