I've been privileged to see some exceptional productions of this work, which is very dear to me, in recent years, of which the outstanding Glyndebourne production by David McVicar still stands out. The Royal Opera's previous production, by Graham Vick, was also pretty strong. This replacement is another dismal effort from departing Artistic Director Kasper Holten which left me unmoved and, in what should be one of the most emotionally moving works in the repertoire, increasingly alienated and fed up. I wouldn't put it past Holten for that to have been intentional – there are certainly distinct elements of contempt for work and viewer lurking in this show.
Each prelude is played with the curtain down – one of the few moments in the show when the music is allowed centre stage. Once it goes up on Act 1, the oddities start. We are in a classically, for modern opera stagings, geographically confused building. The main element is a central staircase leading up to a door. To the viewer's left the opening chorale is in rehearsal watched by Sachs (if you're thinking that usually he doesn't appear until rather later in Act 1 you would be quite correct). Nearby Eva is hovering. This causes two fairly rapid problems. I accept that the sequence when Eva keeps forgetting things so she can prolong a conversation with Walther is not the easiest thing to stage convincingly but Holten doesn't even try. She stands a few feet from a table on which the objects are resting – needless to say it's daft that Magdalene is sent that small distance to fetch them, and equally that this is supposed to grant space for the lovers meeting. The second problem is that, having put Sachs on stage in defiance of the text, Holten seems to have no idea why he has done so. He (Sachs) hovers about ineffectively for a bit and then wanders off – now one might suppose that a man as concerned for Eva as the text will later bear out that he is (and this production sometimes accepts), might want to hang around and observe the new man on the scene – but no.
Then the busyness starts, another familiar vice of modern opera productions. Holten, again for reasons which were opaque to me, has chosen to set the singing school scene at some kind of guild banquet (given that this is, as far as I recall, supposed to be morning with Act 2 evening and Act 3 the following day this pretty much makes narrative timings ridiculous). The main effect of this banquet is that it means an army of servers coming on and off incessantly clinking crockery and moving chairs and tables (the legs of the tables make particularly unfortunate clicks and the ridiculously large and tiresomely symbolic gold chair makes a bid to oust the Act 3 Rosenkavalier wall as the most unmaneuverable piece of set this season). I'm prepared to accept that you may need to do something with David's aria about the tones which does go on a bit, but Pogner's speech about his gift and Sachs's intervention about popular opinion are critical elements for the drama which the busyness distracts from and undermines – other productions have got far more punch out of them – Holten again doesn't bother to try. This was one of the occasions when to me he seemed to hold the work in contempt. The stage gets generally cluttered and there's an absence of movement from order to chaos which is the story, to my mind, the music is telling us as Walther tries his luck and is rejected. Holten is generally very poor in this scene at bringing out the individual characters and the relationships between them. There also continue to be mysteries – the Marker's booth is totally unconvincing seen from the Amphi, and it was beyond me what Magdalena was doing helping with the setting up (and apparently oblivious to the presence of David). But Act One does, finally, retain a vaguely coherent setting and one can just about accept these people living in this world. Unfortunately, after the interval things go rapidly downhill.
Act Two takes place in the same hall. If you are thinking that it is supposed to take place in a square in Nuremberg on which Pogner and Sachs's houses sit, then you would be right. In this version there are no houses (Holten has even taken the precaution of not having “haus” translated in the surtitles). There are two potted plants unconvincingly masquerading as linden trees – the only effect of this being that Sachs has to walk over and stand beside them when singing about their aroma, but for no other clear reason. Movement of people throughout this act is weak. Eva's and Walther's alleged hiding place is feebly done, and I question whether a man on the way to elope with his beloved would waste time chalking a slogan on a passing wall. As the act goes on the stage becomes dark (courtesy of Jesper Kongshaug's lighting, or rather lack of it) to the point that from the Amphi one can hardly make out anybody's faces. This is another production vice that is becoming too common (last seen in the poor EIF imported Cosi). Were the Act taking place outside, as it is supposed to, then this might make some sense – although I think you have to have a degree of artistic licence so your audience can see properly what is going on. Since it is taking place inside this does not hold up, presumably the Masters hadn't paid their electricity bill. Finally, comes the riot – so memorable in the old Vick production, here a complete damp squib. A large number of people wandering on and milling around does not a riot make, and no, rotating some set at the back will not rescue it either. I was also puzzled as to why some of them seemed to be wearing animal masks on their heads. The overall effect is to suck all the life out of one of the most exciting moments of the score, despite the best efforts of Pappano, the Chorus and Orchestra and, also, to lose that magical contrast between the riot and the wonderful stillness of the returning Nightwatchman (and don't ask me why he was wearing the weird trousers, or doing the funny walk).
