Wagner operas are so complex and multi-faceted that you never quite know what’s going to turn into the highlight. In Richard Jones’ production of The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, previously seen at WNO, the moment that took my breath away was the quintet in Act III, a sublime contrapuntal blending of voices executed with grace and melodic beauty, and an operatic set piece against which a younger Wagner would have railed explosively.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Walther von Stolzing) and the Mastersingers © Catherine Ashmore | ENO
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Walther von Stolzing) and the Mastersingers
© Catherine Ashmore | ENO

Complex, multi-faceted and, let’s admit it, just plain long. Including intervals, curtain calls and a presentation to Jones, the evening clocked in at just under six hours. And yet, as we left, my neighbour remarked to me that she had “been in plenty of 90 minute operas that felt longer”. The overall quality of performance was so great and the music so well integrated with the music that in spite of Ed Gardner’s relatively spacious tempi, the action dragged only a couple of times.

The ENO orchestra seems to come to life under Gardner. The prelude to Act III was spellbinding and showed us the essence of their playing: the word “poise” kept coming into my head. Gardner seemed to have total control of the dynamic shaping of each phrase, with the ebb and flow precisely measured and the level set to exactly what he wanted, whether for dramatic effect or for balance with singers.

Iain Paterson gave a towering performance as the shoemaker Hans Sachs. So clear is his diction and so natural is the way he weaves the speech cadences into his singing that you get the uncanny impression that Paterson is just one of your mates talking to you in the pub, until you sit up and realise that what you are hearing is still opera, with legato notes coming out resolute and true. Paterson was totally engaged with the text and the urbane character of Sachs, with a hundred little acting gestures each adding a splash of colour to the portrayal. The complexity of the man came to life, with his kindnesses, thoughtfulness, humour and flaws.

Rachel Nicholls (Eva) and Iain Paterson (Hans Sachs) © Catherine Ashmore | ENO
Rachel Nicholls (Eva) and Iain Paterson (Hans Sachs)
© Catherine Ashmore | ENO

Richard Jones’ staging had some of his usual habits, notably dark green walls and flock wallpaper (thankfully not at the same time). But it was obvious that this is an opera that Jones really loves: the overall staging was highly sympathetic, each element serving to highlight the nuances of the text. I loved Paul Steinberg’s sets,ranging from the simplicity of the half-timbered house of the Pogner the goldsmith (a touch of authenticity here – it looked disarmingly like the top floor of Albrecht Dürer’s house in Nuremberg) to the organised chaos of the inside of Sachs’ dwelling, half shoe shop, half genteel drawing room and library. Buki Shiff’s attractive costumes were set in Wagner’s time, apart from an outbreak of mediaeval clothing for the final singing competition. I’m not sure about the directorial integrity, but it made for great eye candy.

It wasn’t just Paterson who showed attention to detail in his acting: Jones conjured up convincing acting performances from his whole cast. The interplay between Paterson and Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser came through particularly strongly: Beckmesser haplessly inept, Sachs confident and manipulative. Vocally, Meistersinger has a huge cast and the singing was uniformly up to a very high quality, so I’m not going to enumerate all of them: I especially enjoyed the sweetness of timbre of Madeleine Shaw’s Magdalene and the flexibility and depth of James Cresswell’s Pogner.

Iain Paterson (Hans Sachs) and Andrew Shore (Sixtus Beckmesser) © Catherine Ashmore | ENO
Iain Paterson (Hans Sachs) and Andrew Shore (Sixtus Beckmesser)
© Catherine Ashmore | ENO

In Act I, I wasn’t sure about Gwyn Hughes-Jones’ Walther. For the drama to really work, Walther needs to take the stage and comprehensively outsing everyone else, and that didn’t happen. But in the more intimate environment of Act III, the lustre of Hughes-Jones’ voice lifted the performance wonderfully. And to be fair, it would have been difficult for anyone to outsing the ENO Chorus, on blistering form here. The end of Act II, when night time shenanigans prompt the townspeople of Nuremberg into a full scale riot, was a glorious piece of musical mayhem.

A last word: as a Jew, contrary to received wisdom, I found this opera entirely inoffensive. I’m not an expert on 19th century Germany’s ideas of Jewish stereotypes, so I’m not sensitive as to whether Beckmesser conformed to them or not. But anyway, I ended the opera with a great deal of sympathy for Beckmesser: just another ageing man of limited talents who dreams of love like the rest of us and whose deviousness is matched – nay, exceeded – by that of Sachs. The closing homily to the supremacy of German art sits uncomfortably, but for me, that’s mainly because of the way this opera was adopted by the Nazis rather than it being loathsome in itself. In any case, that’s only ten minutes at the end of four and half hours of opera.

With ENO having been in the news for all the wrong reasons last week, it needed this high profile, expensive production to be a great one. It is.

*****