Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier
English National Opera, London, 2012
Edward Gardner, David McVicar, Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Shore, Madeleine Shaw, Adrian Thompson, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Jaewoo Kim, Mark Richardson
The Coliseum, 24 February 2012
If the previous night’s production at the Coliseum of the Richard Jones directed The Tales of Hoffmann was an example of throwing everything at a production to less than optimal effect, David McVicar’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the following night was a lesson in the virtue of understatement. Understatement is not a quality you often associate with either Richard Strauss or indeed David McVicar, and the use of the term is indeed relative. This revival of the English National Opera’s 2008 production is by no means minimalist, the stage lushly decorated in authentic-looking period design and costumes, but it makes the most effective use of that set design across all three acts with thoughtful arrangements and little fuss.
This is undoubtedly the best way to approach Strauss’s most extravagant and lushly detailed work. Every single word and gesture is already expressed, enhanced and accompanied by carefully considered notes and instruments to add layers of meaning and significance, and what they don’t need is for the stage direction to ignore them or work against them. That approach might be valid for introducing or bringing out notes of irony in relation to the subject in another opera, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s playful farce set amongst the nobility of mid-eighteenth century Vienna is already loaded with ironic intention and musical references to Strauss waltzes and to Mozart’s comic operas of lecherous nobles. It doesn’t need any other layers to confuse matters or disrupt the delicate balance in a manner that tips it over into being far too clever by half.
Surprisingly for this director, McVicar even chose to figuratively draw a veil (or stage curtain) over any on-stage visualisation of Strauss’s famous musical expression of the opening bedroom romp between the Marshallin and her young lover Octavian, preferring to let the stage bask in the golden afterglow of the morning after. Without any further stage devices other than the subtle shifts of golden light, Act 1 serves up the gorgeous luxuriousness of Strauss’s expression of those moments, the subsequent encounter with Baron Ochs and the Levée without any unwelcome distraction, intrusion or interpretation. Simply creating an appropriate environment for the detail of the score and the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to work its own magic is sufficient, and that is brilliantly achieved here.
That makes it sound easy, but there is actually a lot of consideration put into actually understanding what the opera is about. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in a review of a recent Baden-Baden production, the opera is more than just a satire of 18th century Viennese society or a fond tribute to the Mozartian class comedy, but, setting it in an idealised past, it’s very much concerned with the passing of time, with the ways of the old making way for the way of the new. That’s not only expressed directly in the libretto, particularly in Marschallin’s reflections at the end of Act 1, or in the tradition of the Rosenkavalier itself for arranging marriages of convenience, but it’s reflected in the very fabric of the music, each of the long three acts taking place in real time where every second and every nuance of every moment, every expression of every character, individually and sometimes together, is crystallised in the most exquisitely detailed musical arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel excessive and over-elaborate, over-generous in its emotional expression to almost Puccini-like levels, leaving little for the listener to interpret for themselves, and leaving them merely as observers, but, my goodness, what brilliance to simply sit back and luxuriate in!
It’s a willingness on the part of director McVicar and conductor Edward Gardner to refrain from adding any personal touches or interpretations and simply take the cues from the score and the libretto, that serves the ENO’s production so well here. That’s not a matter of stepping back however and not being involved, but rather directing their efforts to where it is best employed, and that is in service of the performers on the stage. The drama moves along here so fluidly, with all its enjoyable little moments of visual humour and personal interaction, that it’s clear just how much consideration has been placed in giving the opera its best possible presentation, never getting bogged down in the cleverness of the detail, but with an eye to the bigger picture. Never in my experience of this work have those three acts of Der Rosenkavalier felt so perfectly a whole, with not a note out of place, not a gesture unwarranted, not a single moment that wasn’t simply thoughtful, delightful and entertaining.
A very great deal of the success of the work, no matter how thoughtful the attention given to the other elements of the production, lies in the casting, and the ENO’s current line-up delivered performances of astonishing quality. Individually, it would be hard to improve on a cast that includes Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sophie Bevan, but collectively they also work well together, giving appropriate weight and balance to the characters. A high-profile soprano in the role of Marschallin can tip the balance too much towards sentimental reflection, but while Amanda Roocroft is undoubtedly one of the top English sopranos she never let her character’s dilemma over-dominate proceedings. Marschallin’s self-sacrifice to the happiness of the young couple at the end was consequently deeply moving, particularly in the light of the perfection of how the production handled Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s setting of the scene.
The overbearing nature of Baron Ochs can also lead to this character dominating the show - the opera was indeed originally conceived with Ochs to the forefront and even went under the title of Ochs auf Lerchenau while it was being written - and that is certainly a possibility with as fine a singer as John Tomlinson in the role. Not only was the diction of his bass clear, musical and beautifully resonant, but his playing of the role of Ochs made the old goat genuinely sympathetic, without contradicting the less pleasant aspects of his character. He played Ochs not as a buffoon but as a throwback to the “old ways” of the privilege of nobility, formerly secure of his position, dishonourably regretting the reduction of his influence, but ultimately accepting of it as being in the nature of the passing of time and the way of youth to usurp the place of their elders.
The fact that Roocroft and Tomlinson impressed so greatly without over-dominating the proceedings is not only testament to the fine handling of the stage direction, but to having equally fine and impressive singers in the roles of Octavian and Sophie. Sophie Bevan was a spirited Sophie, her youthful innocence and purity matched by the depth of her feelings expressed so beautifully in her words to Octavian and in their delivery. Fitting in with the overall approach to the work, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian was a model of how to make an impact and have presence through understatement, or at least without overstatement. There’s a balance to be maintained between the comic and the serious elements in Octavian’s make-up, between his youthful enthusiasm and growing maturity, his sensitive delicacy and his hotheadedness, and as performed by Sarah Connolly, you could see that character develop in real-time over the course of the opera. She was in fine voice.
Certainly one of the best all-round performances I’ve ever seen of Der Rosenkavalier, the ENO production was also one of those all too rare occasions when the full potential of a great opera was fully realised and its impact could be felt throughout the house.