Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
December 18th, 2009
Kirill Petrenko, Conductor
Octavian – Sophie Koch
Marschallin – Soile Isokoski
Baron Ochs – Peter Rose
Sophie – Lucy Crowe
Faninal – Thomas Allen
Annina – Leah-Marian Jones
Valzacchi – Graham Clark
Major Domo I – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Major Domo II – Steven Ebel
Notary – Lynton Black
Italian Singer – Wookyung Kim
Duenna (Marianne) – Elaine McKrill
Innkeeper – Robert Wörle
Commissioner – Jeremy White
This latest ROH Rosenkavalier has so far had middling reviews, many focusing their criticism largely on the production, which originated in 1984 under the late John Schlesinger and here directed by Andrew Sinclair, which they believe to be showing its age. It has been revived many times, and therefore probably dulled by overfamiliarity for some, but to this first-time viewer it seemed understandable that the company would wish to extract the maximum mileage from it—perhaps a lull before an exciting new production comes storming in to mark the opera’s 100th anniversary in 13 months’ time?
One of the defining characteristics of Der Rosenkavalier is the dichotomy between the action’s 1740s setting and the score’s profusion of waltzes, not to mention Richard Strauss’s opulent orchestration—products of the late-18th and–19th centuries respectively. This playing with period may be more suited to our era of often imaginatively anachronistic theatrical and operatic productions than to the time of the opera’s composition; certainly, it’s an intriguingly postmodern idea from a composer often considered to have retreated into conservatism from Rosenkavalier onwards. If experimentation with this aspect of staging is something you’re especially interested in, it’s fair to say that the traditional sets and costuming of Schlesinger’s production will be a disappointment. Nevertheless, some details definitely made a strong impression, like the oppressive gold colouring of the Marschallin’s bedroom as she contemplates the passing of time and the transience of love, or the wigged and masked spying figures visible in the cutaway walls of the Act III inn room set—reminiscent of the mysterious stranger commissioning Mozart’s Requiem in Milos Forman’s Amadeus, (which was released in 1984) they were an agreeably sinister presence amidst the occasionally long-winded farce. I also liked the upwardly mobile ‘Baron’ Faninal trying too hard in fully powdered face, a subtly amusing touch.
The current cast have also elicited mixed opinions. Of the principals, the most successful to me was Peter Rose as Baron Ochs, appropriately dominating the action but also being more than just a boorish lech—in Rose’s characterisation one can believe that this is a man who, in spite of his behaviour, considers himself a noble, and the loss of the mostly imaginary dignity that the Marschallin advises him to preserve by leaving the scene in Act III can actually be felt. Sophie Koch grew into the role of Octavian, becoming more convincing in her ardent and impetuous boyishness as the performance went on. In spite of Lucy Crowe’s fine handling of those rapturous high notes, I did find her Sophie a bit of a spoiled brat at times, though this worked well with the unusually grudging quality and sense of impatience with her now ex-lover that Soile Isokoski brought to the Marschallin’s giving up of Octavian in the famous third act trio climax. The greatest performance weakness of the evening was the lack of a powerful presence for the Marschallin, pervading the atmosphere even in her absence, though Isokoski was moving in the first act climax. Kirill Petrenko and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House did well in finding a suitable balance between the high Romanticism and light comedy that are both so crucial to the piece, yet potentially awkward to reconcile.
As the ROH’s own website makes very clear, the purpose of this revival is to provide an appropriately lavish entertainment in the run-up to the most indulgent time of the year—they have surely chosen wisely with this opera in this production, which amply delivers on that front on musical, visual and emotional levels, and taken as such is definitely a success. As I mentioned earlier, it will be very interesting to see whether or not 2011 brings a new approach to Der Rosenkavalier, hopefully providing a certain adventurousness that was the one major missing element this time round.