Most people, if they felt unfairly attacked by the critics, might write a letter to the paper. If you happen to be a genius, however, you can go one better, and Wagner certainly did so by composing a six-hour opera. Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg, which lampoons conservative musical tastes, is the most earthy of all the composers operas. It isnt about gods, dragons, holy grails or magical gold, but rather real people with very human feelings and foibles.
It is packed with humanity and humour, and Graham Vicks 1993 production for the Royal Opera House, revived here by Elaine Kidd, brings out every ounce of both. All of the set routines, such as Hans Sachs interrupting Beckmessers song with his hammering, and the comedy song preceding the beautiful innovation in Act III, are obviously there. In addition, however, we see afresh the more subtle jokes such as the Meistersinger wishing the ailing Niklaus Vogel well in a sympathetic but somewhat routine gesture. When the Meistersinger initially reject Walther, it is noticeable how amidst the variety of reactions to his song, some at least look reasonably impressed. It is only when Beckmesser lampoons it that they unite in their opposition with revealing double-edged comments such as I didnt understand it and Hed make us look fools.
The cast prove strong, both vocally and in their understanding of the opera. As Hans Sachs, Wolfgang Koch never puts a foot wrong with his firm, textured bass-baritone voice sounding just as fresh in the Finale as it did six hours earlier. He has a very sensitive approach to the part, capturing Sachss progressive humanity, world weariness and sense of mischief in equal measure. Even as he pushes Eva away towards Walther, he throws his arms up in a gesture of sorrowful rage.
Simon ONeill will not be everyones idea of the Romantic Walther, but this only makes the character more realistic. In Act II, after he has failed to become a Meistersinger, his clenched fists and wild gestures reveal genuine anguish and despair. For the most part, ONeill succeeds in combining a light, ethereal sound with real broadness and strength, making his Act I rendition of So rief der Lenz in den Wald immensely powerful. His final performance of Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein, however, does not quite match the standard set earlier, and his voice is far too forthright in the Act III Quintet to blend effectively with the others. Nevertheless, despite these minor criticisms, this is undoubtedly a strong performance.
As Pogner, Sir John Tomlinsons singing is not always as polished as it can be, but his voice remains sturdy, and his acting is tremendous. He has real presence, allowing him to command the stage as such a senior Meistersinger should. Emma Bells Eva is vibrantly sensitive, while Toby Spence as David produces a brilliantly clean, focused and resonant sound. Peter Coleman-Wright creates a mean, slimy Beckmesser, decked out in black tights and codpiece and looking a picture as he revels in thinking that he has outwitted Sachs. Heather Shipp is also a fine Magdalene, and Donald Maxwell a marvellous Kothner.
Richard Hudsons set carries an air of something that was designed twenty years ago, but is no less effective for that. It uses a large green frame to separate the back of the stage, which sports arches or the buildings of Nrnberg, from the front, where most of the action takes place. This creates a highly versatile area, which can be brought to life in a variety of ways. In Act I the throng of Meistersingers alone fills the area with action, while in Act II windows appear in the set from which people pop out during the riot.
Act III sees no regimental parade of the guilds, and instead presents a series of marches, dances and acrobatics. With the townspeople decked out in colourful costumes and resembling a Brueghel painting, everything verges on the camp if not quite Monty Python. This hyperbolic and hence harmless approach may neutralise any Nazi connotations that the work still carries, but it prevents us from understanding Wagners own thoughts and robs the ending of much of its impact. I just wonder if we still need to be quite so sensitive in 2011.
Antonio Pappanos conducting, however, more than makes up for the few problems there are. With rich vibrancy and strong attention to detail, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House takes flight, and plays out every expansive phrase without ever sacrificing strict rhythmic quality or genuine musicality. This, along with the excellent performances on offer, make a trip to the Royal Opera House highly worthwhile.
In addition to the performances at the Royal Opera House, there will be a concert performance at Birmingham Symphony Hall on 11 January 2012, in which Bryn Terfel sings Hans Sachs and Antonio Pappano conducts.
Die Meistersinger von Nrnberg will be broadcast live from the Royal Opera House on BBC Radio 3 on 1 January 2012 from 14.45.