First Night: Wagner's 'hymn to art' a riot of fun: Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

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The Independent Online
LAST NIGHT saw a riot at the Royal Opera House. Blows were exchanged. Buildings were wrecked. Bodies were seen falling from windows. The world was turned upside down. And that was only Act 2.

A lot was riding on this evening. Not only was it the first new production of the current Royal Opera season, it was also the first new staging of Die Meistersinger, Wagner's only mature comedy, at Covent Garden in almost a quarter of a century. And it has to be said that the house's recent record for staging Wagner has been none too impressive - what with the abortive Yuri Lyubimov Ring and its rush replacement, two years back, with a hand-me-down Gotz Friedrich production from Berlin. This time the management took the risk of assigning Wagner's heavyweight hymn to 'holy German art' to a largely British team.

Luckily, it paid off. The first night audience at Graham Vick's new production were really rather taken with his violent outbreak of midsummer madness.

During the on-stage riot that ensues when the jealous cobbler's apprentice gives the amorous town clerk a trouncing, there were gasps of astonishment as the apparently blank walls of Richard Hudson's toy town sets suddenly began sprouting hidden orifices and spewing forth bits of the citizenry of Nuremberg. Such stage business inevitably prompts applause. More revealing of the human depths of Vick's production - and of the text-based responses of his largely Anglophone cast - was the genuine laughter that greeted Wagner's verbal humour - a regular event at 'the other place', where people can actually understand the words, but not exactly the rule at this house. But then, Wagner's Mastersingers is all about breaking the rules - musical and social - in its celebration of inspiration over convention, of infatuation over arranged marriage.

The sets, too, broke with convention. When the curtain went up for the St John's Eve chorale, following Bernard Haitink's magisterially unfolded prelude, we saw not the regulation stark stone greys and whites of the customary Lutheran chapel, but vibrant planes of poster-paint colours - yellow, red and green - broken only by a brightly lit archway.

Within these uncluttered spaces Vick concentrated attention on the human interactions, carrying to Covent Garden the lessons he learnt a few years back taking a scaled-down Ring to sports halls around the Midlands. And here he had the cast to carry out his wishes - singing off the words and communicating emotions on a human scale.

Gosta Winbergh made a genuinely impassioned young Walther, the infatuated young nobleman who finds himself entering a local talent contest in order to win the goldsmith's daughter (a lithe and vocally lovely Nancy Gustafson) and then discovers that, when it comes to singing, he's a 'natural'.

Thomas Allen, in his first Wagner role, turned in a remarkable portrait (well sung and free of vocal caricature) of the pernickety, self-preening town clerk and proto-opera critic. And towering over all was John Tomlinson, Bayreuth's reigning Wotan.

Edward Seckerson's review will appear on the Arts page on Monday.

(Photograph omitted)