Glyndebourne’s Loud Thrills, ENO’s Gray Midsummer: Review

Gerald Finley and ensemble in "Die Meistersinger," where the gothic-style vaulting remains in place throughout the production. Photographer: Alastair Muir/Glyndebourne via Bloomberg

With more than 200 performers in front of a 1,200-seat auditorium, Glyndebourne’s “Die Meistersinger” has the highest stage-audience ratio in the company’s history. It makes for an eardrum-rattling show.

The intimate countryside U.K. opera house has picked Wagner’s most densely populated piece for its second-ever production of a work by the composer. (The first was “Tristan und Isolde” in 2003).

When the groups of apprentices start entering in the final procession, climaxing in the arrival of the 12 mastersingers themselves, the decibel level is almost indecently thrilling.

With ex-Glyndebourne chorus member Gerald Finley singing his first Hans Sachs, there are further delights too. His warm, overtone-rich voice sails over the orchestra, and his complex interpretation of the cobbler-poet as world weary and angry is intriguing. The scenic details are telling. He convincingly trims leather at his cobblers’ last, and his fingers are smothered in dye and dirt from his efforts.

David McVicar’s production is handsome, slickly stage managed, and full of fascinating details that illuminate the relationships between characters. On the downside, it feels a tad safe and decorative.

He sets the action in the early 19th century, when the various principalities and dukedoms of Germany were beginning to search for a new form of common identity through art.

Bonnets, Crowds

On paper, that seems like a great idea for an opera about a singing contest that transforms the society that holds it. On stage, the alchemy doesn’t fire up. It’s lovely to look at the gorgeous bonnets, frock coats and Empire-line dresses, and wallow in the well-choreographed crowd scenes. On a deeper level, the updated setting doesn’t offer many new insights into the dynamics of the piece.

On Vicki Mortimer’s set, everything takes place under an impressive piece of stone vaulting in high-Gothic style. That’s wonderful for the opening church scene. It’s slightly curious for the street scene of Act 2. You have to accept that the houses of Sachs and his neighbor Pogner lie under a highly decorated stone canopy. Maybe it’s meant to be a medieval shopping arcade, or maybe not.

The final scene is set in a meadow by a river. It’s really not the sort of place you’d expect to find the same barrel-vaulted chunk of cathedral roof.

Finley’s vocal triumph is matched by Johannes Martin Kranzle as his comical nemesis Beckmesser.

Marco Jentzsch and Topi Lehtipuu don’t quite cut the mustard in the tenor roles of Walter and David, respectively, and both sound strained at the top of their voices. Anna Gabler looks and sounds delightful as the heroine Eva, and Vladimir Jurowski fires on all cylinders in the pit.

If it’s not quite the last word in Meistersingers, this is an undisputed triumph for a small, privately funded company.

Rating: ***.

Britten’s Dream

The action of “Die Meistersinger” takes place on midsummer’s day. The summery, optimistic tone of the piece couldn’t be further from English National Opera’s new staging of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Director Christopher Alden chooses to emphasize brutality and viciousness in his production. He sets the story in an oppressive grammar school (an academically high-achieving state school) in the 1950s.

Oberon is a pedophile headmaster who has been abusing his Head Boy, Puck. He then turns his attentions to a new boy. Tytania is a gray, desiccated music mistress. Bottom and his crew of laborers are caretakers at the school. The four lovers are students at the school.

Creepy Thoughts

The relationship between Oberon and Puck is full of interest. The young man misunderstands the abusive nature of Oberon’s former affection for him, and is angry and forlorn when overthrown. It’s creepy and thought provoking.

The rest of the production is dire. The ugly static set is a gray school playground, all the relationships are brutal, and the comic scenes are as funny as self-trepanning. The concept has to be strained to fit the plot of the opera.

Britten’s score is a magical mix of light and shade. It does the piece a major disservice only to emphasize the latter and ignore the former.

The singers work hard. Willard White (Bottom) has the vocal chops for his role, while Allan Clayton and Kate Valentine are stylish as Lysander and Helena. Leo Hussain’s conducting is spirited in parts, unclear in others.

Overall, distinctly undreamy.

Rating: *.

“Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg” is in repertory at Glyndebourne through June 26. Information: or +44-1273-813813.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is in repertory at ENO until June 30. Information: or +44-871-911-0200.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

What the Stars Mean:

****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless
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