Bryn Terfel – Hans Sachs
Raymond – Very Walther von Stoltzing
Amanda – Roocroft Eva
Christopher Purves – Beckmesser
Andrew Tortise – David
Anna Burford – Magdalene
David Soar – Nightwatchman
Brindley Sherratt – Pogner
Simon Thorpe – Kothner
David Stout – Nachtigall
Paul Hodges – Schwartz
Rhys Meirion – Zorn
Andrew Rees – Eisslinger
Stephen Rooke – Moser
Arwel Huw Morgan – Foltz
Geraint Dodd – Vogelgesang
Owen Webb – Ortel
Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Conductor: Lothar Koenigs
Director: Richard Jones
“Sachs, mein Freund!” Bryn Terfel has sung extracts from Hans Sachs’s music for years, and the character always seemed well suited to his warm voice and air of easy humanity. But he didn’t unveil the complete role until this season, in the very production of Die Meistersinger that visited the Proms last night. Terfel proudly puts Welshman after his name, and he promised the country’s National Opera that they would get his first Sachs. Six thousand listeners in Albert Hall spent most of the afternoon and evening for the privilege, just over six hours (imagine the ones in the arena who had to stand), with scarcely a handful leaving early. Terfel raises sheep at home, and it takes a golden fleece to hear him in Covent Garden, the Met, or Salzburg. Here he was cheap as chips but musically priceless.
I had a front row seat, bringing me as near to a great singer at work as I will ever get. It was a fascinating education. The paradox of Terfel on stage is his complete naturalness, amounting almost to casualness, combined with immense vocal authority. Without shifting gears he could turn to the audience and fill the hall’s vastness the way other singers vocalize in the shower. Not a hair stirred, nor did he lose the play of expressions – amused tolerance, alert scrutiny, reverie, shaded melancholy, compassion – that are gathered together in a great Sachs. If anything, his great peroration that caps the opera was sung stronger than in Act I.
So far as timbre goes, Terfel has more lightness and flexibility, not to mention a definite ping in his top notes, setting him apart from the darker, more mature sound of, say, Hans Hotter. Weight is not what gives him the most authority; he just seems like the most alive person on stage. Two particular moments will stay with me. Just before the Quintet in Act III, Sachs is embraced by Eva, and it’s the modern fashion to have this be a moment of erotic connection. Although often sung by older singers, the character is a fairly young, virile widower. It’s plausible that Eva could choose Sachs instead of Walther. Terfel threw himself out of her embrace with the force of rejected temptation, and for the next two minutes he looked genuinely flummoxed, so that the famous quotation of the Tristan motif that Wagner throws in acquired a personal meaning for Sachs, who has felt this woman’s magic touch.
The other moment can’t be seen in the opera house but was visible to us who sat slightly at an angle to the stage. In the great chorus in Act III where the assembled townsfolk sing in praise of Sachs, Terfel turned his back to the audience. The massed chorus, all native Welsh, sang their hearts out fortissimo, and Terfel furtively pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his eyes before lightly tapping his heart in gratitude and then turning back to face the auditorium. It was easy to believe in that instant that the artist was as humane as the character.
This production was also the first Meistersinger ever staged by the 64-year-old Welsh National, and even though we had no costumes or scenery – we did get most of the blocking, however – it was obvious that the company wanted to put Terfel at the center of a superior singing cast. David (Andrew Tortise) was boyish and lyrical; Magdalena (Anna Burford) was a rich mezzo without sounding old. All the lower male voices were first rate, with a totally secure, dark chocolate voice for Veit Pogner (Brindley Sherratt) and a Beckmesser (Christopher Purves) with real vocal command and not a shred of whiny caricature. Purves took second honors after Terfel for his acting. Built like a snarling fireplug, he swung between outrage and vanity with a whimsical freedom that Ben Jonson would have appreciated in Volpone. All twelve master singers, down to the semi-anonymous Ortel and Zorn, deserved their guild membership. As a flip, the Nightwatchmen too sounded like a marquee voice.
It can’t be good news that I am saving the two romantic leads, Eva and Walther, this late. The American tenor Raymond Very was completely wrong for Walther, lacking any nobility in carriage, behavior, or singing style. His acting range consisted of looking either blank or worried, like a grocer who keeps wondering what that funny smell is. His grizzled white goatee was odd in a young lover, and since the voice was inadequate, once Very sang medium-loud there was nowhere else to go. His lack of ardent emotion in the Prize Song was woeful. Amanda Roocroft could have been the grocer’s wife, since her Eva looked perpetually worried as well; I saw her crack two begrudging smiles all evening. The voice is a very even lyric soprano of the right weight, but Roocroft, like Very, refused to offer herself to the role. Very was so cautious that he could have been marking his part in a dress rehearsal; Roocroft sang out three or four times but with so little involvement it hardly mattered. Both got good notices in the press, which says something about the present state of Wagner singing.
During the intermission I saw a canary yellow vintage Rolls Royce sitting outside the hall, and I hope that conductor Lothar Koenigs got to ride home in it. He is the new music director of the Welsh National Opera, and to judge by his astonishingly musical handling of Meistersinger, they’ve unearthed a gem. The score looks rhythmically foursquare on paper, but there are rivulets of melody running throughout and constantly shifting colors in the woodwinds, reminiscent of Mozart’s great wind serenades. Koenigs seems to do nothing – he beats time with his right hand metrically and marks very few entries with his left – but the orchestra glowed. Balances were impeccable, and the energy in the last scene was as fresh and urgent as in the first. It’s a joy to hear Wagner’s operas in concert for the pleasure of the orchestra, and this one was superlative. If the Rolls is big enough, they should also cram in the chorus, which sang fervently, with individual voices encouraged to stand out. As a result, this sounded like a townfull of characters, not choristers.
I can’t depart this exceptional evening without a few comments about Meistersinger itself. Schoenberg famously said that there was plenty of good music left to be written in the key of C. I don’t know what key Meistersinger is in, but let’s generalize and say that Schoenberg was talking about major keys. Here is a major-key feast to rival the Beethoven “Pastorale” and the Schubert “Great” symphony, which is, of course, in C. Why did Wagner step into the mysterious luxury of chromaticism in Tristan to regress to simple diatonic harmony here? The usual reason given is that Meistersinger is a comedy, where the atmosphere must be sunnier, and that its setting is medieval, hence more primitive harmonically. I can’t disagree, but what overwhelms the listener when an orchestra is set free from the opera pit and allowed to fully expand, as happened last night, is how Wagner gives us Mozart’s major-key qualities – exuberance, optimism, an untroubled brow, celebration – raising them in excelsis.
At the moment that Terfel was wiping away a tear, so was I, sheerly for the joy of harmony when the simple becomes the sublime. Meistersinger is the only Wagner opera not set in realms of myth or fairy tale. The ordinary world is a major-key place, full of hummable tunes and stretches of sunshine. Wagner wanted to show that such a world can be a paradise, its blessings no less sacred because they are as public as a betrothal, a singing contest, a church service. His imagined Nürnberg is full of ordinary people who also know that they inhabit a musical heaven that never was. It’s that knowledge, which we share, that makes it impossible to listen without a smile on the verge of a sob.
Readers in Britain can watch the performance on the BBC’s iPlayer (available until 24 July 2010).