Opera Review

Strauss Der Rosenkavalier Royal Opera House, 18 March 2000

What is left to say about this year 2000's latest revival of John Schlesinger's traditional 1984 production of a world-wide favourite, which has had 218 performances at Covent Garden? Most in the audience will have seen one or more of this production's three previous revivals, and many too its Cross/Ironside and Visconti predecessors. The vast bedroom made possible the caricature of a morning levée, the Faninal hall was spacious enough to accommodate the spectacles of ritual procession and mayhem, only the private room at the inn suggested a believable scale. The costumes were more elaborate and gorgeous than those from the 1911 premiere pictured in the lavish programme book, making it inevitable that the two adolescents would fall for each other at first sight.

Andrew Sinclair's revival went as smoothly as clockwork from its very early start to late finish, the orchestra under Christian Thielemann was euphonious and smooth, the lead singers satisfied those with long memories of great performances in the past, as well as those of us with more eclectic interests; Renee Fleming and Christine Schafer as young, and not quite so young, lovers of Susan Graham's handsome 17 yr. old boy, cross-dressed twice over (the best of all the principals for me),and Frans Hawlata, arrogant with self satisfaction and pride before his fall, bound to come a cropper to the general jubilation, just as does Shakespeare and Verdi's Falstaff by dousing in a laundry basket, with additional humiliation to press the point that lechers never learn, and make the rest of us feel even more self-righteous.

Renee Fleming with Susan Graham, Double Crossed
photographer Donald Cooper

The evening offered S&H the opportunity, partly by chance, to explore the refurbished opera house from several angles. Joining the substantial throng of rush-hour late-comers, we were denied the possibility of quietly standing on the carpeted floor just inside, and instead ushered up to a corridor at the top to enjoy the first act on TV monitors; so abysmal for both viewing and listening (they would disgrace a cheap B&B bedroom!) that there was a rapid exodus to the bars, creating more room for the next wave of arrivals.

So hot were the tickets that S&H, understandably, had to content itself with a single balcony seat, one of many there from which you can see only half of the stage - marginally improved only by uncharitably blocking one's neighbour's view. For an additional seat, the choice was between a £150 ticket and, for £15, the very last upper slips seat above the stage, the one with no view at all - for which S&H gratefully settled!

Rosenkavalier is the opera par excellence about luxurious living, whether that of the established nobility or the nouveau riche, not a show to attend on one's own! Meeting to compare notes between the acts in the Crush Bar, where the great and the good enjoy champagne and salmon sandwiches, and chatting with an opera devotee who had a standing ticket, one heard again the insufficiently publicised complaint that whilst the prices for some expensive seats had been reduced, those for the Amphitheatre (which now incorporates the Gallery, where many of us cut our operatic teeth so cheaply) had been drastically increased under the new dispensation.

Having spied a well-situated empty seat in the circle, the opportunity was taken to occupy it for the last act, to better enjoy the elaborately contrived pranks to disrupt Baron Ochs' assignation in the inn. And, after nearly five hours (as my neighbour confided to his wife, "now it's the Trio"), the mellifluous interweaving of sopranos and mezzo, intermingling thoughts of regret for the passing of youth and hope of adult happiness, restored good feelings, so we all went home happy, glad to have taken part in the time-hallowed ritual once again.

But is it not time for the Royal Opera House to stimulate a more thinking response by offering a new look at even the hoary favourites in the opera canon, to reverse a process of ossification and un-, or non-reflective conventionality? Mismatched liaisons, sexual irregularities amongst the great, tensions between classes, urban and rural life-styles, inherited wealth and new riches - all these themes are as pertinent today as in the imagined 18th Century depicted in the staging of Strauss's opera.

Alexa & Peter Woolf

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