Is it possible that Kasper Holten, Covent Garden's outgoing director of opera, has directed a Meistersinger about himself? It certainly looks a lot like it. This black take on Wagner's sunniest and most humane opera finds doubts and uncertainties at every turn, closing not with a paean to national art but a cautionary tale about cultural insularity and convention.

Holten's time at the Royal Opera has been one of mixed success. The Danish director's warmth and candour has stripped some of the self-perpetuating mystique from the institution and created a more open artistic environment, yet his attempts to introduce a more concept-driven European style to the house's productions have struggled, blighted by poor reviews and some ill-conceived shows. Against this narrative backdrop it's hard to see his farewell production as anything other than a nod to this history - a final word to London and to the critics who would shackle him to an antiquated operatic tradition.

Any expectations you have of a Meistersinger, spatially at least, should be left at the door of a production that does away with Wagner's specified locations - church, town square, cobbler's house - in favour of a single set, a closed world that sits somewhere between theatre, hotel and civic or Masonic space. A little bit Art Deco and a little bit Brutalist, Mia Stensgaard's single design must serve all three acts, give or take a bit of a revolve. The effect is functional enough (if unlovely) for Acts I and III, but makes a nonsense of the very specific choreography of Act II.

The outdoor setting of this episode, calling for balconies, porches and passageways, is ill-served by this awkward interior, and physical doings constantly scrape and bump against the sung text. It's a conceit designed to enable a spectacular finale, in which Midsummer's masquerading takes a trippy turn and innocent hijinks tip over into horror, but it sacrifices a lot in the process.

Masonic aprons make clear that the Mastersingers' practices are the stuff of nostalgia and ritual, and nod to the opera's awkward woman question (Eva is, after all, given away as a competition prize), but make no real headway in explaining either the cultural or social values of the sect. The democracy of Wagner's craftsmen's guild and the very sincere value it places upon art are both ideas that get lost in this rewrite, and along with them much of the opera's optimism.

Musically, things are rather stronger. Bryn Terfel's Sachs is craggy and thrillingly rough, a big, generous performance that courts neither sympathy nor love, and which could (should) have been even more moving had the remaining points of the love triangle been more clearly drawn.

Vocally, Rachel Willis-Sorensen is a weighty Eva, thoughtful and measured but with real warmth of tone. Her relationship with both Sachs and Gwyn Hughes Jones' Walther is foggy, lacking emotional clarity right up until the final twist of an ending. Johannes Martin Kranzle's Mr Bean-ish Beckmesser lacks much by way of inner life, but at least gets a dignity in Holten's treatment that enables some proper pathos in the final scene.

Hughes Jones sings brightly, if rather more edgily than he did in ENO's production in 2015, but struggles to make much dramatically of this angry contrarian of a hero, while strong support comes from Allan Clayton's radiant David and Sebastian Holeck's explosive Kothner. The orchestra moves lightly and responsively under Antonio Pappano, only occasionally lacking a sense of anchored heft rivalled, in Act I, by the unnecessary clattering of cutlery (onstage) throughout the audition episode.

I won't give away Holten's ending, but it provides a fairly trenchant comment not only our own nation at this current moment of cultural and political crisis, but also on our operatic culture more specifically. If only the humanity of this production were drawn as clearly as its argument it could have been a triumph.

Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg is at the Royal Opera House until 31 March

Picture Credit: Clive Barda

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From This Author Alexandra Coghlan

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