10 Dec 2009

Der Rosenkavalier - Royal Opera House, London

In dark, damp December we need good cheer, and Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House, delivers colour and spectacle. in abundance. It's a revival of the John Schlesinger production from 1884, and somewhat antiquated, but that's no disadvantage, for the passage of time haunts Der Rosenkavalier.

The Marschallin knows she’ll never be young again, and accedes to a new generation with whom the future lies. She was herself once like Sophie, forced into marriage by social convention. Strauss depicts a Vienna that by 1911 was about to be swept away. Even Octavian and Sophie have long gone, like “Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr.” Obviously in this revival, the costumes (Maria Bj√∂rnsen) are new-made, and the sets (William Dudley) have been refreshed, but the air of musty decay is deliberate, because it’s an essential part of the narrative. This gorgeously gilded world is built on false values. By supporting Sophie and Octavian, the Marschallin is placing her faith in love.

There are those who think operas should be museum pieces, preserved forever at the moment of birth. In real life, though, every revival is a new work because the people involved are coming new to it. Even if they’ve sung the roles many times before, the specific demands of performance create a new dynamic. Directing revivals isn’t easy, because everyone has to be inspired all over again.

Sophie Koch as Octavian

Soile Isokoski is one of the greatest Strauss singers of our times. Her experience, and reflective, emotional depth could have made this an exceptionally well-rounded Marschallin. Isokoski’s voice has a smoky, wistful timbre that captures the Marschallin’s true personality. For whatever reason, in this production, Isokoski’s subtle approach seemed sidelined. Because so much is going on in the second act, it’s easy to forget how the Marschallin permeates the opera even when she’s not present. She was kleine Resi, just as Sophie is now. What happens in Faninal’s mansion may well have happened in her father’s home. She may not appear again until the end, but it’s “her” story, reprised anew.

Peter Rose as Baron Ochs and Lucy Crowe as Sophie

the production is so high on visual values, the balance shifts to Octavian, who is, after all the Rosenkavalier, the personification of youth and the future. Sophie Koch is good, even her slight weaknesses play well into the character’s immaturity. More gusto in the “dialect” passages would have been welcome, connecting to the social satire in the plot. Who knows what Octavian might become when he grows older? Lucy Crowe’s Sophie is well acted, bringing out the spoilt brat aspects of the role. Octavian might have a hard time. Strauss had Pauline, so he knew very well that in real life marriages don’t follow the “rules” of society.

There’s a strong element of subversion in this opera, often overlooked in the frills and frou-frou. Strauss sends up the social order, parodying Viennese waltzes, depicting the baseness of aristocratic rule. Peter Rose’s Baron Ochs is suitably brutish. Even a nobleman as debased as he would have been marginally literate, but von Hoffmansthal points out his illiteracy clearly, so it can’t be missed. Strauss builds similar crudity into the music, which Rose might have made more grotesque, but it wouldn’t have worked against Kiril Petrenko’s civil and well behaved conducting. It was good, too, to hear two other Grandees of British opera, Thomas Allen and Graham Clark, as Faninal and Valzacchi.

Thomas Allen as Faninal, Lucy Crowe as Sophie and Sophie Koch as Octavian

This revival (directed by Andrew Sinclair) won’t go down as one of the great moments in performance history, because it lacks the fire and pain that lies in the score. Nonetheless, it’s still immeasurably better value than the usual level of “festive fare” on offer at this time of the year. Even if it’s muted, it’s still a decent artistic experience.

Anne Ozorio