Review: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera House

Kasper Holten’s latest production for the Royal Opera House – and his last as Director of Opera – is also, arguably, one of his best. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, one of Wagner’s most popular operas, is a fitting farewell for a tenure that has met harsh criticism over new productions (such as last year’s Guillaume Tell).

The opera itself isn’t devoid of controversy, being particularly enjoyed by the Nazis and with a nationalist message in the end that is obviously xenophobic. This production, however, finds its strength in pointing out the relevance of some of the the opera’s themes.

The relatively simple tale of a man in love who decides to audition for a singers’ guild to be able to participate in a contest where he could win the hand of his beloved, becomes a clash between old and new; tradition and modernity. This conflict, which lies at the very heart of the libretto, is fleshed out skilfully by

depicting the guild of the Meistersinger as a sort of masonic lodge/gentlemen club of today, with its seemingly nonsensical rules, pomp, and ceremony.

Four performances were particularly remarkable: Rachel Willis-SØrensen’s as Eva, Allan Clayton’s as David, and of course Bryn Terfel’s as Hans Sachs. Willis-SØrensen brought warmth and youthful energy to a role that treats her like an object – subject to her father’s wishes, without a say on anything and finally in despair.

Clayton’s David was vocally sound and shiny whilst being believable; and Terfel brought his usual charisma to Hans Sachs, catalyst of the story. The comedic performance of Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser is simply fantastic for an opera that is at most only mildly amusing.

Hans Sachs (Bryn Terfel) amidst a hellish crowd. Photo by Clive Barda

This production doesn’t shy away of problematic (a.k.a very wrong) passages in which Sachs tells of his love for Eva since she was a little girl – and a scene in which Eva herself tells Sachs he ‘made her a woman’, apparently through poetry – which is indeed horrific for modern audiences. Other interesting scenes like the Midsummer riot are done masterfully, with a host of Wagnerian characters chaotically invading the stage.

This is a very well thought-out production, with exactingly detailed sets by Mia Stensgaard representing both the opulence and the geometrical limitations of the Meistersinger’s rules. For an opera this long – 5hr 45mins – there are little set changes, which can be a bit challenging. This is particularly true for the first half of the third act, when the dialogue between Sachs and Walther, and between Sachs and Beckmesser happen during an endless slow-motion rotation of the set, making it even longer than it already is.

This opera is, despite some pacing issues in Act 3, a good production that connects Wagner with modern audiences effectively, placing the nationalist message of the last scene in a historical re-enactment or visibly dated ceremony context. We can hear the words – sung by unlikely hero Hans Sachs – about ‘German Art’ being the pinnacle of Humanity while all we see is an old man in a ridiculously detailed period dress talking to a modern-dressed audience delighted to observe this parody show. That, I think, is the essence of this production. Farewell, Mr Holten.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is playing at the Royal Opera House until March 31.