Despite its length, despite its huge demands for chorus and orchestra, despite its air – from the very first bars of the overture – of pompous grandiosity, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is, at its heart, an intimate tale. A small community, with its rituals and ceremonies, its civic pride in the very best sense, is thrown into turmoil by an outsider who captivates them whilst breaking their rules and dearly-held traditions. And in the process, one tale of love blossoms whilst another is set aside. And in David McVicar’s production for Glyndebourne, I can’t think when I’ve been more struck by this intimacy of the work, or seen it so thrillingly surfaced.
Now, admittedly, I think I have seen only concert performances and the Royal Opera’s long-standing Graham Vick staging (plus obvious DVD and audio recordings). But the effect that this performance had on me was little short of revelatory. It was one of the most stupendous, affecting and stimulating performances of anything that I’ve seen for a while.
The sets for the three gargantuan acts are all placed within the same basic framework, of a rather fanciful cloister, with a style indicative of gothic albeit with a curiously Art Nouveau flourish to the fan vaulting. In the first Act, we’re in church, with the congregation gathered at the back facing off left; the second, we’re in a square with solid wooden balconies and a fountain placed centrally, ready for rioting; at the start of the third, Sach’s bookcases have been inserted into the cloister spaces to form a tardis-like interior to the previous decked frontage; and in the final scenes, where we’re supposed to be out in the fields, we have a huge double-decked bandstand that forms the centrepiece of the song contest. Costumes are Regency, rather than late medieval, but awash with detail and variety. It is all lit with delicate and crisp lighting. And the chorus are moved and animated with expert skill, especially in the last act where there are huge numbers of people crammed onto the stage and yet, still there is a clear delineation of the principals amidst the riot of little details.
So far, so (relatively) traditional. And had it only gone so far, it would not have made for a Meistersinger significantly above the ordinary. What happened within that, partly down to the skill of the principals and partly to McVicar’s direction, is where the revelation begins.
It starts with Gerald Finley’s Sachs which, when compared to most Sachs, brings an entirely new dimension to the role by simple virtue of his warmth and youth. His anger and hurt at the start of the third act, when he realises that he and Eva do not have a romantic future together, is so much more believable because the very thought that they ever might have had one is itself believable. Usually, it is a faintly silly idea and, indeed, uncomfortable when it sits alongside the plotline about Pogner offering Eva up to the afternoon’s best singer. Finley may not have had the big ‘Father Christmassy’ presence of a wise elder poet – either physically or vocally – but his detailed, anguished, complex Sachs threw the whole work into a different balance. He sang the big monologues with a richly shaded lyrical tone and, if he didn’t have the big voice for the closing hymn to Holy German Art, it was a minor issue in the context of what was otherwise so fascinating and moving a portrayal.
I was equally enthralled by the Sixtus Beckmesser of Johannes Martin Kränzle. Amidst a cast of Mastersingers who all had their detailed characters vividly conveyed, he was tireless in his attention to the character’s little ticks, nudges and asides whilst other action was unfolding. He projected the arch, fussy, prim, cutting, desperate and, ultimately, crushed Town Clerk to perfection. I never thought I’d see a Beckmesser to rival Thomas Allen at Covent Garden, but I was wrong. As a senior local government officer, I have rather a soft spot for the character of the Town Clerk: an administrative generalist trying to hold his meticulous own in a company of Guildsmen with their specialisms and their exotic skills. Well, anyway, Nuremberg looked clean and well-kept, the children looked for the most part well-behaved, and there was a lovely sense of community cohesion so, even if Beckmesser didn’t get his girl, he can feel proud of how well his Council runs the town…
*SPOILER ALERT* In the interviews with McVicar in the run-up to opening night, much was made of a radical change to the fate of Beckmesser. Bearing in mind my desire to see poor old Sixtus rehabilitated, I was eagerly awaiting something interesting. It didn’t really come. Granted, Beckmesser didn’t run away under the force of the community’s opprobrium, he stuck around, glumly dabbing his tearful eyes. Members of the Mastersingers came over periodically and commiserated with him. And at the end… well, I won’t give away the minor details, but in essence the effect was to render this a more personal dispute between Sachs and Beckmesser than it was an exclusion of Beckmesser by the community. I’m not sure that does a great deal for Beckmesser, nor does it really rehabilitate the community as they bang out their chorus about the permanence of Holy German Art under the withering attentions of ‘Foreign Princes’ whilst Beckmesser sulks. It is a less crude ending, it’s true, but hardly revolutionary. But then, I’m afraid I’ve never really seen a particularly acute problem with the closing passages of Meistersinger.
Of the remaining characters, neither the Eva of Anna Gabler nor the Walther von Stolzing of Marco Jentzsch really made anything like the same impression. Whilst singing ardently and attractively, they were nevertheless frequently struggling to project either vocally or dramatically. Jentzsch did, however, rise to an excellent Prize Song; and when the group of principals joined together for the quintet, the requisite balm of entwined emotion wafted into the auditorium. The David of Topi Lehtipuu was excellent, particularly in his exasperated attempts to impose order on a boisterous assemblage of apprentices. Alistair Miles was a strong Veit Pogner, and Michaela Selinger was a vivid Magdalene with a warm, bright tone.
Vladimir Jurowski set the overture going at a fair old pace, and kept the piece going that way throughout. Unfailingly dramatic, he did ease off for the moments of more reflective music. In terms of dynamics, the London Philharmonic Orchestra seemed always on the edge of overwhelming the singers, even the strongest of them, but there was an air of control about the orchestral performance that suggested that a lot of work was going in to reining in the full force of the band. They played, quite simply, stunningly; with some fabulous tonalities, especially in the woodwind.
It was a bloody effort to get these tickets (for details of which, see elsewhere on this blog). As Associate Members, we put into the ballot and the best we were offered were £110 restricted view seats. Now, I don’t mind restricted view, as you may know, but I wasn’t going to pay £110 for the privilege, not to mention the addition of the petrol, picnic and dinner suit dry-cleaning costs on top. So we took a deep breath and went for £200+ with an earnest wish that it had ‘better be bloody good’. By a fluke phone call on the hunt for returns, we then bagged £60 slips seats which made the whole thing more ‘manageable’. But I had to ask myself, had I been forced to pay around eight times the average cost of my opera tickets, would I really have enjoyed it sufficiently not to feel a bit cheated?
Well, do you know, I think I would…