Jim Pritchard – Seen & Heard International

Strong Wagnerian Debut for New Saffron Opera Group

United Kingdom Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Soloists, Saffron Opera Group Chorus, St Albans Symphony Orchestra, Jennifer Wigram (leader), Michael Thorne (conductor), Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, Essex 14.9.2014. (JPr)

Andrew Greenan: Hans Sachs
Jonathan Finney: Walther von Stolzing
Adam Tunnicliffe: David
Julian Tovey: Sixtus Beckmesser
Inga-Britt Andersson: Eva
Anna Burford: Magdalene
Richard Wiegold: Veit Pogner
Paul Carey Jones: Fritz Kothner
John-Colyn Gyeantey: Kunz Vogelgesang
Jonathan Gunthorpe: Konrad Nachtigall
Richard Roberts: Balthazar Zorn
Ben Thapa: Ulrich Eisslinger
Stephen Rooke: Augustin Moser
Andrew Mayor: Hermann Ortel
John Cunningham: Hans Schwarz
Oliver Hunt: Hans Foltz
Stuart Pendred: Night Watchman

Janet Wheeler (chorus director)
Elaine McKrill (casting advisor)

This was the first – and what a first – in a proposed series of operas in full concert performance in Saffron Walden at the splendid new Saffron Hall, a 730-seat ‘state of the art’ venue that is already attracting international artists and ensembles to rural Essex, which was previously something of a cultural wasteland. Saffron Walden residents Paul Garland and Francis Lambert are to be praised for founding a new, local, music performance company called Saffron Opera Group. Their principal objective is to produce high quality concert performances of operas using professional artists strongly supported by professional and semi-professional musicians and an invitation chorus drawn from choral societies from London to Cambridge. The Saffron Opera Group ambitiously began big with this concert performance of Richard Wagner’s 4¾ hour ‘romantic comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

The original idea for the company came from Professor Michael Thorne, the vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, who is a passionate Wagnerian. For each of the past 12 years, he has conducted a Wagner opera, including two complete cycles of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, in Portobello Town Hall in Edinburgh. There, rising young international singers hoping to make their names, are invited to sing the leading roles together with local soloists and chorus. Following Professor Thorn’s first visit to Saffron Hall, he was so impressed that he became determined to perform Wagner there it but felt that, as a first class professional venue, it demanded a cast of singers already established in Europe’s major opera houses. One of the singers involved in his Edinburgh performances was international soprano Elaine McKrill who acted as SOG’s casting advisor. And what an excellent job she did bringing together a talented mix of promising young voices and ‘old stagers’! They were supported – absolutely splendidly – by an enthusiastic chorus of forty-four invited singers under the direction of Saffron Walden Choral Society’s musical director, Janet Wheeler, and the St Albans Symphony Orchestra specially reinforced with additional professional string players though it was generally impossible to tell that it wasn’t a fully-professional orchestra as the sound they made exceeded my expectations. My wife suggested that the music sounded better than it often does for the Wagner at Longborough … and I have to agree with her.

I fought long and hard against people’s prejudices when in charge of The Wagner Society that performances like this – or on a smaller scale – are never the ‘real thing’ and this always keeps many away who might wish in hindsight they had been there. Yes, if you were ultra-critical I could ‘nit-pick’ more concerning tempo, balance, or the suitability of certain soloists for their roles etc. – if anyone wants any advice I am easy to find – but I was so impressed by the achievement of all concerned that I will resist my usual inclination to be hyper-critical, especially where Wagner is concerned!

At the end of the evening although Saffron Hall was shamefully far from full, there were enough present to give all concerned the standing ovation they thoroughly deserved. Michael Thorne proved himself totally ‘at one’ with the expansive spirit, spaciousness, geniality and dramatic architecture of the work and although he hurried things along he gave the music some much-needed time to bloom when necessary. He had obviously communicated his reverence of Wagner to his excellent orchestra and chorus. This is important because to my chagrin I was involved in similar full concert performances of Wagner operas several years ago when the music played was often frequently unrecognisable as The Master’s work!

Andrew Greenan’s Hans Sachs was richly sympathetic and avuncular, whilst somewhat paradoxically having tremendous gravitas. He looked ideal for the part of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. His antagonist Beckmesser was sung by a po-faced Julian Tovey who eschewed any characterisation or laughs. With this approach his Act II wooing – and later his final song – created some genuine empathy for Beckmesser and there was nothing seemingly Jewish in his music. (This is a debate I do not have time to expand on here but goes back further than my 1995 letter  on this topic. Indeed by listening closely to the music as you can in a concert performance the only passages that musicologists usually offer in evidence of Wagner’s anti-Semitism in his music is when Walther is giving his Act II tirade ‘Ha! diese Meister!’ against his treatment by the Masters. Surely no one would suggest Wagner considered them as Jews?)

Young love was portrayed by Jonathan Finney’s redoubtable Walther and his forthright tenor found some eloquent colours in time for the ‘Prize Song’. It is a fiendish role and Saffron Opera Group were fortunate that singers like Finney are around who rarely let the side down. Inga-Britt Andersson was a radiant Eva, her voice occasionally sounded a little too small but found the volume needed to cut through Wagner’s wall-of-sound when necessary and ‘O Sachs! Mein Freund’ and the Quintet’s opening were rapturously sung. Adam Tunnicliffe was nearly perfect as David but I hope he will forgive me for mentioning that the top of his voice is rather tight. He also could learn a lot from some his colleagues and even though he is not singing – and I accept this was a concert and not staged – he really should have been always present when his character was being referred to. Anna Burford as a captivating Magdalene gave him a masterclass in this when she was there keeping an eye on him and ‘the maidens from Fürth’ in Act III when she had nothing to sing. Overall she was world class and made more of the role than it probably warrants. Although he had even less to do than Magdalene, Stuart Pendred intoned gravely as the Night Watchman. There were also reliable contributions from Richard Wiegold’s Pogner and Paul Carey Jones’s Kothner and the Masters collectively sang very well.

The chorus despite limited numbers made a stupendous noise for the final scene’s ‘Wach’ auf’ chorale. Sung like this I began to understand Woody Allen’s comment ‘Every time I hear Wagner I feel like invading Poland’ and it was an overwhelming climax to the afternoon and evening which ended with Andrew Greenan’s resplendent paene to German Art ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’. Saffron Opera Group’s Die Meistersinger was something I felt lucky to have been present to hear and will never forget.

Jim Pritchard

If you live in or near Saffron Walden I am sure the Saffron Opera Group could do with your support and there is more information about them on https://www.facebook.com/SaffronOperaGroup.