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Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Covent Garden, London 7.12.2009. (JPr)

Lucy Crowe as Sophie and Sophie Koch as Octavian


A 25-year-old production in its sixth revival transcends all criticism over what the late John Schlesinger’s original concept for this opera might have been - if indeed there actually was one. With any Der Rosenkavalier the choice mostly becomes one of deciding to concentrate firmly on either Viennese nostalgia or on Viennese decadence. What we usually see for the latter is a setting in fin de siècle Vienna around the time of the opera’s composition (c1911) when times were changing in many strata of Austrian society. On the other hand, chocolate-box nostalgia is better served by setting the work in an opulent Hapsburg palace during the mid-eighteenth century, which is what we have here. It is good to luxuriate in a traditional staging once in a while however and William Dudley’s elaborate sets and Maria Bjornson’s sumptuous costumes are simply gorgeous and have a wonderful period feel. Every detail of colour, light, sound and gesture in this production contribute to a series of stage pictures that delight the senses; even though the set for the beginning of Act II looked more appropriate to the Act III festivities in Sleeping Beauty.

In composing Der Rosenkavalier Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, respectively the greatest German composer and librettist of the early twentieth century, were collaborating together for the second time. Rosenkavalier has become one of Strauss’s most popular operas despite critical opinion turning against it in its early years and the fact that composer and librettist both became somewhat dissatisfied with elements of their creation. Revival director Andrew Sinclair makes a valiant attempt to show us much of the subtle details that must have been there in the original staging: almost immediately we see the young page Mohammad’s quizzical response to the two wine glasses at the foot of the Marschallin’s bed and later there is a particularly careful build up to the meeting of Sophie and Octavian’s eyes during the presentation of the rose.

It is also clear that we are being given not only a poignant portrait of human relationships and class envy here, but also something of a neo-Baroque comedy of manners and a successor to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. In the first scene, having the ‘trouser role’ Octavian dressed up as a maid is clearly a homage to Cherubino. But the liberalism of the early twentieth century is also reflected by having Octavian and Sophie unite to drive out the old aristocracy and its decadence as typified by Baron Ochs.

A number of other things in Der Rosenkavalier do indeed seem remarkably modern: the Marschallin's self-consciousness, the very open and frank sensuality in the opera as well as the opera’s scathing critique of blundering masculinity. The Marschallin's arrival in the final act supplies one final twist too. She calls the whole plot simply ‘a farce’ and by displaying her moral authority and dispensing the noble and traditional values of discretion, benevolence, and personal self-sacrifice in magnanimously pardoning the young lovers who have conspired against her, she orchestrates the expected happy ending. In the last act, as the various social strata coalesce with the juxtaposition of the Princess, the Count, the Baron, the newly-ennobled Faninal, with the various servants of different rank, the librettist and composer's choice of a period setting makes real sense; we are clearly in the mid-eighteenth century and the contemporary setting for the Mozart opera.

The best of the leading singers, at least for me, was Sophie Koch’s excellent Octavian. She gave her character an unstated masculinity yet made her comic business in Acts I and III - when disguised as her female alter ego ‘Mariandel’ - really funny. Her voice was rich, full and better able to ring out over the loud orchestra and hectic scoring than most of those she shared the stage with. The ultimate object of the Count’s affection Sophie, who Baron Ochs intends to marry to secure his financial security was sung by Lucy Crowe. Her portrayal veered appealingly between girlish exhilaration and twenty-first century spoilt-brat laddishness. Ms Crowe had a pure, sweet toned voice and sang well during the first two acts and the presentation of the silver rose : the duet with Octavian in Act II was particularly beautifully achieved between the two singers. Sadly the final high B of the concluding duet showed Ms Crowe’s stamina was failing though this will undoubtedly improve during the run of performances. Soile Isokoski was the Marschallin; her monologue in Act I when she convinces herself to send her young lover away and come to terms with a new role as a matron, should have been the evening's emotional and psychological centre; however, she sang it with a voice that seemed not yet fully warmed up. In Act III she acted well with considerable poise, understated resignation and much sadness, and was vocally at her best in the trio near the end. There, she created some eloquent lines with much subtle expressive shading.

Does Peter Rose play Baron Ochs perfectly, or does he underplay him, I wonder? This wonderful bass is clearly in demand from opera houses throughout the world to sing Ochs and with his sheer imposing physical presence, wonderful German diction and resonant deep notes I can see why. For me however he was slightly too much the amiable bungler when his coarseness and lechery should verge on repulsiveness. He had wonderful comic timing when given the opportunity and hummed and wolf-whistled with engaging effect but his boorishness over Mariandel or Sophie was of the leering – and therefore harmless – Carry On-film sort (think Bernard Bresslaw). When Peter Rose tires of all the Ochses though, he will make a superb Hagen or Hans Sachs – both roles that would expand on elements of the character he was portraying here.

Though much of the too- ing and fro-ing in this significant revival would have clearly benefited from more rehearsal time, it was graced by an ensemble cast of young and old talent. Wookyung Kim was a stylish Italian tenor, Elaine McKrill sang well as Sophie’s dotty duenna who succumbed to the vapours at any hint of inappropriate behaviour by her charge. The Italian intriguers, Annina and Valzacchi, who are so disgruntled by failing to get any payment from Ochs that they assist Octavian in bringing about his downfall, were exceptionally well played by Leah-Marian Jones and that supreme character performer, Graham Clark, whose very presence on stage causes one’s eyes to be drawn to him even if he is not singing a note. Sadly I must report one piece of miscasting which was asking Thomas Allen - so wonderful recently as Gianni Schicchi – to play Sophie’s father, Faninal. He did not seem quite at ease with the role or with singing his Straussian patter.

Der Rosenkavalier is far from my favourite opera, yet when the waltzes weave their magic it is always a truly excellent experience. I must be a little controversial here however: I am still amazed that since there used to be a twentieth century tradition of cutting performances of this opera, no-one takes responsibility for doing this today. At well over three hours of music, there is much too much here for such a slim story to my mind and as things stand, they make Rosenkavalier mainly a conductor’s opera. It is hard for any of the four lead singers to ruin a performance completely but it is very easy for the conductor to do just that.

But quite what Kirill Petrenko was doing conducting the sixth revival of this rather than a new production of something else is only a question the board of the Royal Opera can answer, because he was, as expected, first-rate. His orchestra seemed on top-form and together they gave a brilliant account of this swooniest of scores, swirling confidently through what is so often little more than a concoction of waltzes. Petrenko’s reading - after a potent and erotically charged prelude - had a consistently mellow inner glow and musicality that I found hard to resist. It had a melancholy and suitably nostalgic edge and did not over-egg the sentiment. Despite the music occasionally seeming to become suspended in time, it never really lost momentum or flow, even though because of its colours and sensuous gestures it sometimes overwhelmed the action, or lack of it, on stage. I found myself concentrating more on an enthralling musical feast than on the drama - by turns emotional or comic - I was supposed to be seeing.

Jim Pritchard


Picture © Mike Hoban


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