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26 Jul 2014

Glyndebourne's Strauss Der Rosenkavalier, BBC Proms

Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.

A review by Claire seymour


Semi-staged it might have been but it’s amazing how a stretch-limo of a chaise-longue and some atmospheric lighting can translate you from a hot night in modern-day South Kensington to the rococo opulence of fin de siècle Vienna or a slightly surreal 1960s locale.

Jones and his designer Paul Steinberg left their eye-straining patterned wallpaper at Glyndebourne, but the glowing colours of the illuminated strip which bordered the raised platform were a subtle replacement. Much can be communicated with a simple visual image and, as ever in Jones’s productions, the details here were telling. In Act 1 Baron Ochs and Mariandel sit at opposite ends of the cream couch, Ochs’ misapprehension that he is wooing a potential sexual conquest comically emphasised by the literal gap between the eager wooer and the disguised Octavian. Subsequently, when Octavian and the Marschallin resume this position, the space between assumes a tragic resonance, intimating not delusion but as yet unvoiced self-knowledge and foreshadowings of estrangement.

We move from the Marchallin’s levee to Faninel’s art deco palace in Act 2, his brightly coloured illuminated name replacing the patterns of Act 1, and the cream chaise-longue supplanted by a crimson velvet couch. Movements and transitions throughout the evening were unfussy; and Sarah Fahie, the semi-staging and movement director, made effective use of the auditorium, placing the off-stage band in the Gallery during Ochs’ failed seduction of Mariandel in Act III.

Kate Royal was a graceful, poised Marschallin, both vocally and dramatically. Her soprano is not excessively opulent but it is clear and silky, and her singing was unfailingly accurate and intelligently phrased. While Royal didn’t quite plumb the Marschallin’s emotional depths, there were many moments of dramatic insight. After the busy opening scenes, I was quite disarmed when, gazing in the mirror at her freshly arranged coiffeur, Royal reflected, ‘"Mein lieber Hippolyte,/ heut haben Sie ein altes Weib aus mir gemacht"’ (My dear Hippolyte, today you’ve made me into an old woman’); the change of colour and vocal shadows, as if she were singing to herself, seemed to confirm the Marschallin’s essential isolation from the vulgar business proceeding around her.

When the Marschallin pondered the passing of time at the end of Act 1, Royal’s monologues were again marked by self-composure and were quietly reflective; she let the music speak for itself and her discreet approach was all the more effective for Octavian’s boisterous, naive interjections: ‘Nicht heut, nicht morgen! Ich hab’ dich lieb. … Wenn’s so einen Tage geben muss, ich denk’ ihn nicht!’ (Not today, no tomorrow! I love you! … If such a day there must be, I’ll not think of it!)

There was poignancy too: at the end of Act I, turning away from the Hall into a world of private musing, Royal curled elegantly on the chaise-longue, watched over by a portrait of Freud (and the bust of Henry Wood), and her self-containment was underpinned by conductor Robin Ticciati’s gentle musical direction - three carefully place pizzicati, followed by the merest delay before the horns’ final muted chord. Yet, while it is easy for us to pity the Marschallin, after the glorious riches of the Act III trio Royal’s slightly impatient final renunciation, ‘Ja, ja’, made us think again.

Tara Erraught’s Octavian was superbly sung and acted: particularly impressive was her meticulous attention to the dramatic inferences and details - Erraught even altered her accent, to considerable comic effect, when disguised as Mariandel. In the opening scenes, this Octavian was by turns ardent and tender, petulant and exuberant, stubborn and emollient; and Erraught’s focused, bright, strong sound conveyed the confidence of youth and intimated the man Octavian will become. Erraught’s mezzo swelled glossily, blooming into the auditorium, as Octavian, inflamed with adolescent self-assurance, craved both Love and his beloved Bichette: ‘Ja, ist Sie da? Dann will ich Sie halter, dass Si emir nicht wieder entkommt!’ (Is she really here? I will hold her lest she escapes me again!) This was the performance of the evening.

