Since the Royal Opera first unveiled its Meistersinger nearly 20 years ago, Wagner’s only comedy has become the favourite butt of critical re-interpretation elsewhere: Meistersinger as tool of Wagner’s anti-Semitism; Meistersinger as study of the artist’s ambivalent role in society; Meistersinger as vehicle for mocking every cultural totem from the past. To return now to Graham Vick’s deliberately naïve reconstruction of medieval Nuremberg is like trying to reclaim the Garden of Eden after the Fall, or pretending that 20th-century German history never happened.
Once you have got past the dated look of Richard Hudson’s sets, the comically erect cod-pieces and the intermittently soporific quality of the stage action, some individual performances stand out. John Tomlinson, who sang Sachs for most of this production’s history but is now “elevated” to Pogner, makes an endearingly doddery patriarch. Every time he comes on stage, he lifts the show by virtue of his complete identification with the part. Emma Bell’s lustrous Eva is an exciting discovery, and a well-rehearsed orchestra responds to Royal Opera music director Antonio Pappano with fire and finesse; even when the stage drama is static, Pappano ensures that the musical drama flows.
Wolfgang Koch, making his London debut as Sachs, cuts a fine, eligible figure, but the voice lacks warmth and colour, and the character doesn’t wake up until after the “Wahn” monologue in the third act. Simon O’Neill’s Stolzing is vocally assured but visually stiff. Peter Coleman-Wright struggles nobly but unsuccessfully to erase memories of Thomas Allen, the production’s mesmerising original Beckmesser. Toby Spence is the sprightly David, Heather Shipp an attractive Magdalene.
As revived by Elaine Kidd, the show has a handful of feel-good moments, but they don’t extend far beyond the Act Two riot and the Act Three finale. The former is an entertaining reminder that senseless violence and social breakdown in democratic society were not invented by English cities in August 2011. The latter – part pageant, part paean to art’s civilising power – sends us out on a high, as if sensing the balm of a midsummer carnival in a midwinter recession. It’s too little, too late. The Royal Opera has tried hard to reheat its Meistersinger, but the flavour has long gone.