Like the village, the production is model

There's a moment in Die Meistersinger where Sachs the poet-cobbler tells Beckmesser the singing town-clerk, "You finish the song, I'll finish the shoes"; and though it's just a passing exchange, it touches on something important to the piece, namely the easy interaction between art and life in a world which Wagner has envisaged as a template for Arcadia. A world where barriers come down (except of course the one that keeps out foreigners) and culture claims its rightful place within the hearts of ordinary, decent (German) men and women.

One of the best features of Graham Vick's award-winning production, which has just been revived at Covent Garden, is the way it treats that art/life issue. This is Kunstlerdrama territory and prey to sermonising stage directors. But Vick doesn't preach. He lets you find the issue for yourself, in beautifully conceived and fleshed-out character portrayals, and in Richard Hudson's cleverly ambivalent designs. What looks like a (theatrically) real urban landscape of 16th-century Nuremberg turns out to be a model village of apprentice-pieces (which the apprentices come on and polish, to make the point). What seems to be the sky turns out to be a nest of trapdoors from which bodies tumble in the end-of-Act II rumpus, transforming the whole set into an after-Breughel Advent calendar. Wagnerian Wahn - that untranslatable idea of mad illusion, sung about by Sachs - has rarely been more eloquently staged.

The cast is largely as before and, dramatically at least, a joy. Thomas Allen and Beckmesser are gifts from heaven to each other: sharp with flawless comedy and looks so withering they'd be a credit to a critic. John Tomlinson leaves no doubt that Sachs is the key role in the opera, and delivers it with the same magnificent dimension as before but more perspective (subtler, not so bullish) in the singing. Nancy Gustafson's Eva is white of tone, but an entrancing presence on stage. And if Gosta Winbergh's Walther is a mite awkward, well, that's the role. "Am stillen Herd" rings hard and true; and in Act III I'm glad to see he's lost the dreadful feather hat he had before.

The slight disappointments on the first night were that Tomlinson and Winbergh tired so audibly in Act III; that the new David and Magdalene (Herbert Lippert, Catherine Wyn-Rogers) scored so low in love-interest; and that the sense of ensemble wasn't stronger - especially in the preliminaries to the big quintet, which didn't rise to the occasion. But broadly speaking it was still a triumph, thanks to Bernard Haitink. His virtues as a thinking man's Wagner conductor should be no surprise by now, and yet they do surprise - with the sheer, unforced freshness of sound that he coaxes from the orchestra. You don't get fireworks or much feeling of risk; but you do sense a structure which is so securely anchored that the inner detail can take care of itself and speak with near-improvisatory freedom.

Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers is another German Kunstlerdrama in which art invades life; but not, this time, with the composer's approval. Written in 1961, it played last week in Birmingham and London as part of the CBSO/London Sinfonietta Millennium Series, and it tells the story of a manipulative master-poet who conscripts everyone and everything around him into the service of his creativity - including the lovers of the title, whose lives are literally sacrificed for his verse. The libretto is by WH Auden, collaborating with Chester Kallman as he did for Stravinsky's Rake's Progress; as a master-poet himself, it was a brave, perhaps confessional subject for him to have taken up - although any confessions are veiled in a return to the symbolism of his 1930s playscripts for the Mercury Theatre. A salon-synthesis of the arcane, the arch, the mischievously down-beat, it's the sort of text that needs to be declaimed through cigarette smoke. Preferably Sobranie. But it works, and inspired one of Henze's most fascinating scores. Act I is indebted to Stravinsky, Acts II and III to Britten; but the resourcefulness with which Henze mixes and matches colours from a modest chamber orchestra is entirely his own. The textures glisten, cold and bright, to paint in sound the story's alpine setting. And certain instruments "speak" for certain characters, with a soloistic virtuosity the London Sinfonietta, playing these performances, took on with relish. Markus Stenz, young but an established champion of Henze's music, conducted with authority and style. The voices were good, with Quentin Hayes standing firm as the poet and Louisa Kennedy-Richardson coasting nicely through extremes of mad- scene coloratura as Frau Mack. The only things you could have asked for were a proper staging (it was done in concert) and a bigger audience. This was an Event: it should have sold. That it didn't says nothing for the curiosity of London concert-goers.

Instead, they flocked to the revival of Madam Butterfly at ENO where the opening night picked up well after a ragged start, and Susan Bullock's glacial magnificence of voice compensated yet again for her matronly and dangerously close-to-Dawn-French stage appearance. Julian Gavin, ENO's new principal tenor, seemed nervous but with promise. And after eight (!) revivals, the dark, colonial-conscience production (Graham Vick - what isn't these days?) begins to look a classic - even if its idea of Butterfly as a mad mother who can't tell the colour of her child's hair doesn't do our heroine's stature any favours.

Period performance rules OK, now, through most of the music world, but you still find pockets of resistance where life proceeds as though John Eliot Gardiner were a man who comes to mow the lawn, and one of them is the annual St Matthew Passion done with sturdy English-language grandeur by the Bach Choir under David Willcocks. I went last Sunday (it repeats today: Festival Hall, 11am if you're awake) and was bemused by the enormous forces, the choice of soloists (Willard White's Christus sounding more Old Testament than New), and the odd electric continuo-keyboard which metamorphosed at the flick of a switch from cheesy chamber organ into spiky harpsichord. Laugh if you dare - the Bach Choir's Matthew Passion is formidably devotional. The programme book forbids applause. It also carries a surreal erratum slip, apologising for the fact that Christ dies on the wrong page.

But whatever its stylistic problems, the performance was sincere and moving, and the choir sang with extraordinary finesse. Genteel they may be, but the old-school ways of David Willcocks get results. Within the choral world he has a legendary stature. When he leaves the Bach Choir, as is planned soon, he'll be missed.

'Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg': ROH, WC2 (0171 304 4000), continues Mon. 'Madam Butterfly': ENO, WC2 (0171 632 8300), continues Wed & Sat.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine