After the extraordinary experience of the Glyndebourne Tristan my hopes were high for this, so much so that I wrote on the booking form that I would accept two tickets anywhere in the theatre at any price (which is probably why my esteemed brother and I ended up at the front of the Stalls in two separate rows). The first two acts didn't quite live up to expectations, the third was a profound and overwhelming experience.
The central wonder of this production, and worth a top price ticket alone, is the extraordinary Hans Sachs of Gerald Finley. I previously saw this opera at Covent Garden in the excellent Graham Vick production (to be revived this Christmas) and starring John Tomlinson in his prime, and I wondered in advance how Finley would compare. Fortunately Finley is so vocally impressive, and gives such a commanding performance of such a completely different interpretation of Sachs to Tomlinson's that one is not troubled by ghosts. Finley possesses those key attributes – the ability to be still and in character on stage, and to convey great emotion with the smallest gestures. For much of the Masters meeting in Act One Sachs has only minimal interjections, but Finley drew the eye. In Act Three, the ode when all the Masters have assembled is sung affectionately (and cleverly tongue in cheek) to Sachs who stands for much of it with his back to the audience, yet the emotions continue to resonate though his face is hidden. Above all, Finley's Sachs is young enough that the possibility of his marriage to Eva, which Tomlinson clearly did not take seriously for all his affection for her, is a matter of absolutely deadly earnest. When Sachs bursts out with it as he tries to repair her shoe it's heartbreaking to watch, and it haunts the opera right to the end, in glances between Sachs and Eva, and his suppressed pain in the middle of the general joy. Finley's performance is one of true operatic greatness and I count myself deeply fortunate to have witnessed it.
The production in which this performance is embedded is very traditional (though clearly not traditional enough for the people behind us on the bus back to Lewes who were complaining among other things that Act Three is supposed to be set in a meadow). At times, particularly in the first two acts, it's a little bit staid – showing perhaps that you can't win with picky opera audiences either way. This was, I think, less a consequence of the straightforward design and more of movement which failed the naturalism test. Often during the first two acts (and particularly during the riot which for me was the one major failure in the staging) I was reminded of a performance by Philip Langridge as Jupiter in a long ago production of Semele. He made each move as if he was remembering that the director had told him to move to x now, not as a natural act in character. Thus with several characters during the first two acts (though not Finley) and with the chorus in the riot – the violence was especially unconvincing – though I have wondered subsequently if in this instance being so close to the stage was a handicap to suspension of disbelief. However, in the third act all these doubts were swept away – a point I shall return to. It should also be noted here that the chorus sing superbly throughout, again especially so in the third act.
The same issues applied to Vladimir Jurowski's conducting. In the first two acts despite some beautiful playing I felt he didn't quite build right to the climaxes. The tumultuous conclusion of the first act is I think a cousin of the riot of the second and from the moment Walther starts to audition for the Masters through to the end the momentum needs to keep building. This did not quite happen. Similarly, the riot needed to be a bit more extreme to make the key contrast with the Nightwatchman's second appearance. Yet it should be said that while his conducting in the first two acts is not in Bychkov's league (my current live Wagner benchmark) things never seriously drag as was the case with Wigglesworth at the ENO Parsifal. I did also wonder though, with Act Two, if my problem was the curse of familiarity. It's the part of the opera I know well and previously loved best, and I suspect that I have some idea of it in my head that has become embellished over time and lays me open to disappointment and pickiness.
Whether it was me or this performance, I came out of Act Two feeling quite disappointed, and wondering if Act 3 was going to be a long haul. I could not have been more wrong. Jurowski and the LPO played the wonderful prelude with powerful emotion - Jurowski is on the podium at the beginning and the lights simply come down with no audience applause – an absolutely appropriate decision which establishes the seriousness of mood. From then through to the end I was powerfully gripped by Finley, so much so that he brought tears to my eyes during the scene with Eva and Walther. On the way home my brother, who had not been able to get past certain problems in staging and performance suggested that I had been helped past them by being so overwhelemed by Finley. I have continued to reflect on this, especially in the light of some of the negative commentary in reviews and on twitter regarding McVicar's production, and I conclude that while Finley is the centre, he needs certain things from the other principals (Topi Lehtipuu's David and Michaela Selinger's Magdalene play important supporting parts here, both singing and acting convincingly throughout), from Jurowski and the LPO, and from the staging in order to create the experience.
The idea (whether Finley's, Anna Gabler's (Eva) or McVicar's) to emphasise an irrationality in Eva's love for Walther, and the linked pain it gives her to reject Sachs whom she cares for and pities but does not love, needs a great acting and singing performance from Gabler to match Finley's. This it gets. For both of them something is lost by their choices. A similar depth of characterisation somehow emerges under McVicar's direction from Johannes Martin Kranzle's Beckmesser in Act Three. In Act One he is merely pompous, in Act Two he contributed to the momentum problem – there was not enough of a duel between him and Sachs, and his mandolin playing was obviously fake. But in Act Three something begins to change, somehow his desperation as he hunts Sachs's house and steals the poem made me pity him, even as I laughed at the slapstick. Again my brother suggested this was overdone, but as we agreed on the train later, it isn't out of kilter with the music, and for myself I needed that release of laughter after the opening scene.
But it is the final scene that really packs a punch. Kranzle made me believe in his love for Eva. To everybody else it is ridiculous, to him a desperate longing and there is a moving tragedy in his failure as a consequence. When McVicar has him weeping in recognition of true artistry when Walther succeeds, as it seemed to me, it only made the tragedy more powerful. All this is enough even to outweigh the one clear vocal weak link, the Walther of Marco Jentzsch. Jentzsch, regrettably, is the one performer who simply isn't up to the job and one wonders how on earth he came to be hired. In the first act (he fortunately has little to do in Act Two) the voice was strained, inadequate delivery of text made sadly conspicuous by the mastery of others (particularly Finley whose diction is superb), phrases snatched, tone often unpleasant. This continues to be the case in Act Three, and I could see my brother's problem in suspending disbelief – it is understandably difficult to see how Jentzsch could be admitted as Master. But somehow, in Act Three, I was so swept away by the rest of it, that I ceased to mind his inadequacies, and in a way they reinforced the irrationality of Eva's love.
McVicar sustains the tension through to the very end where it can easily flag, and for me did something quite extraordinary with the anthem to the glory of Germany which (with all of Wagner's Hitlerian connotations) is often very difficult to take. Somehow I felt that McVicar contrived to subvert all that. By keeping the atmosphere of the Wahn monologue, the lurking insanity of humans, as a part of Sachs's characterisation all the way through the third act, when Finley came to deliver these words they seemed to me to be warning against that madness. His attempts to reach out to Beckmesser, to draw him back into the circle become deeply poignant for it is Beckmesser as much as anyone with his mistreatment of Walther in Act One and his willingness to commit a crime to secure victory in Act Three who has come to symbolise that madness. Madness which Sachs knows is very much within himself and which requires efforts of will to suppress – the sense that he is overwhelmed and troubled by the popular acclamation comes in here too. I was held, enveloped in orchestral sound, hoping that Beckmesser would come round.
This show has garnered a rather mixed galaxy of reviews from superlatives down to one critic who referred to it as The Mastersingers of Snoozeville. The latter seems to me deeply unfair – how anyone could doze off while Finley is giving this performance of a lifetime I cannot imagine. Yet I can see the problems, a Walther who isn't up to it, a staging that's a bit staid, conducting that hasn't quite yet got the full measure of the score. I can only come back to where I came in, the tears in my eyes, and my mind still much preoccupied with Finley's unforgettable Sachs and the total experience of Act Three.