McVicar Brings Out the Comedy in Glyndebourne’s Splendid Die Meistersinger

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Wagner, Die Meistersinger: Soloists, The Glyndebourne Chorus, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Michael Güttler (conductor). Glyndebourne, Lewes, East Sussex, 2.6.2016. (JPr)

Final Scene of Glyndebourne Festival Opera’s Die Meistersinger
(c) Tristram Kenton

Wagner, Die Meistersinger


Walther – Michael Schade
Eva – Amanda Majeski
Magdalene – Hanna Hipp
David – David Portillo
Veit Pogner – Alastair Miles
Sixtus Beckmesser – Jochen Kupfer
Hans Sachs – Gerald Finley
Kunz Vogelgesang – Colin Judson
Konrad Nachtigall – Andrew Slater
Fritz Kothner – Darren Jeffery
Hermann Ortel – Nicholas Folwell
Balthasar Zorn – Alasdair Elliott
Augustin Moser – Daniel Norman
Ulrich Eisslinger – Adrian Thompson
Hans Foltz – Henry Waddington
Hans Schwarz – Sion Goronwy
Night Watchman – Patrick Guetti


Director – David McVicar
Designer – Vicki Mortimer
Choreography – Andrew George
Lighting Designer – Paule Constable
Chorus Master – Jeremy Bines

It was a return as much for me as for Wagner to Glyndebourne. I have been only intermittently over the years since my first visit in 1974 when I saw Elisabeth Söderström in Richard Strauss’s Intermezzo. Much has changed since then including the fine new 1200-seater theatre but much has stayed the same with the elegantly manicured lawns still quintessentially overflowing with black-tie al fresco diners. You can only be at Glyndebourne for summer opera when someone approaches you and says ‘Excuse me, I have everything I need for my picnic but do you perchance have a cheese knife I could use?’.

A Wagner opera, Tristan und Isolde, was first staged at Glyndebourne in 2003, a second one, this Die Meistersinger, was first put on in 2011 and was now being revived after five years. John Christie’s vision for his opera festival when it was founded in the 1930s was as an ‘English Bayreuth’. He – like me – went on annual pilgrimages to Bayreuth and once gathered a group of opera-loving friends together in the elegant Organ Room to perform some of Die Meistersinger with piano accompaniment, singing Sixtus Beckmesser himself.

First the very good news is that Sir David McVicar makes us realise that Die Meistersinger is a comic opera and it felt good to laugh again. McVicar used to be the provider of outré and often bloody opera productions but gradually seems to challenging Richard Jones to see who can be this century’s Dr Jonathan Miller. Sometimes – as in this case – it is not too bad to set aside wondering what the director is imposing on the music and – I suspect – appreciate more of what Wagner probably intended.

Because Beckmesser has been outed (apparently) as an anti-Semitic caricature he is now often treated over-sympathetically. To rehabilitate him also seems to have been David McVicar’s aim but I did not see it. The town clerk is still thoroughly bashed about and then condemned artistically for his incomprehensible performance at the song contest. Here McVicar presents him as a dandy constantly preening himself and with that look on his face as if he is always smelling something bad. I couldn’t quite put my finger on who he reminded me of in other popular culture but his campness was certainly part (if you know them) Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, Larry Grayson and Paul O’Grady. This Beckmesser sets off to perform his duties as Merker by kissing his chalk and later strums his lute like Elvis, then stumbles all over the place in Sachs’s workshop and suffers an avalanche of shoeboxes whilst determined to maintain a modicum of dignity. At the end of the opera Beckmesser remains marginalised on the fringes of this society. He is thoroughly despondent and although Hans Sachs attempts a rapprochement, he turns his back on him and slinks away unable to transcend his own parochialism. It was Jochen Kupfer’s wonderful performance that made the journey to Glyndebourne worthwhile, he proved a wonderful physical comedian and his darker than usual sound as Beckmesser contrasted well with Gerald Finley’s unusually lighter baritone as Hans Sachs.