And then we have Act 3. God only knows, and possibly not even he, where we are supposed to be or whether any of the events which are, to an extent, being represented are actually taking place. The set has half-revolved presenting us with to one side a glimpse of the hall from Acts 1 and 2, in the middle a vaguely backstage looking area with racks of costumes, a water cooler and various staircases and gantries and, to the right, what appears to be an amphitheatre. What that amphitheatre is doing in the master's hall is never explained. It is just possible to imagine that it is what you confront immediately outside the master's hall but this doesn't really convince. Throughout the first scene, which should be an intimate domestic one, this baffling set revolves to eventually put us directly facing the amphitheatre. Backstage extras wander about with distracting regularity. Marooned in front of this the principals do their best with what should be one of the most powerful sequences in the opera. For fleeting moments they emotionally connected with me, but most of the time I no longer believed – I couldn't fathom where they were supposed to be or why being there they were acting as they were acting. I kept having flashbacks to the same scenes in the McVicar and Richard Jones (WNO/ENO) productions, in both instances I found those scenes powerfully moving, and wished I was watching them again. Thinking over it afterwards, it seems to me that Holten couldn't make his mind up – ending up in a half way house between a staging completely removed from the text and one that is wholly faithful – the result, for me by this point, was pretty complete muddle.
In the last scene, the procession is an exercise in mockery (though I award Pappano points for locating some of the extra brass in the Amphitheatre entrances, obtaining a more electric effect than anything in the staging). The watching crowd are dressed up like a first night audience – I would tend to agree with critics who have suggested Holten was commenting on Covent Garden regulars, but it was far from clear to me to what end. By this point I had effectively ceased to believe in any of the characters and was willing it to end (and this is a work I adore). Even now the weirdnesses do not cease – Magdalene resumes her role as assistant to the masters and bafflingly seemed to be watching the whole of David's dance with the girls while having no reaction whatsoever – yet in the quintet they've been passionately embracing.
Finally in the last ten minutes or so Holten unleashes a plethora of new ideas. Beckmesser is stripped of his Master's cloak and spends the remainder of the action hanging around in a corner dressed in a grubby white vest and black trousers. At first he's just leaning with his back to us, before ending up curled up on some stools along the front of the stage. The lighting remains so dim it was impossible to make out expressions from the Amphi. The whole thing got nowhere near the emotional punch of McVicar's direction of the same section. Meanwhile, Eva has revealed a hitherto invisible dislike of all the masters including her father and stormed off, rather in contradiction of the musical atmosphere, and Walther has equally suddenly whole-heartedly embraced Masterhood. Since none of this has been prepared for during the preceding five and a quarter hours it has little effect.
Other reviewers have praised the musical side of things. I've heard Gwyn Hughes Jones (Walther), Hanna Hipp (Magdalene), Johannes Martin Kranzle (Beckmesser) and Bryn Terfel (Sachs) all give fine, in some cases outstanding, performances of these roles in other productions. None of them, with passing exceptions for Terfel's Sachs who sometimes succeeded in vocally almost making me forget the nonsense around him, gave comparable performances or at least I found the production too detrimental to the music to be able to tell if they were. Everything suffers but, apart from the already mentioned riot scene, the other big problem occurs with what should be the powerfully moving Act 3 confrontation between Eva, Sachs and Walther. The Quintet was pretty well sung, but it ought to be heart-wrenching (the first time I saw the Glyndebourne performance it was overwhelming) and this performance gets nowhere near that. The Royal Opera House Chorus and Orchestra give it their best, but they can't save things either, and nor can Pappano on the podium.
In the final analysis, ignoring the sillinesses and incoherencies, the great crime of this production for me is that it was emotionally cold, it made me pretty completely unengaged by and indifferent to characters that, in other performances, have caused me to weep. But I can't say I was altogether surprised. Of Holten's previous main stage productions I had mixed feelings about his Eugene Onegin and didn't rate his Don Giovanni. Nor can I regard his overall record as Artistic Director as particularly successful – I have sat through too many weak new productions I have no desire to see again. But that he should finish by replacing a very good production of this wonderful opera with this miserable effort is particularly annoying. The state of ENO means a revival of the Richard Jones production is unlikely, Glyndebourne can't, I imagine, afford to do theirs often. I only hope the Royal Opera have had the sense to keep the Graham Vick edition in storage. This new attempt is a production to avoid and, should the company be forced to revive it, I shall certainly be doing so.