With Teodora Gheorghiu indisposed, soprano Louise Alder donned Sophie’s fairy-princess finery and endured being flung about like a stiff marionette, prinked and preened to debutante perfection. I recently reviewed Alder at the Wigmore Hall and remarked that she was a ‘name to watch … remarkably assured … [with] an alluring voice characterised by lyrical charm and astonishing power, particularly at the top; and her vocal prowess was complemented by a sure sense of poetic meaning and musical poetry’. These qualities were certainly in evidence, but we had to wait a little time for Alder to truly shine.

Ticciati paced the presentation of the rose scene perfectly. Octavian’s entry was arresting, full of expectation and a sense of occasion; standing side by side, facing towards the Hall, the young lovers-to-be intimated both the formality of the ceremony and their own nervousness; then, as they turned to face each other, Erraught wonderfully conveyed the moment that Cupid punctured Octavian’s heart, swaying gently inwards as if lured by a hypnotic blend of the silver rose’s heady scent and the image of perfection before him.

Alder’s floating gossamer arcs were flawlessly tuned and delicately placed, but I did not like her tendency to swell through the note, from fragile transparency to momentary gleam and back again, and would have preferred a more even line. But, she quickly settled and gained in confidence, and post-presentation both Alder and Erraught displayed an openness of tone which underscored the candour of their exchanges, ‘Wird Sie das Mannsbild da heiraten, ma cousine? … Nicht um die Welt!’ (Are you going to marry that fellow, ma cousine? … Not for all the world!). Ever feistier, the voice increasingly focused, Alder established a strong stage presence, flinging off her silver slippers and removing her ghastly flounces to be draped by Marianne in a simple white dressing-gown; her true heart liberated from the trappings of formal courtship.

Lars Woldt was also unavailable and Franz Hawlata stepped effortlessly into Baron Ochs’s alpine leather boots. Hawlata possesses natural comic timing which, after the clumsy staircase tumble of his initial entry, relied here on understatement rather than bombast; he (and Jones) realise that actions are funnier if not played for laughs; as a consequence, convinced of the Baron’s utter lack of self-knowledge and thus too of his honesty, we were prompted to veer between aversion and sympathy for the hapless suitor. In a neat touch, at the end of Act 2 a flunkey unfolded a concertinaed portrait gallery of potential mistresses (something mid-way between a set of Renaissance miniatures and an internet dating site roll call), and Ochs’s transparent misconceptions prompted an affectionate snigger. Hawlata has a lovely, appealing tone, and his voice was, aptly, by turns flexible and sturdy; he was also the best of the cast in communicating the text, and many moments were enhanced by this clarity - as in, for example, the end-of-Act 2 exchanges with Helene Schneiderman’s excellent Annina.

There was much to admire, too, elsewhere, Michael Kraus’s finely sung Faninal being a notable highlight. As the Italian Singer, the idiomatic, virile tone of tenor Andrej Dunaev impressively filled the Hall, and there strong performances from Christopher Gillett (Valzacchi), Miranda Keys (Marianne) and Gwynne Howell (the Notary).

Under the baton of Robin Ticciati, the London Philharmonic Orchestra produced playing as elegant as the vocal performances. Ticciati’s conducting was unfussy but precise and sensitive to the singers. There was no bombast - I had to listen hard during the overture to hear the sexually-charged yelp from the horns - and one might have desired more indulgent sensuousness. But, Ticciati was alert to the way that the orchestral colours guide us across the spectrum of emotional highs and lows: there was much beauty in the fluttering of harps, celeste and flute during the presentation of the rose, but also timbral darkness. The tempi were well-judged, especially the Act III trio.

This was a delightful evening. The comedy was gentle - a wry chuckle rather than a belly-laugh - but not a moment passed without something for the ear or eye to enjoy.
Claire Seymour

Kate Royal, soprano (Marschallin); Tara Erraught, mezzo-soprano (Octavian); Franz Hawlata, bass (Baron Ochs); Louise Alder, soprano (Sophie); Michael Kraus, baritone (Herr von Faninal); Miranda Keys, soprano (Marianne); Christopher Gillett, tenor (Valzacchi); Helene Schneiderman, mezzo-soprano (Annina); Gwynne Howell, bass (Notary); Andrej Dunaev, tenor (Italian Singer); Robert Wörle tenor (Innkeeper); Scott Conner, bass (Police Inspector); Robin Ticciati, conductor; Sarah Fahie, semi-stage/movement director; London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Claire Seymour

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