Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is an opera full of paradoxes: a comedy which deals with some of the subjects dearest to Wagner’s heart, a love story in which the hero forgoes his heart’s desire, a tale of warmth and empathy which contains one of the nastiest racist passages in opera and in which the good guy engages in some truly vile deception, a four and a half hour behemoth which needn’t feel long. Kasper Holten’s new production for the Royal Opera takes on the paradoxes, with uneven levels of success.

Gwyn Hughes Jones (Walther) © ROH | Clive Barda
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Walther)
© ROH | Clive Barda

We are set in modern times – albeit with a generous slice of 1930s retro in both Mia Stensgaard’s sets and Anja Vang Kragh’s costumes. The guild meeting in Act 1 is a posh affair in a tremendously detailed art deco hotel  – or perhaps masonic lodge – with an awful lot of smartly clothed waiters running around. This is no collection of jumped up provincial tradespeople: these are people who see themselves as the crème de la crème, their self-importance exuding from every pore. Holten directs both the master singers themselves and the army of chorus surrounding them with a strong eye for detail, all of which makes for a great start, except that in this company, Gwyn Hughes Jones’ Walther merely looks a bit scruffy, at odds with his nature as the aristocrat trying to make an impression with the lower classes.

Sir Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser) © ROH | Clive Barda
Sir Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs) and Johannes Martin Kränzle (Beckmesser)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Throughout, the staging is attractive to watch and excellent in parts without quite hanging together. Using a single set for a very long opera inevitably risks the set not being quite right for a particular component; here, things get confused in Act 2 where the stagecraft isn’t good enough to move us credibly between Sachs’ workshop and the various other locations. But the end of the act is virtuosic: a nightmare sequence in which all Beckmesser’s medievalist fantasies pour onto the stage to haunt him, done with insane energy reminiscent of Terry Gilliam.

The first half staging of Act 3 – backstage at the theatre that will host the singing competition – is forgettable. In the second half, Holten neatly solves a difficult problem: how to suffuse the great march of the guilds with pomp and medieval splendour while avoiding being impossibly twee or turning it into a Nazi fantasy. Holten gives us a kind of carnival pageant: the audience is in modern dress, but those taking part in the pageant are in lavish period costume. For the most difficult passage of all – the end of the opera, with Sachs’ racist rant about German purity – Holten goes decidedly subversive: I won’t spoil it other than to say that the level of cruelty to Beckmesser is clearly demonstrated, and don’t expect the standard happy ending.

Sir Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs) © ROH | Clive Barda
Sir Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs)
© ROH | Clive Barda

The Royal Opera orchestra always seem to play better for Sir Antonio Pappano than for anyone else, and last night was no exception. Meistersinger is an opera where the brass get their chance to shine, and shine they did, achieving rich depth of sonority in the big marches; strings were full and swelled, and the whole thing moved along apace: as with the best Meistersinger performances, nothing ever dragged. The chorus was on top form throughout, with director William Spaulding obviously relishing the chance to come on stage and do his bit for the opening chorus Act 1. The chorus blew the roof off in the nightmare/fight scene at the close of Act 2 as well as accomplishing impossibly complex stage movement (plaudits to movement director Signe Fabricius).

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva) and Sir Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs) © ROH | Clive Barda
Rachel Willis-Sørensen (Eva) and Sir Bryn Terfel (Hans Sachs)
© ROH | Clive Barda

Sir Bryn Terfel, as Sachs, and Gwyn Hughes Jones, as Walther, both have lovely voices: one of the key requirements for Meistersinger is that you should be happy to listen to the timbre of these two voices throughout the evening, and both fulfilled that. Rachel Willis Sørensen contributed a sweet-toned Eva, and the Royal Opera demonstrated its ever-present ability to provide strength in depth: Stephen Milling as a thoughtful and full-voiced Pogner, Allan Clayton thoroughly enjoyable as the apprentice David, Johannes Martin Kränzle producing perhaps the best vocal acting of the evening as the hapless Beckmesser and a show-stealing cameo from David Shipley as the nightwatchman.

Balance, however, wasn’t always right, especially in the entrance exam scene in Act 1. Both Sachs and Walther have to be able to stamp their authority on proceedings when there’s a lot of orchestra happening in the background, and that didn’t always happen; at many points, I felt that proceedings all got a little too manic. But then balance was superb in the more reflective passages, and most notably in the Act 3 quintet, where the combination of Terfel, Hughes Jones, Wills Sørensen, Clayton and Hanna Hipp’s Magdalena fused beautifully.

So a mixed evening with a lot of things right: it’s an inventive, watchable production that shows many of the virtues of Meistersinger without quite reaching the heights that are possible.