Eurovision last weekend, Nuremberg's Got Talent this evening – it's evidently song contest season. And what finer work to launch Glyndebourne Festival's season, under the watchful eye of new General Director Sebastian Schwarz, than an opera which reflects upon song and the need to honour art and tradition whilst remaining open to new ideas. Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a marathon curtain-raiser to the season, but the six and a half hours (including intervals) flew past in Sir David McVicar's gorgeous staging, revived for the first time since its 2011 debut with a cast led by Gerald Finley, gloriously reprising his Hans Sachs.
While the crowd scenes can seem overly busy, McVicar's direction of his principals helps them dig straight to the heart of their roles. Finley only gradually reveals Hans Sachs' character. Initially, his cobbler is testy, his anger brimming just beneath the surface. His relationship with Jochen Kupfer's Beckmesser is key. Sachs' sabotage of the town clerk's serenade reveals his humour; his offer of reconciliation reveals his humanity. The Act III prelude was heartbreaking, Sachs silently reflecting on being a widower, briefly uncovering the portrait of his wife that is too painful to remain unveiled for long. No grizzled greybeard, Finley's Sachs is a viable alternative for Eva's hand, adding 'what might have been' poignancy to his later scenes with her.
Kupfer's prissy Beckmesser revels in all the comic business McVicar throws his way, from his Elvis-style lute strumming to the pratfalls that occur as he snoops around Sachs' workshop. Physically, he is made to look like Giacomo Meyerbeer, the Paris-based German-Jewish composer whom Wagner despised as a thorn in his side as far as his Parisian ambitions went. Despite the characterisation, Kupfer gave a beautifully sung account, his rich, dark baritone providing the standout singing and more deserving of Eva's hand vocally than Michael Schade's burly sounding Walther von Stolzing, suffering from pinched top notes.
Amanda Majeski's Eva floated her vocal line with ease in the first two acts, but her light-voiced soprano dipped in Act III, almost swallowing her “O Sachs, mein Freund”, never quite coming into full bloom in the quintet. Hanna Hipp offered a forthright Magdalene and David Portillo made for an earnest David, Sachs' apprentice, who elaborates the rules of song at tedious length. As Eva's father, Alastair Miles' Pogner suffers from a pretty wide vibrato now, but the rest of the mastersingers are a well-delineated bunch, from which Darren Jeffery's sonorous Fritz Kothner and Colin Judson's vibrant Kunz Vogelgesang stood out.
McVicar's frontcloth of the first page of Wagner's manuscript score is turned sideways. No such oblique approach to the score from conductor Michael Güttler, whose leisurely approach to the Prelude led to a finely detailed account from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Act III, in particular, was revealed as a witty commentary on events on-stage.
“Honour your masters!” Sachs instructs Walther in the final scene. Wagner's spirit was honoured well here, but did the song contest necessarily crown the right winner?
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