State Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nurmeberg Act III leaves Alan Brissenden wondering when we’ll see the full opera.
Wagner sketched out his ideas for his only comic opera, The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, in 1844, but did not complete it until 1867. Never performed in its five-hour entirety in Adelaide, State Opera’s single performance at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, August 4 of the last act was a complete, uplifting success. Well known to local audiences, Nicholas Braithwaite has conducted many operas, including all of Wagner’s from the first successfully staged, Rienzi. Expectedly, then, his handling of the score was robust, sensitive and sympathetic to the singers.
Most of the characters are based on real people, in name anyway. From the early 14th century until 1839, craftsmen – weavers, shoemakers, blacksmiths and the like – looked to mend their finances by making verses, and formed themselves into guilds. The most famous of these was at Nuremberg, where lived the opera’s hero, the shoemaker Hans Sachs (1494-1575).
One source attributes no less than 6048 works to him. Wagner invents a story about a competition, the winner being given the hand of Eva, the daughter of Veit Pogner, the goldsmith. A young knight (Walther) and Eva have fallen in love but are dissuaded from eloping by Sachs, who himself, though much older, had hopes of marrying Eva himself. She has always regarded him as a much-loved adopted uncle.
Another would-be suitor is the elderly town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser, who the night before Act 3 opens has caused a riot by his dreadful attempts to serenade Eva. Walther writes a poem for his Prize Song, which is copied out by Sachs, who coaches him. Beckmesser finds the song, is satisfied it is not by Sachs, and makes such a hilarious mess of it when he sings it at the competition next day that he is ridiculed by the townsfolk. Walther then sings the real song, wins the competition and his adored Eva. But everyone is shocked when he refuses to become a Mastersinger, saying it is unnecessary for him. Sachs argues successfully that art is essential to the development of humanity – even if chaos should come, he says, “our sacred German art would remain” – and all ends happily.
Shane Lowrencev began somewhat tentatively as Sachs, but very soon settled into the role and – a tall, slim figure and a fine actor – encompassed the character’s wide range of emotion from the humorous to the impassioned, when he has a fit of temper with himself, to the authoritative leadership of the Mastersingers. He was particularly insightful when tutoring Walther (and us) in the structure of a Prize Song. As his attentive student, Walther, Bradley Daley, a true heldentenor, delivered a warm, dynamic performance that matched Kate Ladner’s delectable Eva.
Easy to see why the older Sachs and Andrew Shore’s Beckmesser had hopes. Shore avoided caricature, while being a figure of fun, and perhaps even gained a little sympathy at the end, though jeered by the crowd – a splendid augmented State Opera chorus in excellent form.
A high point of the first half was the celebrated quintet – Sachs, Walther, Eva, David – Sach’s apprentice (a clear-voiced Sam Sakker), and David’s beloved, Magdalene (a sweetly singing Fiona McArdle). A little before this, clever Wagner references his Tristan and Isolde in both text and music, but he weaves the Prize Song’s theme into the music almost from the beginning, so that we are fully prepared for the climactic moment when it is sung by Walther – and Dale gave it all its lyrical power.
There were no credits in the printed program for the design, but the two simple sets were highly effective – Sach’s workshop for the first half, and for the second, two amphitheatre sets of seats with a central space between for the 12 Mastersingers to make their entrances one by one. The costumes were an eclectic mix, from colourful academic robes for the Mastersingers through 18th century to modern, but this worked, as did Donn Byrnes’ lighting.
This was billed as a semi-staged concert version, but in reality it was fully staged. So when will we see the complete opera?