Calm expectant chatter outside in Covent Garden for the Royal Opera’s new production of Die Meistersinger.

Curtain up in daylight on a brand new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, a radical reimagining at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden of this much-loved opera. It took a moment or two to adjust to the setting in a modern era club, modern enough for smoking and plastic framed spectacles but still the era of notebooks, and Beckmesser’s blackboard and chalk.

The shock of the new is what Die Meistersinger is about and that also means us, the audience, confronted full-on with a revelatory new translation on the surtitles which highlights contemporary values (feminism and populism etc), a modern stage setting and even a more fluid, responsive musical interpretation than many recordings.

We’re now used to the scenery being transformed by the cast as part of the background action, Kasper Holten’s production takes that stage-craft further still, using background action to highlight themes in the story as well as halting or enhancing the background actions to accentuate the foreground drama and to provide comic counterpoint. Precise background characterisation helped a lot with identifying and recognising the distinct mastersingers and illuminating their characters as written in to the music and words.

The setting is very formal and symmetric, it’s reminiscent of Third Reich architecture with its rectilinear shapes. It seemed no opportunity was lost to subvert the setting for dramatic effect, to break the illusion created. This became a theme in itself in Act 2 where breaking symmetry ever more violently is used as a metaphor for the madness of Hans Sach’s nightmares.

But in Act 2 the contradictions between the modern staging and the text became seriously worrying to those of us who have seen a number of traditional stagings based on Nuremburg town square. Sachs as the cobbler discoursing as if after dinner in the club, hammering a cobbler’s last but still dressed for a Pall Mall club was the most obvious. Opera is all about suspension of disbelief and modern stagings are about symbolism so it was better to go with the flow: as the madness of Act 2 progressed this became ever more difficult, the traditional interpretations of Wagner’s geography were shamelessly subverted, the audience suffering in empathy with Sach’s nightmare madness. The final crowd scene spectacular finally revealed the full capabilities of rotating the stage turntable and scenery vertically as a Midsummer Eve’s dream became a nightmare rave.

And so on to Act 3, as long in itself as many other operas, hence the start in daylight at 4:30pm. No doubts about the cast, glorious throughout; the radical production now explained itself and bore the rich fruits of its innovative reading. No more the dramatic inconsistencies of Act 2, they are reconciled and forgotten as Sach’s nightmare and he appears as a complex but rounded person, not just a demagogue or tyrant to his apprentice as can be the tendency in traditional portrayals. Walter displays his frustration between poetry and pedantry, as the programme notes put it so succinctly. Beckmesser also appears as a complex personality, possibly evil, certainly riven between his lust for Eva and duty as a Mastersinger rather than simply being the traditionalist blocking Sach’s wacky progressive notions. Eva is not just a trophy bride but is revealed as a female who is fighting the prejudices against women of the archaic guildsmen. David the apprentice is a full and rounded character with his own allies within the progressives, including Lena and Eva. Modern clothes help us because we can read visually a tailor as a tailor, a goldsmith as a goldsmith. The production notes also explain that the historical Hans Sachs was also so prolific as a poet that it is hard to believe he continued working as a cobbler. These themes are there in the music and the words, but are far more evident in this production than a traditional staging.

The famous quintet was rapturous and sympathetically staged to support the singers. The main set continued to revolve almost imperceptibly; as had been suggesting change and unsettlement throughout Act 2; it resolved on cue to make an amphitheatre setting for the final, festive denouement scene.

Sach’s final tirade about German art was played in full as written. It’s still uncomfortable in this production. And there’s a final feminist twist which I won’t spoil, fulfilling the production’s illumination of the opera’s attitude to females. No female nowadays would be offered as a prize in a singing competition.

It was an expensive ticket, the singing and orchestral playing were top notch. I particularly enjoyed the Prelude to Act 3. But the re-imagining of the staging proved revelatory, stripping away years of production practice which had limited the interpretation. Wagner’s final opera for Munich, completed after Tristan and while he was half-way through composing the Ring, is revealed as a complex masterpiece.

My thoughts on the 2012 revival of the previous Royal Opera production Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - The Royal Opera


Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - The Royal Opera 2017

Music - Richard Wagner
Libretto - Richard Wagner
Director - Kasper Holten
Set designer - Mia Stensgaard
Costume designer - Anja Vang Kragh
Lighting designer - Jesper Kongshaug
Choreography and movement - Signe Fabricius
Fight director - Kate Waters
Dramaturg - Elisabeth Linton

Conductor - Antonio Pappano
Hans Sachs - Bryn Terfel
Sixtus Beckmesser - Johannes Martin Kränzle
Walther von Stolzing - Gwyn Hughes Jones
Eva - Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Veit Pogner - Stephen Milling
David - Allan Clayton
Magdalene - Hanna Hipp
Fritz Kothner - Sebastian Holecek
Kunz Vogelgesang - Andrew Tortise
Balthasar Zorn - Alasdair Elliott
Konrad Nachtigal - Gyula Nagy
Ulrich Eisslinger - Samuel Sakker
Augustin Moser - David Junghoon Kim
Hermann Ortel - John Cunningham
Hans Schwarz - Jeremy White
Hans Foltz - Brian Bannatyne-Scott
Nightwatchman - David Shipley
- Jeanette Ager
- Maria Brown
- Maria Jones
- Clare McCaldin
- Simon Biazeck
- Phillip Brown
- Edmond Choo
- Freddie De Tommaso
- Andrew Friedhoff
- James Geer
- James Scarlett
- David Woodward

Royal Opera Chorus, Concert Master - Vasko Vassilev
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conductor Antonio Pappano.