Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Wagner Idol

January 01, 2012

Wolfgang Koch as Hans Sachs Photo: Clive Barda/ROH 2011
Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an opera that takes readily to modern interpretation and reinvention. There’s that strange unfunny “comic” plot and the weird holy German art business at the end. Directors all over Europe have taken various cracks at this opera in recent years with varying results not the least of which is Katarina Wagner’s production for Bayreuth in 2007. So one might think the atmosphere would be ripe for something a bit more subtle like Graham Vick’s 1993 production of Mesitersinger for the Royal Opera House, which was revived in December with conductor Antonio Pappano under the direction of Elaine Kidd this time around. Unfortunately, as seen on New Year’s Day in London, Vick’s staging looks startlingly naïve. Critics here have focused on the excesses of the Brueghel-inspired costumes complete with cod pieces. But frankly I found those much less concerning than the cartoonish characterization of just about everyone in the production. Thank god Sixtus Beckmesser doesn’t have a moustache here or the audience would certainly have gotten a chance to watch him twirl the ends of it while laughing fiendishly. Not that the show isn’t colorful, but it’s bland with very few moments of visual invention over the course of a long nearly 6 hours. Those moments would include the topsy-turvey Act II riot with villagers popping out of the walls and ceiling in response to the noise Hans Sachs and Beckmesser are making.

The revival is not a total wash, though, thanks to the orchestra and the conducting of the newly-knighted Antonio Pappano, who entered the pit for the first time since receiving the honor late last week. Pappano gave an energetic, brisk take of the score that eschewed a feeling of grandeur and ceremony. (This may have compounded the production's weaknesses that cried out for something more processional than active.) Pappano did give the show a sense of motion when events on stage were essentially static and listless. Besides the excellent chorus though, he got little help from the stage in terms of vocal performances that ranged from uninteresting to mildly unpleasant. The two exceptions to this came in smaller roles with the always dependable Toby Spence as David and the legendary John Tomlinson as Veit Pogner. Simon O’Neill who was announced as sick before the show but performed anyway played Walther von Stolzing. As advertised he looked all but green by the end of the evening and often sounded strained and pinched. Emma Bell’s Eva could also sound harsh and was broadly acted. Peter Coleman-Wright was the aforementioned Beckmesser who wasn’t opposed to chewing what little scenery was made available, although vocally he was certainly competent. And then there was the matter of Wolfgang Koch’s Hans Sachs. Although not announced as sick, Koch also looked rather pasty and green at the end of the evening. He seemed rather absent in the first two acts, but then came on strong in Act III with increased projection, and clarity of tone. Yet his concluding music was overshadowed by the superb ROH chorus which had been there all along giving the highest-quality performance. But this production has long ago passed its sell-by date and is undercooked in a way more reminiscent or recent failures of new productions like Don Giovanni and Anna Bolena in New York. There are two more Mesitersinger performances in London through the end of next week.

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