First the dreaded word: updating. But don't be put off. The action is updated by about three centuries, not four, to the early 1800s - the time of Wagner's birth, Romanticism and revolution. It works rather nicely - one feels more connected to the goings-on. The guildsmen's trades seems more pertinent, being the pregnant seeds of the industrial revolution not fifty years hence. At the back of Sachs' home at the beginning of Act 3, he goes to fetch coffee from a large wrought iron stove, an artisan employing the soon to be mass-produced pre-requisite of the middle-class home and the prototype for the vehicular engine. It's an action tenuously evocative of Turner's The Fighting Temeraire (right), in which the artist pays wistful tribute to the inevitable succession of the new machine pulling the beautiful anachronism of the sailing ship to its final berth.
Furthermore, Walther is played as a soldier not only pitched in battle with the stuffy Meistersingers but ready for the call that will take him into the cauldron of civil or international revolution. The (fine) sets are snapshots of a parochial, if noble town. Yet the implication of the petty power struggle is definitely cast further afield, at least to the very borders of Germany, as Sachs' final peroration makes clear.
Sachs himself is also a revolutionary in this production, by virtue of the artist in the role. Gerald Finley is by no means the enlightened burgher given to comparing beards with his contemporaries. Instead he is the perpetually disatisfied artisan, an ideological cousin of that other famous cobbler Daniel Day-Lewis, a situation as much to do with Finley's fine, youthful looks as with David McVicar's conception (which, presumably, had Finley's assets in mind from the moment he started work anyway). Remember that this production opened just as the current American President had passed through on a state visit to his equally youthful British counterpart, that the age of the early-as-opposed-to-late middle-aged conciliator is with us.
With all this in mind I had two problems with this otherwise comprehensively well-designed and performed production.
Firstly, the peculiar tug-of-love in which Eva finds herself is really not terribly convincing. I don't think that the updating and the fact of Finley's charisma had been, unlike in many other respects, properly addressed here. His Sachs stands off Eva uneasily, unable to give himself over to her in any way because of the story, but equally unable to play the impervious elder. Disclaimer: I had a restricted view seat which meant that I missed the crucial Act 3 Scene 2 (?) sequence in which he mends her shoe to the confused, benighted overview of Walther. Perhaps this would have clarified the playing of this relationship.
Secondly, Sachs' final words on the defence of German nationalism is played straight without any attempt to engage with issue of Wagner's racism or the spectre of the Third Reich. Though it's reasonable for the director to play the opera straight out of the score, his updating makes this more of an issue than it might otherwise have been. The final tableau felt like watching a staged prequel to Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.
These notable issues aside I had a thoroughly good evening in the theatre, a classic even, given the perfect weather for the long interval picnic ritual in between acts of an opera for which the theatre was built in the first place. Applause greeted the scene change in the third act, the first time I'd ever heard the like at the house. It was well deserved too, not just for the set on view but as a culmination of the designs and construction throughout the evening.
In this space the company seemed to take to the piece as if they had in fact been performing it since 1934. Wagner needs the premium musicality that this Festival company has long established, but the easy comedy of the piece seems to unlock something extra. The chorus are as capable on stage as in song, the LPO perpetually well-balanced between the heft of the philosophical rumination & passion, and the light touch of comedy always around the next corner. Vladimir Jurowski is totally in control, almost touching the edge of the stage with some gestures.
Gerald Finley is on home turf here, a Glyndebourne favourite for more than twenty years, so a structurally compromising ovation at his curtain call was likely. It was also thoroughly deserved, the bass-baritone working his role and the opera hand-in-glove with McVicar's ideas, singing at the height of his now-considerable power. Johannes Martin Kränzle may not be a find on the Damascene scale of Christian Gerhaher in the Royal Opera's Tannhäuser but it's close. His Beckmesser is a Deutsch Malvolio but a solid character, not a glib comic trope, sung without effort. The other fine bass-baritone on the stage is Henry Waddington's Kothner, probably a perfectly capable Sachs himself. This trio is well-supported by Alastair Miles' Pogner. Marco Jentzsch scales the heights of Walther heroically, ardently, the best of the quartet of lovers, though Anna Gabler's Eva was affecting, even in her slightly awkward position of having to make real a love triangle which I have already admitted I was skeptical about.
An irresistible triumph, absorbing its self-generated caveats with goodwill, good music making and occasionally sheer volume.