Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, March 2017Posted on 12 March 2017
As the Royal Opera and Kasper Holten part company, this is his last throw of the dice. Like many continental European directors he delivers us a ‘concept’, and in the first two acts I was puzzled to know why it necessitated the abandoning of the church, Sach’s house, Pogner’s house, and the street.
Act I takes place in what looks like a Masonic Lodge, and the street in Act II uses the same set which involves two spinning mechanisms for the rumpus as Hieronymus Bosch-like figures enter for a mid-summer eve Polterabend. As that act ends, this hugely elaborate set rotates on a vertical axis to reveal a backstage world, fully realised in Act III as costumes and props are brought on, while the original front of the stage is transformed into a theatre for the final scene. This is where Magdalena takes the role of stage manager, complete with note-board and earphones, perhaps explaining why she was such a provocative and assertive young woman in Act I, first in the interaction between Walther and Eva, and then as a fussy head waitress for the Meistersingers’ supper before Walther’s song trial.
But it is Holten’s representation of Eva that is particularly unusual. Rather than the young woman who matures to abandon her childlike love of Sachs for the thrill and youth of Walther — here looking like a scruffy Bill Bailey who has to be loaned a necktie for his song trial — we see a teenager who grows increasingly petulant at the end as Sachs’ delivers his paean to German Art and Walther finally accepts the Meistersingers’ honours. As she abandons her chosen man and the stage itself, this says more about Kasper Holten’s rejection of tradition than Wagner’s ideas, even if he does have Walther write the famous Wagner quotation Kinder schafft Neues on a wall in Act II. Altering this pretty near-perfect opera has the side effect of rendering the characters less sympathetic than Wagner intended, and making it difficult to care what happens to them in the end. The composer set this in a world several centuries before his own time, and a director who wants to bring it into a later period (the Lyons Corner House costumes for the waitresses suggested the 1950s) needs more subtlety and imagination than Holten displayed.
Yet musically this was a treat. Antonio Pappano has the measure of the work. His conducting of the overture already showed nicely balanced brass and percussion, and the singing was outstanding, with a wonderfully sympathetic Hans Sachs by Bryn Terfel, a superbly lyrical Walther by Gwyn Hughes Jones, and a beautifully strong Eva by Rachel Willis-Sørensen. Johannes Martin Kränzle sang a well-nuanced Beckmesser, Allan Clayton an artistic David who contrasted well with the more earthy Walther of Gwyn Hughes Jones, and Hanna Hipp a strong Magdalena. Stephen Milling showed fine stage presence as Pogner, and Sebastian Holecek was gloriously dominant as Kothner, the head of the guild, and supplementing this terrifically strong cast the chorus were magnificent.
There were some nice moments. In Act III I liked the sponsorship of the guilds, the enthusiastic on-stage audience who booed Beckmesser, and the musicians in the auditorium (drums in the orchestra stalls and trumpets in the Amphitheatre). Yet there was unnecessary poetic licence in the translation for the surtitles and the extravagance of Mia Stensgaard’s sets compared unfavourably to Richard Jones’s ENO staging, which I much prefer. Yet judging by the audience reaction, many will love this production, while others will breathe a sigh of relief at the departure of Kasper Holten.
Performances continue on various dates until March 31 — for details click here.