Finley, Majeski, Hipp, Schade, Portillo, Kupfer, Miles / Güttler
After the audience's heartfelt 90th-birthday rendition of "God Save the Queen", when the curtain went up on the charming early-19th-century dress of the first scene's churchgoers, I began to hope that (Dürer painting notwithstanding) David McVicar had dared a grand bit of appropriation for Glyndebourne's first Meistersinger production (premiered five years back), moving the characters if not all the action across the Channel to Regency England. And why not? For the opera holds its central place neither for historical specificity nor historical influence, but for Wagner's final-act enactment of the festival ideal: a rightness covering all visible creation in that meadow, born of private harmony, art, and the public's recognition and celebration of those things and itself. If Glyndebourne has approached this glory it should be willing to hint at it... though perhaps that's my particularly American opinion.
In any case, after the tea-drinking of the Masters during and the Silly Walk of Jochen Kupfer's Beckmesser closing Act I, both the scenic and human space of the show turns unmistakably Catholic-German - and, despite some apparently obligatory interview talk about politics and whatnot, quite familiar to one used to traditional versions like the Met's. The one notable addition is the suggestion, as in McVicar's subsequent Cav, of the lurking potential of rivalrous group violence, here not just at the end of Act II but in fact at the start of the Act III procession between the various guild groups. (This actually does allude to the Wagner-politics stuff without giving the whole scene over to it.) The one notable subtraction is of the meadow and water prominent in Wagner's last-part scene-setting... and around Glyndebourne itself. Perhaps this is to fit all the people on the relatively small stage, perhaps to make the overall effect a bit more stark (there is no relief from the moods and actions of the people, whether in revelry, tension, or joy). Beckmesser does not leave the stage after his attempt but sits to the side, turned away, aghast at his failure - and is generally included in the Masters' solidarity when they are offended by Walther's rejection. As in the last Met revival, there's too much last-scene fiddling by Kothner and the other Masters with Walther's written text, which really needs to be put aside given that he changes (and improves) most of the words between composition and performance. In other words, there are some tweaks but it's the familiar Meistersinger story overall.
The success, therefore, was in the performers' hands, and they did terrifically. Gerald Finley has done Hans Sachs elsewhere (a few months ago in Paris) since his 2011 role debut with this production, but he probably shouldn't: even in the 1200-seat Glyndebourne house his essentially lyric bass-baritone showed some strain. Yet if his Sachs was never vocally dominant, his focused tragic characterization was the deep-felt heart of the final act. Before its action, we see him contemplate what seems to be a portrait of his dead wife, and all of his interactions with Eva are much more seriously taken than usual - through to his near-inconsolable loss of purpose after talking Walther into joining the Masters.
It helps that the other outstanding performance was that of American soprano Amanda Majeski (one of three alums/members of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center in the cast). Her Eva was exactly what her Met debut (on opening night 2014) seemed to promise: not forward and dominant but unmissably charming and eloquent, carrying in her expressive vibrato and attractive, emotionally transparent person all of Eva's glory and burden as the young bearer of all value within her social world. If the first phrase of "O Sachs! Mein Freund" was a bit shaky, the clarity of the subsequent Quintet opening/climax and the lovely trill after the Prize Song more than made up for it. I look forward to hearing much more of her in Strauss and lighter Wagner.
The weak link of the group was, as often happens, the Walther. Michael Schade was never a particular favorite of mine in his lyric tenor days - though reliable enough, he wasn't one to deliver the pure tonal pleasure one might get from others in that repertory. In the last few years the German-Canadian has transitioned to heavier parts - e.g. Florestan, Max, Walther - in which getting reliably through with a decent enough sound is much more valuable. Unfortunately Schade barely got through this brutal Wagnerian role, and his physical presence has become stiff and a bit lumpy. Nothing to ruin the show's pleasure, but not a plus either.
It was Texan (and second Ryan Center alum) David Portillo who actually took the tenor prize this time, singing David with a lyric ease and eloquence I hadn't expected to hear since Matthew Polenzani outgrew the part. No less impressive was the other half of the second couple, Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp. Her Lene was not only strongly sung but - with McVicar's help - a more youthful, sympathetic, and perky one than usual, fitting complement to Majeski's Eva as well as Portillo's David.
Replacing sharp character singer Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser was the new-to-Glyndebourne German baritone Jochen Kupfer. Unlike most of his predecessors in the part, Kupfer has striking height, physical presence, and a lead singer's instrument. So the character that comes out is not at all prissy or small, but eccentric and obliviously self-absorbed. The Silly Walks gag that's characteristic of his take (which recurs at the start of Act III) makes rather better sense of Beckmesser than any Meyerbeer nonsense. (After all, the main problem with Meyerbeer today is that Wagner too strongly adopted his ridiculous dramatic model.) He and Finley's Sachs were just the most extreme of the show's strongly-characterized set of Masters (which also included Alistair Miles' Pogner, much more English and uncertain than usual.) The third Ryan Center singer, incidentally, was 2014 Met Council winner Patrick Guetti as the Night-watchman, not as strikingly authoritative here as on that afternoon, but still showing much promise and strength.
The sound balance of the new theater at Glyndebourne is a bit like that of the Met's Balcony Boxes: the orchestra (here the London Philharmonic) is gloriously present - here particularly the mid-bass sound from the strings - while the singers aren't so strongly forward, at least against the full-sized Wagner orchestra. If you expect a more singer-prominent balance (such as that of the covered pit at Bayreuth) it may be an issue, but I didn't find it much of a detriment. German conductor Michael Güttler - a regular guest in St. Petersburg and Vienna, acting as late fill-in for ailing music director Robin Ticciati - gave a well-proportioned and well-felt account of Wagner's long masterpiece.
Every worthy Meistersinger is an awakening, so I hope this one opened some new eyes.