Few things could unite such a large group of people as the Hallé’s Meistersinger did tonight. Some 515 performers, drawn from three orchestras and five choirs, gathered to present highlights from the first two acts of Wagner’s opera and the third act in full. The whole evening was carried off with great warmth, and the roar that answered the last notes was more suggestive of a football match than an opera.

The first violins of the Hallé
The first violins of the Hallé

Assistant conductor Jamie Phillips took charge of much of the first part of the evening whilst Sir Mark Elder provided a witty and engaging commentary. The first half orchestra, consisting of members of Chetham’s School Sinfonia and the Hallé’s own Youth Orchestra, played with remarkable skill, particularly in the large string section. Their account of the overture was elegant and they proved sensitive accompanists to the likes of David, Pogner and Beckmesser. The youth choirs’ proclamation of St John’s Day was full of child-like excitement while they swayed gently with the music.

The enduring memory of the first half, though, will be the congeniality of the interaction between Phillips, Elder and Christopher Purves (Beckmesser). The latter two did an excellent job of Beckmesser’s serenade to Eva, with Elder filling in as Hans Sachs with surprisingly good voice and Purves leaping around in rage. As an introduction to the opera, and perhaps also to Wagner, it was superb, and far more audience-friendly than the prelude to the orchestra’s 2011 Walküre.

After an hour’s interval, the Hallé proper took the stage for the third act. Their playing was superb, largely based around a rich string sound which shone in the orchestral interludes. The Act III prelude hung in the air mistily as a hangover to the preceding riot, and later the assemblies of townspeople and Masters abounded with pomposity amid some ravishing playing. The offstage bands played antiphonally from high up at each side of the hall with tight ensemble, adding festive sparkle to many of the late climaxes.

There was no weak link in the soloists. Beckmesser and Hans Sachs (Iain Paterson) were both well received following some very fine singing and acting. Paterson shaped Sachs’ “Wahn! Wahn!” passage into a pleasing journey to hope from brooding despair. Through the act he found a good balance in his role, leading and controlling with modest authority without threatening to dominate. Christopher Purves sang Beckmesser superbly, arguably emerging as the best of the cast. His finding and performance of Sachs’ poem were delightfully characterised, drawing smiles from several of the musicians. His almost pantomime acting made it hard to take the Town Clerk particularly seriously; his mincing, prancing and scurrying found much appreciation in the audience, though, and as in the first half, the nature of Die Meistersinger as a comedy was stressed foremost. The accompanying bassoons and horns were as comedic as Beckmesser, and Allan Clayton sang David with playful naïveté. The more serious vocal passages, such as the famous quintet and Walther’s (Daniel Kirch) song, though, had great beauty and tenderness. The morning dream quintet dawned with exquisite gentleness before blossoming into warm lyricism.

The massed choral forces were excellent in portraying the town’s excitement for the competition. Their almighty call to awake made full use of their great number, and they retained very clear diction throughout. The build to the grand conclusion featured further fine singing from Paterson in his praise of German art, and the climax, with orchestra, chorus and offstage brass at full throttle, was truly magnificent.

Regardless of the community aspect of it, the musicianship of this performance was worthy of high praise. The standing ovation went on for some time, with especially loud cheers for Beckmesser and Sachs. The biggest, though, was saved for Sir Mark Elder, whose calm authority and excellent dramatic pacing sculpted a performance which will live long in the memory.