ENO's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
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Topped in translation: two new London operas make a case for English-language productions

The English National Opera’s  The Mastersingers of Nuremberg and the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo show that translated music-theatre can be exceptional.

Death and taxes may be life’s inevitables, but in opera it’s the embattled question of English-language productions. Every year the issue returns, provoking heated debate for a few weeks before some more pressing matter pushes it to the bottom of the pile again. Does opera sell itself short in translation? Do we lose more than we gain? What’s interesting this time round is the new scope of the discussion: English National Opera’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg may be in the frame, but so too is the Royal Opera’s L’Ormindo. Both are exceptional pieces of music-theatre – joyous, giddy comedies that touch as well as tease. This is an argument that has never been closer to a victory.

It’s curious that the Royal Opera’s new venture into smaller spaces has coincided with an unprecedented new approach to translation. No attention has been drawn to this shift in policy, which has slipped through as part of a wider attempt at accessibility, at reinventing opera for the youthful audience of the Camden Roundhouse (with the recent Orfeo, also in English) and the more theatrically-inclined audience at the Globe. If experience teaches us anything though, it’s that comedy is always a more natural fit in translation; the immediacy you gain usually outweighs what you lose in linguistic colour. Tragedy (especially if it’s by Verdi or Donizetti) tends to lose gravitas, teetering dangerously close to Gilbert and Sullivan in an Italian accent.

But a piece like Cavalli’s L’Ormindo – a sparkling piece of baroque frippery – works wonderfully well, as the Royal Opera proved in 2014 when they premiered Kasper Holten’s production. Less than a year later and the show is back, the jewel in the gilded jewel-box that is the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. There’s a reason that an obscure opera by a minor composer is selling out every night: drama. The audience is rarely closer, more embraced in theatrical action (sometimes literally) than in this space, where the ‘stage’ extends up into the balconies and out into, and onto, the crowd. It’s irreverent, naughty, and entirely charming.

The original young cast all return to romp their way through Christopher Cowell’s witty translation, keeping tongue firmly in cheek for a story that’s more lust than love, following the endless romantic complications of Susanna Hurrell’s coquettish Erisbe and her various men. Ed Lyon and Samuel Boden reprise their roles as rival lovers – two young tenors with personality to match fine voices – and soprano Joelle Harvey stills the theatre once again with her ravishing lament “Chi mi toglie al die”. Anja Vang Kragh’s period-costumes-with-a-twist ensure we take nothing too seriously, gilding period comedy with contemporary wit. This is as much fun as you can have at the opera – a miniature miracle of a show.

Over at the Coliseum opera is happening at a rather larger scale this month with over 100 singers and almost as many orchestral musicians involved in The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. Richard Jones’ production debuted at Welsh National Opera in 2010 and is now seen in London for the first time at ENO – a spectacular way to celebrate the director’s 25-year relationship with the company.

Spreading out across the full scope of the Coliseum’s vast stage, filling London’s largest theatre with Jones’ trademark colours and patterns, this is as generous and wise a comedy as we’ve seen in a long time – an ensemble show that makes a case more persuasive than any number of op-ed articles for the necessity of ENO as a company. Meistersinger can be an awkward beast, with its long running time and bizarre Fatherland-exalting epilogue, but here it flourishes thanks to direction sensitive to every detail of this vivid score, and big, characterful performances from an almost entirely British cast. At the heart of it all is Iain Paterson’s Hans Sachs – a singer who fills the cobbler’s shoes with almost unbearable humanity. He masterminds not only the comedy but the near-miss tragedy of Wagner’s opera, aided by some wonderful interplay with Andrew Shore’s Malvolio-esque Beckmesser, and some unexpected tenderness in his dealings with Rachel Nicholls’ glowing Eva. It helps that his voice – at the lighter end for this role – finds unusual lyricism at the top of the range, balancing out a lack of beef at the bottom.

Gwyn Hughes-Jones makes an ardent Walter – older and more grizzled than many, which only adds to the pathos of failed lovers Sachs and Beckmesser – crooning his way through the Prize Song as easily as a three-minute pop song. He gets some serious competition however from Nicky Spence’s David – new power amplifying his trademark purity – and add James Cresswell’s Pogner to the mix (not to mention Jonathan Lemalu in the tiny role of Hans Schwartz) and you have an embarrassment of riches.

Holding together the action in the pit is Edward Gardner, directing ENO’s orchestra in a performance that’s high on energy and matches Jones’ visuals for colour. The brass are radiant in the spotlight of the Act III opening and the strings catch their burnish, mellowing it with new warmth. A chorus bursting with extras brings the show to its climax with heart-tugging beauty, and a final dramatic gesture from Jones that threatens to turn brimming into gushing. A singular achievement, and one of so many reasons why ENO must survive.

L’Ormindo runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until March 5th. The Mastersingers of Nuremberg runs at the London Coliseum until March 10th.

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Intelligent life on earth: why we need Radio 4's Book of the Week

When a book on quantum gravity came on air, it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It sounded like the densest of abridgements: five days of excerpts from Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by the Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli (week beginning 28 November, 9.45am). Swarms of quantum events where time does not exist. Cosmology, meteorology and cathedrals of atomism. Leucippus of Miletus and lines of force filling space. Very few of us listening could have understood what was being said. Instead, we just allowed it to wash over, reminding us that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.

Perhaps once or twice, as the week progressed, token attempts were made to check that everybody was keeping up (“So, the number of nanoseconds in a second is the same as the number of seconds in 30 years”) – or to encourage listeners to picture themselves as part of an experiment (“Imagine I’m on Mars, and you were here . . .”). But generally it was utterly airtight, the reader, Mark Meadows, doing a good job of keeping his voice at a pace and tone uncondescendingly brisk, flattering us that nobody was scratching their head (“The speed of light determined by Maxwell’s equations is velocity with respect to what?”).

It was my favourite radio book reading of 2016. Not because I learned a single thing I could repeat, or might realistically mull over, but because it sounded like a brief return to something that has declined so much over our lifetimes – knowledge as part of a function of a media flow.

It’s that old idea that something might be there for your betterment. When we were exposed to just four channels on television especially, and forced to stay on them, we got into astronomy and opera and all sorts of stuff, almost against our will. (Rigoletto? Jesus. Well, there’s nothing else on . . .) The programme was marvellously and unapologetically impenetrable, as the days and chapters piled up relentlessly (“We are immersed in a gigantic flexible snail shell”). What this adaptation comprehended was that we don’t actually want someone explaining Einstein to us. What is much more compelling – more accurate and clever – is simply to show what it’s like in other people’s brains. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump