GLYNDEBOURNE, England (Reuters) - A new production of "Die Meistersinger" at the Glyndebourne festival sets aside the Nazi associations of Wagner's controversial opera to focus on its timeless story of art and love.
The idea of mounting Richard Wagner's five-hour drama at Glyndebourne -- the original and for many the ultimate country-house summer opera festival, where the champagne picnic in the stately gardens is as much part of the evening as the music -- struck some as incongruous.
But John Christie, who founded the festival at his house in 1934, always wanted to put on Wagner, and had organised a small private performance of part of Meistersinger six years earlier.
And the standing ovations garnered by director David McVicar and baritone Gerald Finley when Glyndebourne opened its 2011 season with its new staging of Die Meistersinger on Saturday showed just how popular it could be.
Die Meistersinger -- only the second Wagner opera to be put on at Glyndebourne -- is not only the longest but also the warmest and most humorous of the German composer's pieces.
But its final scene, with calls to honor German art and rid German culture of foreign influences, were exploited by Hitler's Nazis to back their nationalist and anti-Semitic policies.
Other recent productions too have sought to turn their back on these associations.
In McVicar's staging of the closing scene, with its procession of town guilds and singers, takes place in a good-natured, carnival atmosphere, recalling nothing more sinister in comparison to the mood in the "Lord of the Rings" film when the hobbits celebrate Bilbo Baggins's 111th birthday.
When Wagner wrote the opera -- first performed in 1868, as Germany was undergoing reunification -- he wanted German artists to tap into their cultural traditions and break away from the French influences favored by the ruling elite.
The opera -- a tribute to the shared joy of song -- takes place in Renaissance Nuremberg where a group of burghers and craftsmen are members of a guild of amateur singers.
One of them, the cobbler Hans Sachs -- played by Finley -- convinces his fellows of the need to re-invigorate their tired traditions and rules with young talent.
In doing so he smoothes the path of love of the daughter of a fellow guildsman, Eva, for a young nobleman and would-be singer, Walther, dashing the hopes of the pedantic town clerk Beckmesser, who had hoped to win Eva's hand in a song contest.
Finley, who started his career in the Glyndebourne chorus, was the star of the show with his portrayal of the wise but complex poet and craftsman caught in a midlife crisis.
In Beckmesser -- the part played by Glyndebourne founder Christie in his 1928 amateur staging -- Wagner was mocking the critics who rejected his own music, which was far ahead of its time and retains a revolutionary force to this day.
McVicar updates the action to the early 19th century -- Wagner's youth -- but his realistic staging avoids any distracting directorial gimmicks.
When the curtain rises after the famous overture it reveals the ornate interior of a Gothic church at the climax of divine service -- one of many heart-stopping moments in the production.
It also lets the humor of the opera come alive, from the committee meeting deliberations of the singers' guild, to the antics of the hapless Beckmesser, to the huge town brawl on Midsummer's Eve in the middle of the opera.
That midsummer setting, underlined by sets suffused with warm lighting, makes Meistersinger ideal for a summer festival.
Glyndebourne typically produces smaller-scale operas, with Mozart, Donizetti, Handel, Dvorak and Britten on the menu this year. Die Meistersinger is by far the largest production in its 77-year history.
"This is without doubt the biggest, most ambitious, in some people's opinion maddest project that we have ever done at Glyndebourne," General Director David Pickard said.
For a company that gets no public subsidy and relies on ticket sales, membership fees and donations, putting on such a big opera could be foolhardy at a time of economic uncertainty.
But there were few hints of the weak U.K. economy on Glyndebourne's lawns, and the festival, where the most expensive seat is 250 pounds ($405), was 96 percent booked up before opening.
Die Meistersinger itself is completely sold out but the final performance in this season on June 26 will also be streamed live on www.glyndebourne.com and screened live at London's Science Museum and selected venues around Britain.
Editing by Paul Casciato