Well, Brecht's brilliant 20th century mythic invention of Mahagonny was only ever a paradise for fools, and the trouble in Wagner's Nuremberg is idealistically remedied by Mastersinger Hans Sachs. So there's no contest in terms of the feelgood factor, and as I've already reported, folk have been coming out of Richard Jones's near-perfect ENO production feeling transfigured (as my pal Edwina put it, 'over-friendly to people on the underground'. I remember a similar sensation after seeing Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire at the now-defunct Lumiere Cinema a block away from the Coli). I should have left John Fulljames's Royal Opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny blackly misanthropic about the Saturday night folly all around, but it was no more than usually irritating, and I was just disappointed that the show hadn't been as hard-hitting - or as funny - as Brecht and Weill originally made it.
This Mahagonny packs almost as few punches as Alaska Wolf Joe (Neal Davies) in his unequal boxing match with Trinity Moses (Willard White), perhaps the worst handled of all the group scenes in a production which has none of Jones's precision in blocking and physical expression. The Royal Opera Orchestra sounded tight enough, but more of the music needed to fly; despite the jazzy trumpets and the excellent onstage saxes-for-sex sequence, I was disappointed for once in one of my heroes, Mark Wigglesworth, for not sweeping it along more, or hitting hard with the total anticlimax of what should be a hair-raising apocalypse at the end. The impression, then, was of Germanic ponderousness - a trait of which Wagner shows not a hint in the five hours of Mastersingers, especially when done as superbly and clearly as it was at ENO.
How hard, then, to try and explain to my disappointed students who had seen it that the fault doesn't lie with any lack of inspiration in the work itself. People still misunderstand Brecht's text as outmoded propaganda spelling out the obvious, whereas it's not only painfully topical - the parallel with today's climate change crisis didn't need to be laboured as it was by Fulljames - but also pithily poetic and freighted with black humour. In that respect Jeremy Sams' translation was streets ahead of the production for sharpness.
The refrains of smoking, whisky, fishing and girls (ie sex for cash) in Mahagonny Version I are musical in themselves; the 'everything is permitted' gamechange that brings in the dollars for Version II provides the opera's finest musical sequence - very little of it in the original 25-minute 'Songspiel' - and culminates in what should be the terrifying clause 'so long as you can pay for it' - and if you can't, it's the electric chair for you. I should have been distressed by the execution of Jimmy Mahoney (read McIntyre, in this English language version) execution distressing, but it simply felt as glib and flat as so much else in the production.
Then there was some fatal miscasting. The (again usually just perfect) Anne Sofie von Otter was sometimes near-inaudible as the Widow Begbick, who needs to be a redoubtable old lag, a mezzo matron with a juggenaut of a chest voice like Astrid Varnay in the old Met production. And it doesn't matter whether or not Jimmy is good looking, as Kurt Streit undoubtedly is - though the wig gave him an unappealing Stringfellow effect - when the burning question is whether he's really up to the Heldentenorish demands. In that respect both Peter Hoare (Fatty) and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (Jack O'Brien) would have cut the mustard much better than Streit, a lightish lyric with a now-shot top. Willard White was inaudible half the time and didn't seem very committed to a role which could be played with relish.
The star was Christine Rice, a mezzo in a soprano part, who brought typical nuance to Jenny's two big numbers. Why any promising young voices were needed for her 'girls' beyond the chorus beats me: Anna Burford, Anush Hovhannisyan and Stephanie Marshall, among others, were even more wasted than star voices mostly are as Mastersingers beyond the roles of Beckmesser, Kothner, Pogner and Sachs. The best of it, other than Rice? Es Devlin's container set and Finn Ross's consummate video projections, way above the average. They may give a sense in Clive Barda's photos for the Royal Opera of a livelier show than was in fact the case.
One other thing: if Fulljames wanted to extend the world of the opera into the audience, he should have gone further. Once the night of the hurricane is past, and anything goes in Mahagonny, it should in the auditorium and the foyers too. Friends were ticked off by an usher for eating in a box, and I wondered whether the girls in front would return to the mobile phones another usher had told them to switch off five minutes into the first half. Fortunately the dilemma this might have provoked didn't pertain, for they were quiet and attentive to the end, and cheered vociferously, with special warmth for Anne Sofie. The Royal Opera should have produced a tabloid programme, too, along the lines of the brilliant accompaniment to Phyllida Lloyd's scathing Donmar Threepenny Opera, to give free to what Dame Edna called the 'paups' up top. Perhaps too much would be lost in advertising if they were to sacrifice the usual programme, which with its ads for luxury flats, jewellery, investment management and Rolex watches makes an especially ironic counterpoint.
Clive has caught all the tableaux served up, which isn't always the case with press photographers. No images, on the other hand, could quite convey the wonder and the fun of the ENO Mastersingers. Overwhelmed on press night by my second viewing of Jones's production, with addition, after the Welsh National Opera original, I bought tickets for the last night and persuaded godson Alexander to take a break from his Glasgow studies and come down for a couple of nights to see and hear Wagner at its best.
The response was as good as I'd hoped. In a recent email, he wrote:
I still catch myself humming excerpts from Meistersinger several times a day. Such an excellent performance of a great work. I'm still baffled by how the time flew and the music continued in this marvellous sweeping curve for the entire time. I think that your hand in my musical education has reached staggering new heights, the extremity of which I never anticipated. All I want to do now is see more Wagner.
You see, my boy, how time becomes space. I'm only disappointed he didn't mention the Wurst we consumed in the interval at Herman ze German in Villiers Street. Companion Jill suggested we went there in homage to the opera, where David sings to himself, when he can't get Sachs to look up from his book the last act - alas, not accurately rendered in the ENO translation - 'if only I'd put away the sausage and cake first' and later, directly to Sachs,'would you like to try the sausage now?' Here are three of our company including equally ecstatic friend Edsy.
Needless to say, Jones's wit and craft had not palled (on Saturday, I kept thinking what he might of made of Mahagonny, a piece right up his street - though part of his genius is that one can never second-guess the ideas. I can't imagine, for instance, how research on Russian cannibalism is going to feed in to his Royal Opera Boris Godunov). Among the singers, Nicky Spence was on much better form as David than he had been on the first night - no problem at all with the top notes on the 11th - while Rachel Nicholls, though the spread is still a bit worrying for one so young, and the vocally tireless Gwyn Hughes Jones as the young lovers (pictured below in one of Catherine Ashmore's shots for ENO) seemed much more relaxed.
From a seat in the Upper Circle which proved acoustically wondrous - Alexander thought the strings must be miked, so lustrously did they bloom at climaxes - and perfectly good visually, I got more out of the Act Two kerfuffle, especially with David and Beckmesser flitting by at the back.
Our already great new Sachs Iain Paterson was suffering from a heavy cold but clearly has the technique and the generosity of spirit to carry him through (he sounded less tired at the end than Bryn Terfel had in the Prom performance of the WNO production). It seemed even more of a miracle how Ed Gardner knew what to do with the score at every point, breathing with the singers throughout (I may be mistaken, but I thought James Cresswell's Pogner was singing meaningfully in even longer phrases than before). Gardner brought the players onstage at the end. I'd hoped the press office would have a shot; they didn't, but another source which shall remain nameless (certainly not me, as I never take photos at the end).
It's a good enough representation of a source of joy which will feed the community of Mastersingers fans for months, if not years, to come.And, of course, a further yah-boo-sucks to the narrow, jargon-fixated minds at the Arts Council.