Die Meistersinger, Glyndebourne, East Sussex
Maurizio Pollini, Royal Festival Hall, London

David McVicar's entertaining production ignores historic tensions and leaves us wanting more

David McVicar is good on details: the furtive rubbing of an eye in frustration, the brief glance over a shoulder, flickers of doubt, hurt, hope or glee. He can organise a spectacle, marshall a crowd, razzle and dazzle without losing focus on the egg-shell hearts of his protagonists.

Were Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg simply a comedy of small-town politics and mis-timed love, his Glyndebourne production would be a cracker. But his solution to the issues that continue to vex Wagner's opera is to airbrush them from the picture. In McVicar's Nuremberg, nationalism is an innocuous extrapolation of civic pride, while Hans Sachs's homily to holy German art is delivered to a cavalcade of circus acrobats and cherub-faced children.

Perish the critic who quibbles with Biedermeier bonnets and a fire-eater on stilts but this is a far cry from the Handel-to-Haneke collage of German and Austrian artists and thinkers that opened and closed Richard Jones's incisive Welsh National Opera production. McVicar has set his staging in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, when Wagner and German nationalism were in their infancy. A prelapsarian Meistersinger is not problematic per se. (Though scholars continue to debate evidence of anti-Semitism in the score, most of the angst around this opera derives from its performance history under the Third Reich.) But without deep engagement with the subjects of the custodianship of art and the need for renewal, the work becomes a prolix soap-opera.

Vicki Mortimer's set encapsulates this tension handsomely in Act I, with a giant mural of Dürer's Christ Among the Doctors. Son of a goldsmith, Dürer had to leave Nüremberg for inspiration. For Sachs and the other Mastersingers, there is no escape. As heavy as the first blast of C major, Mortimer's High Gothic ceiling remains in place throughout the opera, and the twilight sky and elder-tree of Act II have little space to breathe their subversive scents. Far from following the sideways tilt of the manuscript on the dropcloth, McVicar plays it straight, softening the bile between Beckmesser and his fellow guildsmen into the chafing of blue- and white-collar workers.

This is, for good or ill, a very human production, and the voices are on a similarly human scale. Styled after Meyerbeer, Johannes Martin Kränzle's Beckmesser is a social climber – finickety, vulnerable, wracked with shame after his calamitous performance in the contest for Eva's hand. In Topi Lehtipuu's fractious impersonation, David looks set to follow Beck-messer's example more closely than that of Gerald Finley's Sachs, whose bereavement seems more recent and more crushing than that of Bryn Terfel's Sachs. In a larger house, and with less sensitive accompaniment than Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO provide, his voice might be too slender. In Glyndebourne, eloquence carries.

Sachs's tetchiness and tenderness, his pragmatism and ideals, are resolved into an eminently believable character, gleamingly sung with no audible strain. The look of anguish on Anna Gabler's face as Eva realises what she has forsaken for Walther's pretty face and aristocratic blood hits hard, though she is upstaged elsewhere by Michaela Selinger's vivacious Magdalena. Marco Jentzsch's Walther was sadly underpowered at the first performance but with a tip-top line-up of tea-gulping guildsmen, a thrillingly young chorus and an authoritative Pogner from Alastair Miles, there is much to recommend the production musically. Jurowski's pacing of the score is fascinating, sometimes basking in splendour, sometimes hurtling, always ravishingly coloured. Circus finale aside, it's an attractive show. But there has to be more to Die Meistersinger than a parochial comedy.

Maurizio Pollini's penultimate Royal Festival Hall recital lurched between breathtaking refinement and glassy frigidity. Schumann's chaotic Concert sans orchestre was always going to be a hard sell, but who knew how sour and choppy Chopin's moonlit idylls could be? The lulling rhythms of the F sharp Barcarolle, F minor Ballade and D flat Berceuse were pinched and brusque, while the Scherzo in B flat buckled at breakneck speed, accompanied by a wild buzzing hum from between the pianist's clenched teeth. For poetry, we had the splintered beauty of Stockhausen's Klavierstücken VII and IX, dissected with unhurried elegance.

'Meistersinger' (01273 813813) to 26 Jun; 'The Pollini Project' (0844 847 9929) concludes 28 Jun

Next Week:

Garsington Opera takes The Magic Flute to the Wormsley Estate and Go Opera brings La traviata to a warehouse in Hackney

Classical Choice

London's Wigmore Hall celebrates its 110th anniversary in two gala concerts with Stephen Hough and the Takács Quartet (Tue), and then Joshua Bell, Pamela Frank, Tabea Zimmermann, Steven Isserlis and Jeremy Denk (Wed). On Saturday, the Bath International Festival devotes a day to the music of Cornelius Cardew, at seven different venues in the city centre for The Great Learning.

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