To a tumultuous welcome, Bernard Haitink swept to the podium and raised his hands in a gesture which seemed to say. "Silentium! Silentium!" Here come . At last. After three-and-a-half years of waiting for this first revival of Graham Vick's masterly production, Haitink for one was not about to prolong the anticipation. In an account of the prelude which was in every sense a portent of things to come, being rich, good humoured, the warmest of embraces, he caught both the tide of the audience's enthusiasm and the irresistible pull of Wagner's inspiration. Like all great Meistersingers, this one glowed. It glowed with a vividness that precious few can command, it glowed with the promise of midsummer magic, of love's sweet dreams and the spirit of creativity.
It's an innocent, sun-kissed world that Vick and his designer Richard Hudson have evoked here. The colours are bright and honest - oranges and yellows and greens by day, indigo blue by night. A picturesque pageant, tales of yore replete with jolly townsfolk, crisply costumed. And all of it suffused in a rosy, surreal light (Wolfgang Gobbel). But into this dream-world, real people have wandered. Vick maintains an historical context, a tangible sense of time and place. In the very opening scene, a procession of children and their elders pass through the church carrying perfect little wooden replicas of old Nuremberg landmarks. Civic pride. By Act 2, those replicas have grown into a full-scale model village which Brobdingnagian apprentices eagerly dust down in readiness for the approaching festivities.
But the real joy of Vick's work is in the fine detail, the fidelity to text. It could be argued that the Act 2 riot - in which Vick, in a capricious allusion to the night-watchman's warnings about evil spirits abroad, unleashes an Hieronymus Bosch-like nightmare with ghostly nightgowned figures spewing through every orifice of the set - is too fanciful, too slapstick-comical to be genuinely disturbing. After all, Sachs's disillusionment in Act 3 should have some basis in reality. The more so since John Tomlinson's bluff, unsentimentally humane Sachs is about as real as they come. When he finally gives vent to his frustration, his anger, in the penultimate scene, your heart goes out to him. When he gathers his "family" about him to choose a name for Walther's prize song and chokes on the emotion of the words "may it grow and prosper", you see a man of vision rising above the mundane. I should have liked a few quieter moments from this Sachs, a gentler, more gratifying legato for his balmy nocturnal monologue in Act 2. No question that all those Wotans have taken their toll. The big, dark, callused voice doesn't really speak now at much less than mezzo- forte. But what a truthful, heartfelt, commanding performance.
And what a perfect contrast to Thomas Allen's funny, entirely believable Beckmesser. Believable because this Beckmesser is for once a mastersinger before he is a buffoon. Whether fussing with his spectacles or checking for dust on the marker's booth, this prim, prissy, preening creation is as fine as Allen has ever given us. And it sits in that part of his voice which is still best preserved - the upper part. Gosta Winbergh (Walther) gets ample opportunity to exercise his upper parts, of course, and would be ideal if he could find ways of relaxing into, yielding a little more to his prize-winning song. Or maybe Nancy Gustafson's radiant Eva is prize enough. There is a new Magdalene from the excellent Catherine Wyn-Rogers and a strapping puppy of a David - appropriately (though not, I suspect, intentionally) gauche in voice and manner - from Herbert Lippert.
Vick ensures that we are all a part of "the big picnic" which is 's final scene. At the centre of it is Sachs, the proud face in a sea of faces. And in our ears is Wagner: voices and trumpets raised in affirmation. When it's as good as this, we've no right to expect better.
Further perfs Fri, Mon 24 (0171-304 4000)