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Reviews

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02 Jul 2017

The sands of time: WNO's Rosenkavalier in Birmingham

Time, sands, mists: all slip through one’s fingers - intangible and irretrievable. Olivia Fuchs’ production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier for WNO communicates the opera’s message in a clear visual narrative of subtlety and dramatic eloquence.

Der Rosenkavalier, Welsh National Opera at the Birmingham Hippodrome

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Marschallin (Rebecca Evans), Old Marschallin (Margaret Baiton)

Photo credit: Bill Cooper

 

The production has made its way from Cardiff to Birmingham. During the orchestral prelude, designer Niki Turner and lighting designer Ian Jones dot the dark stage with a haze of swirling green which embraces a lone figure, a dignified, elderly lady in a beige dress, seated at a small round table, elegantly sipping tea from a china cup. Through a gauze, as Strauss’s instrumental narrative declares its sensuality with cocksure confidence, the erotic playfulness it depicts fades in and out of view: an arching back, a flash of black stockings amid the white bedding.

The words ‘Wien 1941’ come into focus on the back-drop, like the flickering subtitles of an old movie. With gradual illumination, the set comes into focus and time recedes - ‘Wien 1911’. We are in the Marschallin’s plain white bedroom, but the low light hints at the shabbiness that the passing of thirty years will bring. The drooping chandelier evokes the glistening grey of a spider’s web.

The old duchess remains: a Dickensian ghost of time yet to come’, haunting the present with presentiments of the future. And, during the lively teasing of the first scene as Octavian exults in his secret tryst with his ‘Bichette’, it is the Marschallin’s sudden, fleeting encounter with this disturbing alter ego who paces the rim of the room, that brings the first note of sadness to the lovers’ indulgence of their desire.

Later, during the Marschallin’s morning levée, the lingering presence of the gracious old dame amid the helter-skelter raucousness of the milliner, bird-catcher, lawyer, pleading orphans and hair-dressers adds pathos to the riotousness which intrudes into the boudoir. When Rebecca Evans’ Marschallin inspects her coiffeuses’ efforts in a gold-rimmed hand mirror, her alarm - ‘Why, today you’ve made me look like an old lady!’ - inspires tenderness and pity.

The orphans’ hasty elocution lesson, and Baron Ochs’ haughty pique when the lawyer disillusions him about the potential profitability of his marriage contract, sugar the scene with a patina of humour. But, it is the stillness of the Italian singer’s serenade - as elegantly shaped by Paul Charles Clarke as the singer’s red velvet tail-coat - which confirms the underlying sadness. When a waiter pulls out a chair for the Marschallin, for a moment it seems that it is the old countess who will seat herself, usurping her younger self.

wno_der_rosenkavalier_-_lucia_cervoni_octavian_photo_credit_bill_cooper_0669.jpg Octavian (Lucia Cervoni). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

Sorrow pervades the final scene of the Act, almost painfully entwining with the beauty of Strauss’s score. When Octavian laments that his beloved is changed from the one he knew, the Marschallin is distracted by the ghost that only she can see. We thus feel compassion for the petulant Quin-Quin who kicks the bed in frustration and bewails, ‘Can I no longer kiss you until you gasp for air?’, as the sands of time trickle from the ceiling in two fragile golden streams. The Marschallin’s sudden realisation that she has brusquely sent away her young lover without even giving him a kiss is heart-breaking, but when the footmen are too late to call the young count back and perpetuate the enchantment of present desire, she allows the spell to break. The filter of sand has ceased. The illumination falls upon the seated elderly figure: this is the reality that in the closing moments the Marschallin tenderly accepts and embraces.

Fuchs’ sensitive crafting of the sentiment of this opening Act is utterly convincing, and it is aided by the characterisation of the central lovers. Lucia Cervoni’s Octavian is naïve and impetuous but genuinely devoted; her mezzo is wonderfully firm and clean, full of youthful freshness. Handsome in a red-trimmed grey frock, Octavian bursts with an adolescent swagger - collar turned up, sword stabbing the floor between his legs - which is softened by Cervoni’s warm lyricism.