McVicar’s production is chocolate box-like and unashamedly conventional. He has updated the setting to early in the nineteenth century when the Napoleonic Wars brought a threat of foreign domination to Germany and Wagner had just been born. Sachs wants to preserve ‘holy German art’ but the other fun-loving Masters are totally oblivious of any trouble brewing, and this seems to dishearten Sachs who, himself, just walks off at the end. Vicki Mortimer’s realistic designs and colourful costumes underpin the essential good-nature of this production. The décor faithfully represents the church setting of Act I, and its archways and elaborately vaulted ceiling remains a feature of the rest of the opera’s various locales including Sachs’s workshop and the Nuremberg street or meadow.

It makes this Die Meistersinger more intimate than almost any other I have seen but admirably suited to the smallish Glyndebourne stage and auditorium. The stage does however seem rather overpopulated at times, particularly in the very chaotic Act II riot and the final scene with all the stilt walkers, juggling clowns and stomping townsfolk. Perhaps I was in a good mood and happy to leave whatever intellect I still have at the cloakroom but I had a thoroughly good time. I could have just done with a toning down of some of the stage business at times – especially during Act I when there is some needless ‘choreography’ (by Andrew George) for the apprentices – but I can appreciate how there had been an attempt to make almost every character we see individual and real.

There was one particular downside to making everyone more ‘human’ and that was it diminished the significance of Sachs, the cobbler-poet, who was an historical figure. I have not seen this year’s reviews because I did not want to be influenced at this fourth performance. However, I know how much Gerald Finley was praised in 2011. His beautiful voice was at its best in the famous Flieder and Wahn monologues where his phrasing and diction were a masterclass. However, it was impossible for me to see how this rather reticent, slightly uncharismatic figure was so popular with the Nurembergers. Now he was a cobbler-philosopher apparently who seemed to believe there was a chance for him with Eva and this had created personal demons in him, one of them being drinking too much. By the time he got to his final crucial – and often controversial – exhortation (‘Habt Acht!’) unfortunately Finley was running out of gas vocally.

It is the knight, Walther, who at the end wins Sachs’s beloved Eva with his Prize Song, and I enjoyed Michael Schade’s performance very much. He was personable and burly and his resounding Walther reminded me in every way so very much of the legendary Alberto Remedios in the role for English National Opera. Admittedly his singing was not as Italianate nor did he have his stamina but it made me happy. Generally, the men in this performance outshone the women. Alastair Miles’s Pogner, Eva’s father, was another usually dominant figure like Sachs here made rather ditherier and crotchety but he sang well and like all the Masters – mostly experienced singers but too numerous to mention individually – he made his mark. David Portillo’s David was suitably boisterous and he sang his Act I exposition on the art of song so entertainingly that he nearly overcame its obvious longueurs which can often stop the opera in its tracks at this point.

Amanda Majeski is another of the long assembly line of American sopranos getting leading roles in the UK. She didn’t sound ready for Wagner but maybe there was an unannounced indisposition, however Eva needs to be pure-voiced and not so delicate and quavery. As Magdalena, Eva’s maid and David’s love interest, Hanna Hipp was also a bit shrill at times but her hyperactive exuberant portrayal made me forget this when she was on stage.

Replacing Robin Ticciati, Glyndebourne’s indisposed music director, Michael Güttler clearly is a favourite with the London Philharmonic Orchestra judging from their response to him taking the podium. Whether the strings were thin in numbers, just thin sounding or simply because of a problem with the acoustics, for whatever reason the Prelude to Act I was deeply disappointing. Matters improved a little as the evening went on and though it became a very vibrant account it was at its best when he brought an autumnal glow to this sunniest and summeriest of Wagner’s operas. Throughout he was the most attentive accompanist when Gerald Finley particularly was singing, in the way a pianist supports a lieder singer in an intimate recital.

 Jim Pritchard

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