I always forget that the first act of Meistersinger is bloody awful - unremitting exposition, tedious, almost without character because it's so neutral and lacking in beauty*. I say this only because Act 2 is actually genuinely funny (who knew that Wagner could pull that off?) and often very beautiful, and act 3 is absolutely gorgeous almost throughout. I had standing tickets for this, the longest opera in the standard repertoire and I was not looking forward to the prospect of standing for the whole thing after the first act. Luckily, I met some friends who had a spare ticket so after the first act was able to see the set properly. This production (directed by David McVicar, designed by Vicki Mortimer) is absolutely gorgeous and has a great sense of fun - I can't imagine having enjoyed it more. It's one opera that Dave McVicar can't shoe-horn any breasts or blood into - if anything one is surprised at how unradical his view of the work is. I like the updating into the early 19th century - it's not earth shattering, but certainly adds it's own piquancy and feel, and the chocolate boxeyness of it I read as McVicar's slight parody of equivalent 16th century stagings and also his warm acceptance that actually occasionally, when done beautifully, they can be a wonderful indulgence. The main feature of the set is a vaulted pseudo Gothic arch with sensuously beautiful curves that actually (anachronistically) put in mind the natural arcs of art nouveau - and not for nothing - a reminder that nature inspires art, as the hero Walther is so keen to express. This piece is ingeniously reused and given a new context in each scene, most beautifully in the last Act where it acts as both the ceiling of Sachs' workshop (and one really feels like one is "in the city") and then with a clear blue sky as a backdrop, it becomes a canopy, a festival marquee, a centrepiece for the final scene.
Walther looks for all the world like Napoleon (though unlike Napoleon, he towers above his companions) and reminds us of the nationalism present at the time in Germany during Wagner's youth, which explains the updating.
In short it's a wonderful staging and I am perplexed by the grumblings about authenticity and lack of purpose that it has aroused. Crucially, it doesn't feel like McVicar is doing anything to the opera, a mark of a good production in general I think, but always with Wagner an even greater relief - he of all opera composers doesn't need meddling with because the vision is so complete, untrivial and serious. I'm not bashing Regie theatre at all, and I enjoy original stagings (Regie or otherwise) more often than I enjoy "traditional" stagings, but I think the danger is greatest in Wagner.
Onto the singing. As is only right, Gerald Finley as Sachs stole the evening. I was not at all expecting this because I've always seen Finley as more of a lyric baritone, but he had far more vocal presence and heft than any one else on stage, supported by his peerless diction and wonderful shaping of the text. His Sachs seemed younger than most characterisations, the world weary, Santa Clausine, cobbler-poet cliché done beautifully by some, but a cliché none the less. Does he ever really convince as a common man with all his eloquence and extraordinary beauty of expression? Finley cut the faux beery folksiness and I for one didn't at all miss it. I wonder whether he'll take on any more Wagner - the voice has focus and power married to vocal warmth, intelligence and good acting ability - I'd certainly like to see him do more.
Beckmesser, the comedy figure in this drama, was equally fantastically portrayed by Johannes Martin Kranzle, so many lovely little details of characterisation and a vocal performance that was genuinely pleasant to hear. And am I the only one who quite likes Beckmesser's song?! I like that it is so often at odds with what the orchestra is doing, and at least it's memorable! Meistersinger is flawed for a couple of reasons: first that this trivial story is stretched to become as already mentioned, the longest opera in the repertoire, and second that Wagner can't actually write a good tune as this piece so obviously cries out for in the various songs. Walther's prizesong, that is presumably meant to overwhelm us, is the some of the least memorable music in the piece - it's not bad as such, just a rather bland piece of tenoric exaltation. Compare this to Sachs' wondrous monologues and Wagner's strengths are laid bare for all to see.
This fact was not helped by the fact that Walther was not at all well portrayed by Marco Jentzsch whose tenor lacked the vocal glamour and power that this role so clearly requires. And his acting was poor to nonexistant, embarrassing next to Finley's subtle efforts. The other half of the romantic couple, Anna Gabler, was the cast's other weak link - just absolutely no sense of legato whatsoever - each note appearing, separate, before the next one was squeezed out like toothpaste. And the diction was similarly awful. It's for me the worst kind of Wagnerian singing, that is one completely divorced from the Italian school. Her interactions with Sachs at least were rather moving.
The rest of the cast were generally very good, with beautiful contributions from Michaela Selinger as Magdalene, vocally outshining Gabler. The youthful feel of this production was mirrored in Jurowski's luminous conducting and the glowing contribution of the festival chorus. The necessity of having a modestly proportioned pit orchestra coupled with the size of the Glyndebourne auditorium meant that detail and warmth could be focused on, to sometimes overwhelming effect.
A great evening of opera.
*I'm joking. Sort of.