Evans is initially a more playful Marschallin than is sometimes the case, and as they frisk spiritedly, and Octavian adopts his Mariandel disguise, the scene seemed imbued with the light-hearted impishness of Cherubino and the Countess in Act 2 of Figaro. But the fullness and rich layers of Evans’ soprano hint at a burgeoning maturity, one which overtakes her Marschallin when she least expects it. When she gives her Quin-Quin the silver rose, Evans’ soprano is a gleaming, soft thread, as beautifully scented as the rose itself. Telling of her night-time wandering around the Feldmarschal’s chateau, to turn off the clocks, Evans soprano lowers, and slows, with quiet melancholy and resignation.

wno_der_rosenkavalier_-_brindley_sherratt_baron_ochs_photo_credit_bill_cooper_0928.jpg Baron Ochs (Brindley Sherratt. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The arrival of Brindley Sherratt’s tartan-trousered Baron Ochs prevents sentiment turning to sentimentality in this opening act. Heralded by hints of pink and green light which fleck the bedroom walls - indicative of his crudely rouged cheeks and lime-green coat - this Ochs is a bore, a boor and a bear, lurching lecherously with a dirty grin, but Sherratt never turns him into a clown. Ochs is full of beans, but though Sherratt’s bass does not offer soft warmth to alleviate the overconfidence and brashness, the voice is immensely strong, his lines are finely crafted, the diction superb, and that this Ochs will so obviously endure disappointments and humiliations ensures our indulgence of his faults.

A row of gilded chairs guarded by mustard-liveried retainers transforms the private bedroom to Faninel’s public reception room at the start of Act 2. The grand entrance doors are replaced by fireplace from whose grate tumble the unstoppable sands of time, piling ever higher. Louise Alder’s Sophie can barely contain her excitement, almost hyperventilating with glee as she prances and preens in anticipation of the pomp and honour to come.

Bespectacled and clutching a book to her breast, Alder’s Sophie put me in mind of Cecily from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest - another impassioned ingénue, eager to cast aside her ‘horrid German lessons’ for dalliance with the dashing ‘Ernest’. And her companion Marianne Leitmetzerin, sung with vigour and colour by Angharad Morgan, was a veritable Miss Prism, reprimanding her over-zealous charge but gushing animatedly as she espied the rose-bearer’s arrival - dressed in silver from top to toe - as if she were gleaning racy material for a three-volume novel.

The presentation of the rose was exquisite: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it better sung. Conductor Tomáš Hanus seemed to set off a little fast at first, leaving Cervoni behind, but in fact the flowing pace perfectly suited the escalating emotional pitch. I struggle to find a word to describe Alder’s glorious vocal ascents: they did not soar, float or climb, rather her soprano seemed suddenly to inhabit a sublime peak as if it had been there for eternity and we, in our mundanity, had simply not heard its transcendent song. Alder can swell or retreat from the fullest glow to the most delicate thread with stunning ease, and as so often in this production it was the juxtaposition of dramatic exuberance with musical serenity that spoke so powerfully. The conversation between the would-be bride and the Rosenkavalier which follows was funny and earth-bound: these were real people, stumbling for the ‘right’ words, bearing their hearts on their sleeves.

Act 2 company WNO.jpg Act 2: Company. Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The scene was a perfect foil for Ochs’ ill-mannered arrival. The loutishness of Lerchenau and his coarse retinue was perfectly judged, the waltzes tinged with just the right touch of loucheness, Ochs’ puffed-up pomposity balanced with pouting injured pride. Even Madeleine Shaw’s lascivious Annina squirmed in his embrace, as she and Peter Van Hulle’s vicious Valzacchi stirred up trouble.

