The classical world came off lightly in the recent New Year Honours list, with the Royal Opera House’s knighted Antonio Pappano the only winner. He has much to celebrate, more so after directing last night’s concert performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with authoritative ease and good cheer, supported by a fine array of soloists.

Antonio Pappano
Antonio Pappano

The performance, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, came at the end of a run of Graham Vick’s production at Covent Garden, with an identical cast (Bryn Terfel had been due to sing Hans Sachs for Birmingham, but was replaced by the ROH Sachs, Wolfgang Koch, due to a chest infection). The overture, regal and clear yet sumptuous in its smoothly rising brass chords, set an excellent tone for the evening with fine playing from all corners; the woodwind were delicate and charming in their subito piano passages and the strings full and warm throughout. The ROH orchestra was excellent all evening, remaining energetic to the triumphant fortissimo finale, but also playing with acute sensitivity to the drama, nimbly turning from accompaniment to lead. Pappano gave great demands for flexible expression, colouring the score richly with fine control of dynamics and tempo. His pacing was almost perfect, perhaps lingering in the dawn dialogue of Act III slightly, though the preceding prelude was gloriously lyrical and introspective, and his reading was otherwise well-judged and exciting.

The soloists were largely superb in both voice and character, none more so than Sir John Tomlinson, whose Pogner exuded a glorious mix of power and grace: he was not the stale, daughter-selling fool he could be, but noble and commanding, and hinting at wistfulness in announcing the gift of his daughter. His presence filled the hall from the moment of his entry to his bow (greeted by the largest cheer of the evening), and he sang faultlessly with a magnificently full tone. His dialogue with Emma Bell as Eva early in Act II was touchingly gentle from both parties. Bell sang beautifully, mustering broad, lengthy lines with barely an effort. She switched from haughtiness with Sachs to radiant glow at the sight of Walther with fine command of both moods, and her vocal control was very impressive.

Simon O’Neill’s Walther was youthful and fresh, benefiting perhaps from his pleasantly lean voice. His was a freely lyrical and romantic young knight, mostly well sung, though a few croaked entries (which immediately settled) and a little thinness in the lower range suggested a slightly fatigued larynx. His Act III song was wonderfully done, though: heartfelt, powerful, and very enjoyable.

Toby Spence was animated and boyish as David, doing a marvellous job as Sachs’ young apprentice. His great attention to diction and expression made for a charming, effervescent and very witty performance, but he was also gentle and tender in his musings on Magdalene. His fit of jealous rage at Beckmesser in Act II was less subtle, chasing the latter to and fro across the stage, but good-hearted nonetheless.

The comic parts of the opera were well managed in general, but there were times when the treatment of Beckmesser threatened to slip into caricature. The acting did nothing to promote sympathy for him, and he was instead widely lampooned in almost pantomime fashion. This simplicity was by no means a disaster, and it arguably allowed for greater emotional weight to fall on Sachs. Nonetheless, Peter Coleman-Wright sang Beckmesser superbly. He took great, unseemly relish in his explanation of the Meistersingers’ ways to Walther, nicely undermined by the comic prominence of the bassoon as he finished, and he made a great show of rage at Sachs’ hammering in Act II. His more musical moments were finely done too, winning at least some regret for his much maligned character.

Wolfgang Koch, as Hans Sachs, was lyrical and mellow, most of all in his wonderful interaction with floating strings and horn in the second act, but impassioned when required as well. He seemed to improve through the evening, beginning a little inconspicuous, but finishing as the quietly benevolent controller of events. His self-denying refusal of Eva was beautifully sung, softly regretful and warmly contented in poignant combination. His cobbler’s song was well voiced and funny, and his interactions with Beckmesser wonderfully innocent in their mischief.

The masters were all very good: powerfully and clearly sung and subtly acted to fill the space between soloist and orchestra. They were certainly capable of making a big sound, easily creating an image of their tradition, pomposity and outrage at Walther, but supported by full texture and excellent tone throughout. They were led confidently by Donald Maxwell as Kothner.

The ROH Chorus was magnificent, singing at the ends of the acts with enormous power and energy, always maintaining impeccable precision with the orchestra. The riot at the end of Act II was boisterous and noisy, but always remained rooted to Pappano’s excellent direction. He balanced soloists and orchestra seamlessly, particularly in the beautifully intoned quintet. When the opera’s glorious conclusion came after six hours of magnificent singing and playing, the massed forces, with offstage drums and brass, were heroic in their praise of high German art, and the lengthy standing ovation was richly deserved.

*****