Cardiff: Bryn Terfel was born to play Hans Sachs. It just took the Welsh bass-baritone nearly 45 years to prove it.
As the shoemaker-poet hero of Wagner`s bittersweet comedy "Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg," Terfel displays a vocal and dramatic richness that is astonishing, especially considering he`s taking on the role for the first time in his career.
His performance, heard Wednesday night at the Welsh National Opera, is the glorious centrepiece of a wryly humorous, thoroughly winning new production by British director Richard Jones.
Wagner based Sachs on a real historical figure from 16th-century Nuremberg, Germany, and made him the spiritual leader of the guild of Mastersingers sworn to uphold artistic standards in song and poetry. Sachs alone recognizes the untutored genius in a young knight, Walther von Stolzing, who seeks to win the hand of the beautiful Eva Pogner in a singing competition.
To complicate matters, Sachs is a widower who has more than fatherly feelings himself for Eva. And he has to help her fend off the amorous designs of the prissy town clerk, Sixtus Beckmesser.
Terfel embodies the character in all his complexity from his first appearance midway through Act 1 — and he is rarely offstage thereafter in one of the longest operas in the repertory, clocking in at nearly six hours including intermissions.
He exudes wit, charm, athleticism (bouncing a soccer ball, dancing a jig) and, most tellingly, a keen, poignant sense of loss when he resigns himself to giving up Eva. Far more than most performers in this role, Terfel is a vital, attractive Sachs. One could easily imagine Eva ending up quite happily with him.
The vocal demands of the role are as enormous as the melodious score is long, and most singers tire well before the two climactic solos of the final scene. But Terfel if anything grows stronger, an initial slight wobble soon disappearing and his larger-than-life baritone ringing out with clarion power.
He is the chief but not the only attraction in the cast. Soprano Amanda Roocroft is a delightful Eva, girlish and playful with a sweet, pure sound, except for a few edgy high notes. Tenor Andrew Tortise and mezzo-soprano Anna Burford sing attractively as the apprentice David and his sweetheart, Magdalene. Bass Brindley Sherratt as Eva`s father has a smallish but sonorous voice. Best of all, baritone Christopher Purves makes Beckmesser into a figure of menacing power until his eventual comeuppance. Only tenor Raymond Very is out of his depth as Walther, his thin voice unsuited to a role that demands heft and purity.
Jones, assisted by set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Buki Shiff, has created a stripped-down but colourful production full of deft touches (some cheerfully anachronistic, such as having Walther lie down on a sofa when he tells Sachs about his dream — shades of patient ands therapist).
The curtain is emblazoned with the faces of more than 100 German artists through the ages, from Johann Sebastian Bach to Marlene Dietrich. At the festive conclusion, the characters all hold up photos of these figures — apparently Jones` attempt to soften the stridency of Wagner`s ultra-nationalist sentiments about the purity of German art.
Lothar Koenigs, music director of the WNO, led the orchestra in a leisurely but sumptuous performance. The chorus sounded magnificent, especially in the hymn, "Wach auf!" ("Awake!") which Wagner set to words written by the historical Sachs.
Terfel, who turns 45 later this year, has said it took him years of studying the role of Sachs before he felt ready to sing it. Now that he has, let`s hope there are many more performances in many more productions. Next season, however, he`ll be concentrating on a different Wagnerian character, singing the role of Wotan, king of the gods, in the first two parts of the "Ring" cycle at New York`s Metropolitan Opera.