But, at the close, believing that Mariandel was eagerly awaiting his answer about a nocturnal assignation, the reinvigorated Ochs’ final reprise - with him, no night can be too long - was superbly judged. The final phrase lingered just long enough for us to feel pity for his delusion, so soon to be deflated but, Sherratt suggested, never to be fully expunged. Sleazy lecher he may be, but Sherratt made this Ochs utterly compelling. Adrian Clarke’s Herr von Faninal was equally convincing, as lyrical in affection for his daughter as he was in, first, bewilderment, then anger.

Fuchs and Turner swept us through the drama of the final act with an equally sure hand. The damage wrought by the inexorable accumulation of sand is used to convey the transfer from civilised chateau to unsavoury tavern: the ceiling sags, all that remains of the walls are the towering door frames - relics of former glory like Ozymandias’ ‘vast and trunkless legs of stone’ and crumbling pedestal. The scenes of Ochs’ humiliation are crowded but well-choreographed, with Valzacchi and Annina cavorting about with commedia-like charm.

wno_der_rosenkavalier_lucia_cervoni_octavian_margaret_baiton_the_old_marschallin_louise_alder_sophie_von_faninal_photo_credit_bi.jpg Octavian (Lucia Cervoni), The Old Marschallin (Margaret Baiton), Sophie (Louise Alder). Photo credit: Bill Cooper.

The final trio did not disappoint as Alder, Cervoni and Evans surged through the phrases with strength and sublimity, accompanied - as throughout - by the sensuous, sympathetic playing of the WNO Orchestra. The Marschallin’s dignified retreat was balanced by the courtly return of her future self; unseen by the young lovers, she watched their embraces and listened to their exquisite pianissimo interweavings with genteel acquiescence.

Fuchs’ final coup is masterly. It’s becoming common for directors to seek an alternative to the convention that the opera’s capricious coda should depict the mischievous re-appearance of the Marschallin’s page Mahomed, in search of Sophie’s lost handkerchief. At the ROH last December , for example, Robert Carsen slid back the walls and revealed a haunting vision of the bloody fields of WW1, a row of ghostly soldiers, headed by the Feldmarschall, shrouded in ashen mist.

Fuchs offers us a more comforting acceptance. Mohammed, himself exhibiting the grey progress of age, shuffled with the aid of a walking stick, but with slow grace, towards the seated Marschallin, bearing a silver salver. Her regality undimmed by time, she accepted the china tea cup with a forgiving smile. A small gesture, but one which drew us all - poignantly, consolingly - into the Marschallin’s recognition and reconciliation.

Claire Seymour

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

The Marschallin - Rebecca Evans, Octavian - Lucia Cervoni, Sophie - Louise Alder, Baron Ochs - Brindley Sherratt, Herr Faninal - Adrian Clarke, Valzacchi - Peter Van Hulle, Annina - Madeleine Shaw, Marianne Leitmetzerin - Angharad Morgan, Mohammed - Kayed Mohamed-Mason, Major-Domo to the Marschallin - Adam Music, Major-Domo to Faninal - Gareth Dafydd Morris, Milliner - Emma Mary Llewellyn, Animal Seller - Michael Clifton-Thompson, Lawyer - Alastair Moore, Italian Singer - Paul Charles Clarke, Landlord - Michael Clifton-Thompson, Commissar of Police - Matthew Hargreaves, Boots - Laurence Cole, Leopold (Ochs’ illegitimate son) - George Newton-Fitzgerald, Old Marschallin - Margaret Baiton, Footmen - Simon Crosby Buttle/Stephen Wells/Joe Roche/Laurence Cole), Waiters - Simon Crosby Buttle/Howard Kirk/Philip Lloyd-Evans/Alastair Moore, Noble Orphans - Anitra Blaxhall/Louise Ratcliffe/Helene Jarmany, Maids/Footmen - WNO Chorus.

Director - Olivia Fuchs, Conductor - Tomáš Hanus, Designer - Niki Turner, Lighting designer - Ian Jones, Orchestra of WNO.

Birmingham Hippodrome; Saturday 1st July 2017.

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