Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff
Manon, Royal Opera House, London
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Garsington, Oxfordshire

Welsh National Opera's light touch with a romantic comedy refreshingly ditches tradition and flirts with innovation

The Nuremberg of Richard Jones's Welsh National Opera production of Die Meister- singer von Nürnberg is in thrall to an idealised past.

In its loden green song-school, the art of composition has been analysed and codified by the Guild of Master-singers, with symbols for each theme and variation. Our cobbler hero's shoes are hand-stitched, his lasts hung from the beams of a half-timbered shop that heaves with books, a battered upright piano, a coffee pot. The rallies of more recent history have been airbrushed from this Bavarian theme park. Among the several dozen German – and Austrian-born radicals pictured on the front-cloth collage – Bach, Bausch, Beuys, Brahms and Brecht, Handel, Hanneke and Haydn – the most famous of all is absent. As the townspeople celebrate "holy German art", Sigmund Freud and Billy Wilder are their icons, not Adolf Hitler.

This collage by Jones and designer Paul Steinberg is an interesting response to the problems posed by this opera and its performance history. You might quibble with some of their choices – Schwarzkopf and Karajan were hardly rebels – but as Wilder wrote, "nobody's perfect". The tension between tradition and innovation is what drives Die Meistersinger, a romantic comedy made prolix by nationalistic wind-baggery. Wagner handicaps his dramaturgy by using Sachs (Bryn Terfel) as a ventriloquist's puppet and Walther (Raymond Very) as an idealised version of himself. Yet, these often difficult moments flow smoothly in a production that is all about love – romantic, filial and paternal – and a musical interpretation that values the veiled blues and roses of dusk and dawn over cod mediaeval pomp.

The orchestra starts heavily under Lothar Koenigs, whose skill as an accompanist becomes clear in the exchanges between Eva (Amanda Roocroft) and her father (Brindley Sherratt), Sachs's monologue and the heart-stopping quintet. Koenigs seems more interested in the scent of the elderflower tree and the elusive quality of Wahn (variously translated as illusion, delusion, fantasy or madness) than the hot-housed roulades of Beckmesser's terrible serenade, but the chorus's "Wach' auf!" rings with joy and pride. Paragons and caricatures alike are humanised.

Terfel's Sachs is just a heartbeat too old and irascible to allow himself to respond to Eva's passion. It's a complex, serious interpretation, thoughtful, honest and authoritative. Very's Walther starts well, but then unravels. Roocroft's voice also spreads under pressure, but the delicacy of her acting outweighs vocal concerns. Arrogant and insecure, Christopher Purves's Beckmesser is brilliantly detailed, though the stylistic differences with Terfel are unsettling. The richest sounds come from Sherratt, whose gorgeous legato makes Act I a treat. Andrew Tortise's David is cute enough to compensate for a light voice, Anna Burford's warm, bossy Magdalene a perfect foil. Some wobbly ensemble work from the Mastersingers can be put down to first-night nerves. For a company that has lately valued tradition over innovation, this is a shot in the arm.

A "fourth wall" problem dogs Laurent Pelly's Royal Opera House production of Manon. For Anna Netrebko in the title role, the invisible wall that separates the stage and auditorium is there, her only audience the singers around her. For Vittorio Grigolo (Des Grieux), whose laser-bright voice is directed to the rear of the dress circle, it is not. As to the other three walls (designed by Chantal Thomas), think MDF, an Impressionist blur of zinc-grey skies, and the sprawling rooftops of 1880s Paris.

Two ideas dominate Pelly's staging. The first is the predatory nature of the heterosexual male (not a scene passes without the grope of a gloved hand); the second the perilous career of the demi-mondaine (as expressed in the steeply angled sets). Characterisation appears to have been left to the principals, with mixed results.

Though her French is foggy, Netrebko is captivating, her voice lustrous and flexible, calculation and candour expertly blended. Grigolo is a glamorous Des Grieux but seems more interested in communicating his passion to us than to Netrebko. Call me a sourpuss for not succumbing to crisp diction, chiselled cheekbones and oiled pecs (under a cassock!), but I want a Des Grieux who cannot take his eyes off his lover. William Shimell and Russell Braun offer suave support as De Brétigny and Lescaut, while Christophe Mortagne, Simona Mihai, Louise Innes and Kai Rüütel sparkle as Giullot, Poussette, Javotte and Rosette. In the pit, Antonio Pappano expends a lot of energy on Massenet's frothy overture and wrings guilty sensuality from the faux-Baroque suspensions of the Saint-Sulpice scene.

Daniel Slater's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream is set in an enchanted attic of dusty bedroom and nursery furniture (designer Francis O'Connor). The fairies (Trinity Boys Choir) are dressed in tattered military uniforms, guarding Tytania (Rebecca Bottone) from Oberon's (James Laing) wrath. Mark Wilde's Snout/Wall sports a stained mattress, through which Neal Davies and Pascal Charbonneau bill and coo as Pyramus/Bottom and Thisbe/Flute. From the first, yawning glissando, under Steuart Bedford's elegant beat, to the four lovers' (Katherine Manley, Anna Stéphany, Andrew Staples and George von Bergen) sentimental education and the Rude Mechanicals' "tedious, brief tragedy", Garsington Opera's final production in its home of 21 years is faultless: musically refined, funny, perceptive. As Tytania and Oberon are reunited, the fairies reappear in pyjamas – children now, not foot soldiers in an adult war. A happy ending indeed.

'Die Meistersinger': (02920 636464) to 3 Jul, then touring; 'Manon': (020-7304 4000) to 10 Jul; 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (01865 361636) to 2 Jul

Next Week:

Anna Picard considers Ian Page's completion of Mozart's Zaide

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat