Der Rosenkavalier English National Opera, 11th February 2012

Der Rosenkavalier English National Opera

Comedy for music in three acts by Hugo Hofmannstahl and Richard Strauss.

Marschallin, Amanda Roocroft; Octavian, Sarah Connolly; Baron Ochs, John Tomlinson; Herr von Faninal, Andrew Shore; Sophie von Faninal,  Sophie  Bevan; Annina,  Madeleine Shaw;  Valzacchi, Adrian Thompson.

Conducted by Edward Gardner

Director/ Set Design David McVicar


Daphne du Maurier begins her classic brooding love-story, Rebecca

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Those words are wistful….they’ve a sense of something that eludes easy expression but which matters more than words or pictures or music or simple sensory experience…..a sense that something’s somehow lost….the merest hint of which makes you want to know more…. and so you read on…

….Last night I went to Der Rosenkavalier again….

….Sadly it wasn’t Manderley….it didn’t quite live up to my dream….It was well sung….at times gloriously sung…but….for all the beauty of the singing…and for all the intensity of the orchestral playing…this production wasn’t…to my mind…the stuff dreams are made of….

I’ve often dreamily imagined that Manderley and the palace of Marschallin Marie Therese, though worlds and times apart, somehow, belong together: both are places of strange enchantment…places where life’s emotional magic is…worlds of adult fairytale….

For me Der Rosenkavalier catches something special…from the opening bars the sweeping sound enwraps us in its tingling uncertainties…its lyrical dissonances distil love’s bitter-sweet…Strauss’s music captures that tipping point when Time changes entirely how we see ourselves. It makes this opera so much more than a simple love story… much more than the sum of its parts…. it’s a wistful, poignant and deeply felt evocation of love’s tide ebbing with Time…that somehow prefigures the time when our life will also ebb…

This is the first time I’ve seen this David McVicar production of Der Rosenkavalier.

I hate to say this – but it really left me cold and upon reflection colder than I felt at the time. I’m sorry and sad about that but it has been well reviewed elsewhere by those who by dint of their professional expertise know better than me…and from the approving cheers of the audience it was apparent that my doubts were not shared by the audience….

Der Rosenkavalier has remained the most enduringly popular of Strauss operas since its first performance in Dresden in January 1911. It is wholly different in character from either of its immediate predecessors- Salome and Elektra – which both are in their own ways dark and disturbing works. By contrast Der Rosenkavalier is a pleasure garden of voluptuous music:  honeyed vocal lines, luscious layered on lush, dreamily sweet melodic harmonies that melt away. It has some of the greatest music ever composed for sopranos and mezzos.

There are two distinct moments of such intense beauty musically that – to employ the over-worn cliché of the American young – are awesome. These two great moments require two great entrances by a character and this set gave us no place for such an entrance to be made. To some extent that unmade the power of both the Presentation of the Rose in Act II and the Marschallin’s entrance in Act III that leads to the famous final trio and then duet at the end of the Opera…

But there is much more to Der Rosenkavalier than the obvious chocolate box effects and the shattering beauty of those two famous moments. There is the straightforward appeal of the pantomime bass buffoonery of Baron Ochs which is rather slap-stick-Germanic and makes for obvious and easy stage jokes. But Ochs is given the wonderful waltz tune as his leitmotif and whatever he is light of in the way of manners, honour and soul as a character he has a Falstaff-like vulnerability that makes him a loveable.  John Tomlinson caught absolutely all of this. His is a great warm rounded performance sung in the lowest register with golden tone.

The opera is set in late eighteenth century Vienna.

Strauss wanted to write a ‘Mozart’ opera….and as a conductor he was almost obsessed by Cosi fan Tutti so it’s not difficult to see which opera he had in mind…though obviously there are also  elements of La Nozze di Figaro lingering in the relationships in Der Rosenkavalier…something of the ache of Mozart’s Countess’s ‘Dove sono’ echoes in the heartbreak of Strauss’s Marschallin.

Hofmannstahl sets Der Rosenkavalier inside the courtly artifice of late eighteenth century Vienna: a world of sensuous rococo excess. He allows it both to brush up against a canvass of rustic gargoyles like Ochs and his retinue and also the new world of the self-made aristocracy of the Faninal. It has an air of fin de siècle which in many ways was as much like the Austria-Hungary of Emperor Franz Josef as that of the Marschallin living in the twilight of the Holy Roman Empire….

And it is the Marschallin, beautifully sung by Amanda Roocroft if lacking her pathos and soul, upon whom Strauss lavishes much of the opera’s intelligent design. And the whole opera turns upon the long soliloquy at the end of Act I that turns into a duet between her and her young lover, Octavian (Sarah Connolly). I last saw Connolly singing King David in Handel’s Saul and she brings a swagger to these travesty rolls that I greatly admire. But maybe because of the staging she never seemed to live the music…this Octavian never seemed entirely swept away by the wonder of his love-at-first-sight moment in the Presentation of the Rose.

And there were finer details…that somehow that were just not right…the Marschallin’s pageboy Mohammed…traditionally is played by a boy…he picks up her handkerchief in the last moments of the opera…this Mohammed was a young man…way too old to serve in the private apartments of the Princess Marie Therese without arousing comment. It’s a trivial detail but…this is a comedy of manners and if the characters are put into eighteenth century costumes then they should observe the manners of the time they are in….and Sophie (Sophie Bevan) picking up her skirts and running across stage looked more Scarlet in ‘Gone with the Wind’ than pre-revolutionary aristocrat fresh from a convent…though it must be said Ms Bevan sang entrancingly…

And this Marschallin for all her vocal command lacks her sense of her station. Her social position commands the world in which she lives and commands the happy ending contrived from the sadness of her giving-up her lover to the beautiful young Sophie with whom Octavian has fallen instantly in love. The Marschallin does this knowing that in sacrificing Octavian there will almost certainly never be another lover…for, for her that time has passed…and we have shared that  sacred moment of its passing with her in Act I. This is what makes the trio at the end of the opera such an enduringly affecting piece of musical and dramatic art.

I’m honest enough to admit I used to dislike or maybe be at least unmoved by the latter part of Act I until I saw the Jonathan Miller production of the opera for the ENO. Since then for me it has become the very best part of the opera – musically and dramatically. Why the ENO chose to abandon that production that so effectively and affectingly captured the core of the meaning of Der Rosenkavalier for this lack-lustre…I cannot explain.

Below are two links to two different interpretations of the trio…possibly the finest moment of the entire work…….

Der Rosenkavalier: Final Trio


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