OPERA / Midsummer magic in the air: Edward Seckerson reviews Wagner's Die Meistersinger at the Royal Opera House

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MIDSUMMER DAY dawned belatedly at Covent Garden on Saturday night. Bernard Haitink reawakened Wagner's lofty paean to the creative spirit and the flowers quite literally rained down. Expectations had been high for Graham Vick's new Royal Opera production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Maybe not high enough. Here was one of those very special occasions where the heart and soul of a piece is simply, deftly rediscovered. No portentous statements, no stillborn operatics, but clarity, enlightenment, and a stream of tiny revelations. We've no right to expect better.

If there is a more inventive, resourceful mind than Graham Vick's working in music theatre today, then I've yet to encounter it. Within seconds of the curtain rising, Vick and his designer Richard Hudson had solved one of the eternal Meistersinger dilemmas: how to engender that sense of midsummer magic and rosy, fairy-tale enhancement while maintaining a historical context, a tangible sense of time and place. And so the interior of St Katharine's Church is a vision of sun-kissed innocence, all sponge- painted surfaces in bright, honest colours, peopled with pristine, picturesque townsfolk such as Hollywood might once have costumed. And then a procession of children and their elders passes through carrying perfect little wooden replicas of old Nuremberg landmarks, which they duly set down and admire. Civic pride. In Act 2, those replicas have grown into a full- scale model village, towering townsfolk proudly polishing away in readiness for the approaching festivities.

Yet within this semi-representational world, Vick unfolds the most minutely detailed and truthful of human dramas, not a gesture, not an interaction crossing his dramatic threshold that isn't textually motivated. When town clerk Beckmesser (an inspired Thomas Allen) sits in judgement upon Stolzing's song in Act 1, he is for a moment or two visibly, unwittingly captivated, like Salieri first recognising Mozart's creative genius.

And there's so much more where that came from, insight and character where generalisations have too often sufficed. The big set- pieces teem with incident, the Act 2 riot ruptures into a stupendously funny, spooky Hieronymus Bosch-like nightmare with white- clad figures poking, wriggling, hanging through every conceivable orifice, floor to ceiling - a capricious allusion to the night-watchman's warnings of evil spirits abroad. And who could have come up with a neater transition into the final scene, where the wall of Hans Sachs's cobbler's shop flies out and the townsfolk swarm in to claim their shoes.

When Bernard Haitink's tenure at Covent Garden comes to be assessed, people will talk about his Meistersinger, the rightness of his tempi, the sweep and vitality, the intimacy of those balmy nocturnal imaginings where horns blossom over nebulous strings, each new phrase greeted with a warm embrace. And when they do, they'll remember John Tomlinson's tough, resilient, unsentimentally humane Sachs. The potential for finesse may have diminished with all those Wotans he has now sung (the top is hurting a little, and I craved a more gratifying legato in his Act 2 monologue), but when he gives vent to a lifetime's frustrations in the penultimate scene, his palpable anger is both original and unforgettable. And what a perfect contrast, this dark, grainy, callused voice to Thomas Allen's mellifluous, for once entirely credible Beckmesser, a prissy, fastidious creation manicured down to the last syllable. Nor could you do much better than the Swedish tenor Gosta Winbergh as the too- good-to-be-true shining knight (literally so in his silver-and-white get-up for the final scene). Not many Walthers are still producing such lovely tone come the cruelly high tessitura of the Prize Song rendition in the final scene. But then, when the radiant Nancy Gustafson's Eva is your prize . . . A glorious event.

Further performances: 5pm Wed, 4pm Sat, then 4, 8, 13 Nov, Royal Opera House, Covent Gdn WC2 (071-240 1066 / 1911)

(Photograph omitted)