Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rapture Day: Die Meistersinger von Glyndebourne

While American evangelicals were preparing for those with the right kind of beliefs to be swept up in a 'rapture' to heaven, Glyndebourne offered something rather similar - yet fortuitously real - to its own beticketed denizens: the opening night of its biggest-ever endeavour, the house's very first go at Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. It's Wagner's heftiest and sunniest, a sort of benign brontosaurus of an opera that starts at 3pm and doesn't clock out until shortly before 10pm. After the great success of the first Glynditz Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, expectations ran high. I attended the dress rehearsal, but had to be good and keep shtum until today was over... (Picture right: half an hour before the show, by Tomcat.)

David McVicar excels at productions that are deeply rooted in the characters (as all fine productions should be) and appear naturalistic thanks to their wealth of detail. No exception, this. What is exceptional, though, is its sheer, fabulous, irresistible visual gorgeousness, for which very many more than three cheers go to designer Vicki Mortimer. The production and design centre the action firmly in the time and the town: we're in the era of Wagner's childhood, the early 19th century, but Nuremberg is still medieval and you feel you're walking into it and meeting the inhabitants. (Among the inhabitants you meet, btw, is the lovely Martha Jurowski, Vladimir's teenage daughter. Look out for her in the crowd...)

The basic shell is the arches and pillars of the church in which Eva and Walther eyeball one another at the beginning. The church is filled with vast murals; the full congregation with restive apprentices and well-behaved burghers' children, is in the background. We have Walther's viewpoint, the outsider looking in, hesitantly approaching in the hope of joining this prosperous yet rather volatile community. Walther is the first of several isolated, outsider-ish characters - the others turning out to be Beckmesser and Sachs himself. The second act takes place around a statue and fountain, with the carved wooden balconies of Pogner's house and Sachs's on opposite sides. But it's the third that is most revealing of all.

The final scene in the meadow, with fire-eaters on stilts and huge numbers of jugglers, singers, dancers and actors bustling around a wooden pavilion, drew amazed applause from a thrilled dress-rehearsal crowd of friends and family, something that doesn't happen too often (we're a hardened old lot, us). But in the scene before that, we're in Sachs's house. His excellently messy desk is that of a poet, a creative - piled haphazardly with books and papers. In the centre of the room is a portrait of his deceased wife and children, covered with a curtain that he removes briefly, then replaces. Furniture is stored in heaps, as if it has sat there ever since the deaths of those in the painting, however long ago that may be. We're not only in his house, but in his head.

Meistersinger is an overwhelming work, of course, but it can have thankless elements: Hans Sachs and his apprentice, David, are the only truly rounded characters, though the deliciously odious Beckmesser is close behind. It's too easy for Eva to slip into cardboardy cuteness and for Walther to be one of those doltish Wagnerian tenors with more brawn than brain - though admittedly he needs brawn to get through the role at all. One operatic friend of mine remarks that Walther reduces most tenors, by the time they reach the Prize Song, to sounding as if they've been "gargling with hydrochloric acid".

But McVicar has solved most of the potential awkwardnesses of staging with one phenomenal explosive device. It is: Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs.

Some surprise went around when the casting was initially announced: surely Finley would be too youthful, too lightweight, not quite Terfel-ish enough? Ahaa - but stupendous as Terfel was last year at WNO and the Proms, this concept is something quite different. First of all, not only does Finley, in his debut in the role, convince us that it's a piece of cake, but his voice is  utterly, phenomenally beautiful. With the quality of the tone, the phrasing, the enunciation and the sense of character, Finley's Sachs is possessed by poetry from start to finish. I can't imagine a greater one. (Read a very good interview with him about the role from Musical Criticism, here.)

It's the inner conflicts of Sachs and Eva (the lyrical Anna Gabler) that drive the drama. This exceedingly handsome Sachs - Finley is one of the world's finest Don Giovannis, remember - is still in devastated widowerhood and part of him loathes his own attraction to Eva; this makes it perfectly plausible that Eva too has a divided heart, with a crush on Sachs that's still relatively fresh. Instead of teasing him about possibly winning her hand in the contest, you feel that a good two-thirds of her would genuinely like him to do so. So if Walther is a bit of a dolt - or in this case, a drip - it helps, rather than hinders the drama, leaving enough room in Eva's emotions for Sachs too. The gangly Marco Jentzsch does a reasonable job as Walther, but if this Sachs were to participate in the contest, the baritone would sing the tenor off the stage, fin.

What about Beckmesser - the critic Eduard Hanslick in disguise, say some? He's an interesting creation: clearly an outsider, more somberly dressed and darker haired than the rest - but with hirsute style strongly suggestive of pictures of Wagner himself. Still, he does a shrug at the end of Act 1 that makes one wonder if McVicar is succumbing to the "Beckmesser is an anti-Semitic caricature" line of thought. If so, though, the point isn't overstated. Thereafter he's more Buster Keaton than Shylock - and the episode in which he invades Sachs' house and steals the Prize Song is hilariously akin to Simon's Cat (the "Sticky Tape" film...). Bravo to Johannes Martin Kränzle, another brilliant voice and fine actor, and to the doughty Rachel Masters, accompanying him from the pit on the Celtic harp.

More singers to single out are Alastair Miles as Pogner, Michaela Selinger as Magdalene and Mats Almgren as the Night Watchman. And the chorus is a knockout. McVicar has chosen the period in which Wagner's psyche would have been first formed, and there are plenty of children on stage: maybe one of those small 19th-century boys could grow up to be Big Richard himself? And with Sachs musing upon the origins of all the repressed anger, once again in the context of 19th-century Bavaria there's a sense that Wagner may have been a little more perceptive than we usually give him credit for.

There's one big clanger: the choreography. In such a true-to-life, detailed, historically convincing production, if the dances don't match, it really jars. This choreography works against rather than with the music and looks like a rough mashup of line dancing, disco moves and pelvic thrusts that seem to say 'oooh-aarrgh-look-at-us-earthy-townsfolk'. Please ditch and rethink before the revival.

Down t'pit, Vladimir Jurowski, tackling his very first Meistersinger too, has picked an unusual way to deal with Big Orchestra in Smallish House syndrome. For many quieter, dialogue-based episodes, he cuts the orchestral sections down considerably - in the case of the first violins, to just six players. It so happens that Tom is no.5 and the increased stress levels have induced the consumption of far too much chocolate, so I'll leave it to everyone else to remark upon whether or not the tactic works.

There's no excuse not to see the show, sold out though it is: it's being cinecast on 26 June to cinemas all over the country (and, intriguingly, to the Science Museum). Plus The Guardian will be live-streaming it online.

Here's the one and only Stephen Fry talking about the opera in the Glyndebourne organ room at the show.

And one final image: this was the opera John Christie always longed to stage. After 83 years, his dream has been realised at last. We can't quite believe it. But it's true.