Glyndebourne's Meistersinger : A Triumph

Attention, Hollywood: you need Johannes-Martin Kränzle's comic services. No, you don't know him. That's because he's an opera singer. While you, Hollywood, have been cranking out bad comedies, opera has been cranking out new productions that will wow even the unmusical.

Kränzle does exactly that in the new production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (the Mastersingers of Nuremberg) at Glyndebourne, the summer opera festival in bucolic Sussex, an hour south of London. Yes, Wagner can be hilarious -- if you have the right singers. Kränzle, the owner of a warm baritone voice, inhabits the role of Beckmesser to such effect that the audience laughed out loud.

Beckmesser, a pedantic city clerk in medieval Nuremberg, is modeled on Eduard Hanslick, a conservative music critic who attacked Wagner's progressive tonalities. Wagner paid him back with Beckmesser (one of Nürnberg's mastersingers), who writes and performs terribly unimaginative and rule-bound songs. Kränzle injects a pathetic humor into the antics of the vain and insecure Beckmesser -- all the while singing with a beautiful tone and admirable enunciation. Try that, Vince Vaughn.

"People think that opera is inaccessible," David Pickard told me. "But it's not. It's a combination of visceral thrills, music and drama." Pickard is General Director of Glyndebourne and the man who ordered the new production of Meistersinger. The production, by David McVicar, is a musical triumph as well as a visual one, with the chorus as romping, lively Nurembergers instead of the usual staid collective in period clothes. McVicar's Meistersinger is the seminal Meistersinger of this decade.

Any Meistersinger production stands and falls with its Hans Sachs, one of opera's most demanding roles. The shoemaker-cum-philosopher-composer-poet must sing for two hours and 45 minutes. "Sachs is dedicated to the excellence of art, which makes good drama," Gerald Finley told me. "I try to highlight the fact that he's both a cobbler and a poet, which is a challenge in itself." Finley delivers a humane, philosophical portrayal of Sachs. And the voice! Despite almost three hours of non-stop singing, Finley's chocolaty voice carries on without blemish. Not surprisingly, he earned a triumphant ovation -- complete with stomping -- at the performance I attended. The Canadian baritone, who sensationalized the role of nuclear bombmaker Robert Oppenheimer in John Adams's Doctor Atomic, has a magnetic stage presence and superb enunciation.

Anna Gabler (Eva) delivered a fine performance, as did Alistair Miles (Veit Pogner) and Michaela Selinger (Magdalene). And Topi Lehtipuu stood out as Sachs's apprentice, David. The Finnish-Australian tenor has a beautiful, smooth voice and great comedic presence. Alas, tenor Marco Jenzsch (Walther) was a weaker link, with a thin upper range and peculiar pronunciation.

Glyndebourne is famous among opera lovers. But as a space, it's tiny: founder John Christie's house, the opera house itself -- and meadows. "Glyndebourne isn't even a village," says Pickard. "You have to walk four miles to buy a newspaper. When you step out of the Royal Opera House in London you see traffic. Here you see sheep." The singers are often young, because Glyndebourne pays relatively modest fees and has long performance runs. So are a surprising number of audience members, who put on their dresses and tuxedos, pack a picnic basket and go on a daylong date to Glyndebourne. During intermissions the audience enjoy their picnics on the lawns.

Adolf Hitler, the self-proclaimed music lover, perverted Meistersinger for Nazi propaganda, portraying it as a showcase for German cultural superiority. But when Hans Sachs extols German art at the opera's climax, he's praising authentic art over superficial fads among Nürnberg's elite. And Glyndebourne's Meistersinger is authentic art. It will seduce even the opera-phobic.