Perhaps the most controversial work in Wagner’s incendiary output, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg demands careful handling. Composed just before the unification of Germany in 1871, its mixture of folkloric settings, rousing tunefulness and an ending rich in overt nationalist rhetoric made it a favourite in the Third Reich. In postwar Germany, productions have had to wrestle with the work’s tainted history. In 1956 Wieland Wagner (grandson of the composer) attempted to take the curse from the work by minimizing its connection to Nuremberg in a highly abstract staging. Last year at Bayreuth, Australian expat Barrie Kosky provided a brilliantly provocative reading which situated parts of the action in the Nuremberg trial courtroom. The character of Beckmesser is another problematic element: on one level the pantomime villain the comedic story needs, he has also been read as an anti-Semitic stereotype.

In this Covent-Garden co-production, Kasper Holten presumably felt less impelled to address Meistersinger’s tangled history. His conceit was to situate the entirety of the action within a masonic temple, the all-male secret society standing in for the all-male guild of mastersingers, each with its own set of arcane rituals and laws. The set designed by Mia Stensgaard was in itself a thing of beauty, all geometric shapes and fluted panels. However, the darkness of the wood gave it all a rather oppressive feel, as did the retention of the same set throughout in contradistinction to Wagner’s setting of Act 2 and part of Act 3 in the open air. This claustrophobic feeling was clearly deliberate: the world of the mastersingers was stifling, exclusionary and chauvinist. The darker forces beneath the ritualistic surface arose at the end of Act 2, where Wagner’s riot was reimagined as a tacky Eyes-Wide-Shut orgy. Sachs’ great meditation on madness loses its bite when it is merely a ‘stag night’ that gets out of hand.

Into this world comes Walther, the outsider whose instinctive musical talent cannot express itself within the hallowed norms of Mastersinger practice. Here Wagner’s aristocrat became a loutish long-haired rebel, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Stefan Vinke was typically forceful; his voice was not uniformly beautiful throughout the long sing, but it soared impressively above the orchestra. His rival, Beckmesser, was played as an impotently malevolent schemer by show-stealing Warwick Fyfe, whose comedic gestures and crisp patter-singing made his scenes unforgettable. Nicholas Jones was another undoubted highlight, his easy high tenor sound making David’s lengthy recitation of the guild rules positively pleasurable rather than something to be endured.

Natalie Aroyan turned the often milk-and-water Eva into something much more characterful (her response to her father “An obedient child speaks only when asked” was deliciously marinaded in sarcasm) with some lovely unforced singing to boot – her solo at the start of the quintet was especially delightful. As Pogner, Daniel Sumegi was the picture of authority, projecting through Wagner’s dense textures with ease. Among the Mastersingers Luke Gabbedy was especially strong as Fritz Kothner, and the ever-reliable Dominica Matthews exuded quality as a prim but playful Magdalena. The chorus, such a vital part of the action, was outstanding, with a rare on-stage cameo for chorus-master Anthony Hunt.

Less happily, the Orchestra Victoria strings sounded underpowered from the opening of the Prelude, and the direction by Pietari Inkinen was overly spacious, making an already long afternoon feel still longer. Also disappointing was Michael Kupfer-Radecky the eleventh-hour draft for the vital role of Hans Sachs (two singers having pulled out earlier); while he did well in quieter solos like the ‘Flieder’ monologue, he was seriously underpowered in his cobbling song, where he failed to shout down Fyfe’s well-projected Beckmesser.

So did this Meistersinger provide a strong reading of the problematic ending? It did, just not the one it had teed up, nor arguably the one the work needed. Beckmesser here was properly humiliated: his singing was mocked and he was stripped of his masonic insignia and robes. Disconsolate, he remained slumped at the edge of the stage, a spectre at the otherwise triumphant feast. However, he was radically upstaged by events of the last few minutes, when Eva ultimately rejects Walter for succumbing to the glamour of the Mastersingers. Her departure from the scene while her suitor was excessively garlanded with memorabilia until he looked like a masonic Christmas tree was shocking, not just for its incompatibility with the happy ending loudly proclaimed by the music, but for its unexpectedness. With hindsight, the masonic world was ripe for a feminist protest (for instance, Eva had been offered as a prize to the guild by her father), but there was precious little to indicate her incipient rebellion earlier. Holten’s much-lauded Copenhagen Ring offered a strong feminist take on the tetralogy; here it felt like a lazy afterthought.