CLASSICAL MUSIC / The master singers of Britain: The event of the opera season: Friday night's opening of the new 'Meistersinger'

WAGNER'S Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is a great work in every sense: in stature, in length (four and a half hours of music, five and a quarter if you're Reggie Goodall), and in the discomfort it visits on critics. During Act I, I don't dare to take my pen out; and I only do it surreptitiously thereafter. Sixtus Beckmesser scratching his slate is a dreadful spectre for us all.

But scholars in the past few years have been identifying spectres of their own in Meistersinger, digging through its geneality and warmth for evidence of prototypal Naziism. The indications are equivocal; but if you choose to find them, they are there. The Third Reich found them with a vengeance - as, now, do directors in some German opera houses, who find the nationalist sentiments of Act III so disturbing that they can only present them judgmentally, submerged in swastikas and conscience.

There are no swastikas in the new Royal Opera Meistersinger, which opened on Friday, and the joy of the production is that Graham Vick, directing, and Bernard Haitink, conducting, have approached it in the spirit of liberators. Their combined touch is refined and light, releasing Meistersinger from the burden of its cultural politics, its heavy jokes and (in the hands of some conductors) stodgy scoring. Here, the score unfolds like chamber music, with a luminous intensity that makes its climax not in the assembled burgher choruses but in the quintet, which is as radiant and touching as I've never heard it in a live performance.

The staging follows suit. You don't see much of Nuremberg (St Katherine's looks like Marks & Spencer), but the sets provide a clean, uncluttered background to a riot of Breughel costumes. And I've never seen the triangular relationship between Sachs, Eva and Walther handled with such clarity, or with such sympathy.

The cast is outstanding: mostly English singers, but of international stature. Thomas Allen is a gloriously pinched and mincing Beckmesser (his first), an immaculately judged piece of character acting and peculiarly poignant in the serenade when you remember all those Don Giovannis. Nancy Gustafson's Eva is adorable. Gosta Winbergh's Walther is capacious and uncommonly endearing. As Hans Sachs, John Tomlinson gives the performance of his life, transforming the penetrative darkness of that Hunding/Hagen/Wotan voice into a richly lubricated evenness of tone. The stuff of wisdom and authority. That it falls on the bass side of the bass-baritone Sachs needs to be, and is therefore low-lying for Acts I and II, hardly matters. This is a truly great performance, part Marschallin, part Prospero, but wholly, fiercely human. The production promised to be the event of the season - and it is.

Overshadowed by Meistersinger, but still of note, are two operas which had their British premieres this week: one a spectacular success (as theatre, if not music), the other a spectacular bore (as both).

First the good news: Cornet Christoph Rilke's Song of Love and Death - a long title for a short piece - was commissioned in the mid-1980s for the restoration of the war-bombed Dresden Opera House. The composer is Siegfried Matthus, one of the leading creative figures in the old DDR, and it says nothing for Anglo-German cultural exchange that his work is virtually unknown here. All we had, until this week, were glowing reports that none the less failed to persuade any British company to take him on. So three cheers for Glyndebourne, which, with its aristocratic instinct for risk, has incorporated the Song into its current tour. And three more for doing it so well, in a production by Aidan Lang with breathtaking designs by Lez Brotherson that transcend the small scale of the piece and the limitations of the tour theatres. At Sadler's Wells, its unbroken 80-minute running time felt epic. And the dream-like presentation of the scenes - vignettes of battles, military encampments, palaces and passing love - achieved in theatre what Alain-Fournier's Le Grand Meaulnes does in print: the poignant distillation of a lifetime's passion, pain and longing into one brief but intense experience.

The Song derives from Rainer Maria Rilke's poem of the same name, a lyric fantasy about a youth who rushes off to war and acquires, through an initiating night of love, sufficient manhood to get himself killed the next day. Its meaning is ambiguous. The German military in 1914 read it as a glorification of war and issued it in knapsack editions. Matthus reads it as the opposite, and frames it in scenes that depict the bombing of Dresden.

Neither Rilke nor Matthus is concerned with strict narrative. Matthus makes the youth a Cherubino figure, sung by a mezzo-soprano (Julie Unwin), and adds another mezzo (Beverley Mills) as a doppelganger 'inner voice'. His one-night lover also has a separate inner voice; between them, this quartet create a truly operatic ambience, tangential to reality, pure passion veiled in flesh. And Matthus's music - which is difficult for the performers, but accessible for the audience, in the quasi-tonal, post- Britten genre of composers such as Aulis Sallinen - has interest, immediacy and beauty rarely found in modern music theatre. This Song could seriously undermine national prejudice against new work.

Michael Finnissy's Therese Raquin, however, will only reinforce it. A chamber opera commissioned by the Garden Venture to play in tiny venues such as the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds, where it opened, Therese is as spare as a theatre score can be. There are just four voices and piano, and the textures are wafer-thin: little more than one or two lines sounding at a time, with most of the piano writing concentrated into nervous, spidery arabesques. As an exercise in reduction, it's masterly; and the libretto (Finnissy's own) suggests a real theatrical mind at work - tight, incisive, getting to the core of Zola's novel from the opening sentence.

The outcome on stage, however, is a void, misjudging what it takes to create a sense of stifled emotion (tense in Zola; merely pinched in Finnissy), or, indeed, an opera.

Where the Song plays free with narrative, Therese is stuck in the craft of a traditionally well-made play. The characters just happen to sing their lines, rather than speak them. There is potential in the performances of Richard Jackson (Laurent) and Linda Hirst (Mme Raquin), but they have so little to work with.

Last Sunday saw the opening of a Messiaen celebration series at the Barbican, in which the LSO played very glamorously, Pierre Boulez conducted very correctly, and the soprano Francoise Pollet revealed (in Poemes pour Mi) that, on extended vowel sounds, her oscillating tone is indistinguishable from an ondes martenot.

One forceful feature of the programme was the extent to which Messiaen's orchestral writing is coloured by his other life as an organist: a profession better served in France than in Britain, where the stature of our best players is diminished by association with hymns and silver collections. The few true virtuosi we possess are forced abroad, but one of them, Simon Preston, was at St John's, Smith Square, on Tuesday for the gala opening of the new Sainsbury organ, installed by Klais of Germany to his own specification. It was the organ event of the year, and reinforced the feeling you get on these occasions that hardware matters more than music. But Preston's programme (frivolous, but entertaining) certainly put it through its paces.

My one misgiving is that the new organ occupies a churchy position at the back of the hall (originally, of course, a church) rather than a more useful one at the front, so it is behind the audience, with the player hidden from the waist down. The part-solution is a screen relay that exposes what happens in the organ loft: every drawn stop, every missed pedal, in glorious technicolour. Simon Preston's big-screen debut wasn't quite Hollywood, but it proved that he was wearing trousers.

'Meistersinger': Wed & Sat (071-240 1066). 'Song': touring (0273 812321).

(Photograph omitted)

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