Sunday 29 January 2012

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera, 28 January 2012

Sarah Connolly as Octavian
Images: Clive Barda/Arena PAL
(sung in English)

The Coliseum

The Marschallin – Amanda Roocroft
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Mohammed – Ericson Mitchell
Footmen – David Dyer, Anton Rich, Christopher Speight, Michael Burke
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Sir John Tomlinson
Major-domo to the Marschallin – Geraint Hylton
Widow – Susan Rann
Orphans – Claire Mitcher, Lydia Marchione, Deborah Davison
Milliner – Fiona Canfield
Animal Seller – Graeme Lauren
Hairdresser – Allan Adams
Notary – Paul Napier-Burrows
Valzacchi – Adrian Thompson
Annina – Madeleine Shaw
Singer – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Flautist – Brian Dean
Leopold – Harry Ward
Faninal – Andrew Shore
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Marianne – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Major-domo to Faninal – Philip Daggett
Doctor – Christopher Speight
Landlord – David Newman
Waiters – Allan Adames, Graeme Lauren, Christopher Speight, Roger Begley
Police Commissar – Mark Richardson

David McVicar (director, set designs)
Michael Vale (associate set designer)
Tanya McCallin (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Andrew George (movement)

Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Sophie (Sophie Bevan) and Octavian

This was a delightful evening at the Coliseum. I can understand why, in certain moods or even phases of one’s life, one might not like Der Rosenkavalier – it is, for one thing, a far nastier opera than many suppose – but I cannot understand how one could fail to love it. There was no such chance of failure here, for a fine company performance proved to be considerably more than the sum of its parts, themselves far from negligible. David McVicar’s production, originally for Scottish Opera, ought not to scare off even the most hidebound self-proclaimed ‘traditionalists’. Designs are pretty much what one would expect from a reading of the libretto, though there is less extravagant opulence for its own sake than, say, in Munich: no bad thing, in my book. Yet, quite rightly, McVicar does not rely merely upon the ‘beautiful’ designs. (That tends to be what ‘traditionalists’ are really concerned with when they bleat about ‘modern’ productions.) Every character, including the trademark highlighted ‘minor’ roles, has clearly been considered, and is directed – and portrayed – with conviction. I am not quite so sure about the wig allotted to the Marschallin, though; perhaps her Hairdresser (Allan Adams) should have had a word. Nor do I understand why Mohammed is no longer a boy: a point of ‘minor’ detail perhaps, yet, in this work, detail stands out. Nevertheless, a well-conceived, well-executed staging, including movement and lighting, makes a necessary and generous contribution to the musico-dramatic whole.

Edward Gardner’s conducting impressed, as did the often tremendous playing of the ENO Orchestra. If there were times when Gardner perhaps pressed forward a little too hard, for instance the whooping horns of the opening, he nevertheless maintained for the most part a real semblance of line, and at times drew a fuller sound from the orchestra than I have heard for a very long time. The opening of the third act had a few problems: there was one false start during the Pantomime, and coordination between orchestra and off-stage band was sometimes lost. Even those shortcomings, however, did little to detract from the performance as a whole, for which three cheers should certainly be offered to the players in the pit.

The Marschallin (Amanda Roocroft)
Amanda Roocroft’s Marschallin suffered from the vocal flaws that have often beset this artist. There were a good few times when she failed to maintain her vocal line, and tuning was less than perfect. Nevertheless, I found, especially during the latter half of the first act, that there was something quite moving to her portrayal. In a sense, it was ‘wrong’: there was very much a sense of an older woman than the Marschallin is supposed to be. Yet, I do not think that mattered. What we gained was an interesting sense – for which McVicar’s direction should most likely also be credited – of how wronged a woman she is, and indeed how wronged womankind is or at least has been. Ochs will continue on his merry way, but a woman of her age, whatever that may be, could not. More vocally refulgent performances perhaps cause us so much to fall in love with the character that we overlook that important, quasi-feminist aspect. Another, presumably unintended, consequence was that one was led to listen more acutely to the other voices in the tale, to try to understand what was entailed for Ochs, for Octavian, for Sophie, rather than simply to swoon whenever the Marschallin opened her mouth or batted her eyelids.

Ochs (Sir John Tomlinson) and
Sarah Connolly’s Octavian for the most part impressed. She is a seasoned pro when it comes to trouser roles, and her voice sounded just right for the role, though there was necessitated a perhaps surprising suspension of belief in terms of the young count’s age, Connolly looking more a Giulio Cesare than a seventeen-year-old ‘boy’. As Rosenkavalier, that seemed less of an issue; as with several members of the cast, though, diction was sometimes a problem. (I realise that is an especially problematical issue with respect to female Strauss roles, but in that case, might we not at least hear them in German? There were certainly a few oddities in Alfred Kalisch’s translation: why ‘Her Majesty the Queen’, especially when we heard later of the ‘Imperial Court’? And really, nothing other than ‘Ja, ja,’ will do at the end – especially for anyone who has heard Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.) As Mariandel, though, Connolly was a delight from beginning to end, her comic timing and delivery genuinely amusing – and touching. The all-purpose ‘Northern’ accent that now seems de rigueur for comic roles in English is a dubious concept, but Connolly carried it off with aplomb.

Annina (Madeleine Shaw)
Indeed, it was impossible not to smile, at the very least, when her Coronation Street-style pronunciation of ‘weepy’ was repeated with bemusement by Sir John Tomlinson. His Ochs was a joy: less boorish, I think, than I have seen on occasion before. The voice is sometimes in relative disrepair, but the stage presence more than compensates. It is undoubtedly a role that suits him to a tee. Sophie Bevan’s Sophie was a triumph: in a role which usually does not fail to irritate – how could Octavian, or anyone else, prefer her to the Marschallin? – we had a real, flesh-and-blood character, a young woman making her way in the world, and successfully too. Not that she was insensitive to the Marschallin’s position, far from it, but a beautifully-sung, as well as finely-acted, portrayal plausibly handed her the equivocal victory. (Again, we were reminded that men were the real victors.) Andrew Shore’s Faninal was convincingly acted, though often a little woolly in vocal terms. Most of the lesser roles were, however, taken well: the Italians (Adrian Thompson and Madeleine Shaw) convinced as their usual stock commedia dell'arte selves – which is how it should be – and even the Police Commissar, Mark Richardson, was noteworthy for his attention to textual detail.

There are some who complain about the work’s length: hardly excessive, indeed considerably shorter than that of many operas. But then, there are some who complain to others’ bewilderment also about the length of Elektra, accusing Strauss of longueurs in a music drama of extraordinary, single-minded concision. It seems to me that such ‘well-meaning’ critics would be better off not listening to Strauss at all, or perhaps contenting themselves with discs of ‘highlights’. I, for one, should have been happy to hear it all again – and may well try to do so.

Valzacchi (Adrian Thompson), Ochs, and Annina