OPERA REVIEW: The Mastersingers of Nuremberg

February 10, 2015


The Mastersingers of Nuremberg


English National Opera

This is the only original story from Wagner that is still performed. At four and a half hours long it’s a big ask to get through, but I was confounded as the House seemed filled to capacity and the place was humming with enthusiasm for this to start. The enthusiasm never waned and we were treated to one of the best Wagner performances I’ve seen on an English stage.

From the opening bars of the ever-popular overture, Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is conceived on a truly epic scale, full of glorious melodies, stirring choruses and thrilling orchestration.


ENO’s major new production of Wagner’s comedy sees Richard Jones’s acclaimed staging come to the London Coliseum for the first time after being first seen at the Welsh National opera. Jones provides a characteristically witty and clear retelling of Wagner’s drama about the 16th-century guild of amateur poets and musicians (the Mastersingers), in which the tension between creativity and conformity is played out in a society obsessed with rules and regulations.

At heart it’s a love story. To read the synopsis, click here:


Iain Paterson’s Sachs was in control throughout, convincing in his role as the overseeing outsider and passionate in his singing, with clarity of intonation which allowed the monologues to roll beautifully onwards.

Nicky Spence as David was a lovable melodious thug, and fun whenever he stepped on to the stage, and Andrew Shore gave us a wholly novel take on Beckmesser as a genuinely nervous man, full of substantial human anxiety and vexed romantic hope, which made his ultimate public humiliation all the harder to watch. He was superb, his voice as beguiling and beautiful as his acting was convincing.

Rachel Nicholls kicks off the third-act Dawn quintet with a commanding gentleness that made the whole audience catch their breath and then hold it. This slowly-building crescendo rising to utter perfection and it was worth sitting through the rest just to get to it. It was captivating, musically uplifting and I was quite blown away by it, as were the rest of the audience.


Richard Jones retains his dreamlike touches, threaded through the opera in both action and staging, and this adds a fresh baroque flourish to this production. The level of craftsmanship is very high and this feels like a seriously quality piece of work.

I bounced along through the hours, allowing my mind to wander and enjoy the various flourishes: the slow-mo plangent Terry-Pratchett style Night Watchman, the freaky cube-headed Mastersingers and the wonderful carry-on style naughty faux violence of the late night pyjama riot scene.

There’s a lot of hard unkindness disguised in this opera, the laughter is often at humiliation, suffering, violence and failure, but then the quality of the clowning brings a gloss to this and gives us plenty of opportunity to giggle as the action unfolds. Jones also brings out to the front of the story the tensions around class, privilege and assumptions that this seemingly meteoric group of Mastersingers are obsessed with. He also makes it genuinely funny, and that’s a real breath of fresh air.

Buki Shiff’s rich and rampant costumes are a constant pleasure to see and they flood the stage with a wonderful retro-futuristic mediaeval melange of fabrics, hats and cloaks, giving a tangible opulent atmosphere. The final scene was a visual feast of colour and rococo designs.

See the trailer here:

Edward Gardner, always a treat in the pit, was better than ever in command of this writhing emoting monster and you could feel his energy consistently pulling and pushing the orchestra through this titanic score, never dipping, always flowing, and allowing a lyrical tenderness to underpin the close personal moments, while allowing the whole thing to inflate and fill with the majestic massed voices of the chorus when needed. These powerful, engaging, effortless changes of pace encompassed the entire performance.  I was thrilled by his conducting.

This was a superb production of this extra-long Wagnerian comic opera and I’m glad I made the effort and put the time aside to enjoy it. I thought it would be a trial and in fact it was a blessing to have nothing to do all afternoon but be pleased by a consistently high-quality performance from the orchestra and singers of the ENO.


The end scene made me feel a little uncomfortable and had echoes of a darker Nuremberg threaded through it (don’t mention the Wahn…) , but this is Wagner after all, a product of his time, and the music and story reflect that new nation-building fever that consumed him; but ultimately it’s an unconcealed joyful celebration of German culture. It was refreshing to watch a performance that focused on the very real tension between community demands and the artist’s innovation and not have it read as a harbinger of a more unfortunate chapter in recent history. My companion thought it a mistake to stage, or even include the final scene, but I believe it allowed the rather thin narrative arc of this only original story from the mind of Wagner to finish with suitable, breath-taking aplomb.

A great opening volley for the new season. As spectacular as it sounds, there is much dark muttering about the future of the ENO; this triumphant display of wondrous Wagner should, however, open some blinkered eyes once more.

Recommended! Treat yourself and book now!

Running time: 5 hrs 40 mins (overture and Act 1:  1 hr 26 mins | Interval: 20 mins | Act 2: 1 hr 5 mins | Interval: 40 mins | Act 3: 2 hrs 7 mins)

Language: Sung in English, with lyrics projected above the stage

Until March 10

February 14, 18, 21, 25, March 3, 7 and 10 

For more information about ENO or to book tickets, click here: