English National Opera – Der Rosenkavalier

Der Rosenkavalier – Comedy for music in three acts to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal [Sung in an English translation by Alfred Kalisch, with English surtitles]

The Feldmarschallin – Janice Watson
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Baron Ochs – John Tomlinson
Sophie – Sarah Tynan
Herr von Faninal – Andrew Shore
Annina – Madeleine Shaw
Valzacchi – Stuart Kale
Duenna – Janice Cairns
A Singer – Alfie Boe
Police Commissar – Nicholas Folwell
Notary – James Gower

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Edward Gardner

David McVicar – Director & Set Designer
Tanya McCallin – Costume Designer
Clare O’Donoghue – Lighting
Andrew George – Movement

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 22 May, 2008
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Janice Watson (The Marschallin) & Sarah Connolly (Octavian). ©Clive Barda/ENO David McVicar’s production of “Der Rosenkavalier” has now reached English National Opera albeit jettisoning that of Jonathan Miller, which hopefully is not gone forever.

This tale of lovers’ intrigue in the aristocratic Vienna of Empress Maria Theresia was not what was expected from Richard Strauss when the opera was first produced in 1911. His previous two stage-works, “Salome” (1905) and “Elektra” (1909), were overtly sexual and their musical scope entirely different; in “Der Rosenkavalier” we have Viennese waltzes amongst the kitsch delights. Although it seems that “Der Rosenkavalier” is retrogression on Strauss’s part it is actually an advance in style.

McVicar’s staging is conventional. We have what is clearly the Marschallin’s bedroom for Act One (it is extravagant and there is a large bed in the middle of the performing area on which she and Octavian, her adolescent lover, are writhing), with lots of candles along the front of the stage and a couple of dressing screens. Act Two’s “reception hall of Faninal’s town house” is the previous room with the bed removed and a few other minor changes. Only Act Three’s “a private room at an inn” felt short-changed, again using the previous settings with some small alterations.

John Tomlinson feigns pain during the 'duel' in Act Two. ©Clive Barda/ENOFortunately, what was produced was some good comedy with the characters inhabiting the set and living the moment. Recently John Tomlinson has tackled Wotan, The Wanderer, Gurnemanz and The Minotaur, a Wagner/Birtwistle axis. It is a mark of Tomlinson’s abilities that his portrayal of Baron Ochs on this first-night was brilliant and showed no signs of strain or fatigue. Tomlinson is no stranger to the role and is singing in his third production of “Der Rosenkavalier” for English National Opera. He strolls about the action, believing he is in command of all he surveys and believing that he can influence everything. His over-the-top reaction to being ‘wounded’ in the duel with Octavian is a great lesson in not stealing the limelight whilst dominating the scene.

Sarah Connolly as Octavian. ©Clive Barda/ENOThe ‘trouser-role’ of Octavian is sung by Sarah Connolly, which she sung in this production at Scottish Opera in 2006. She is in possession of the necessary youthful looks – and the passion she (he) brought to embracing the Marschallin in Act One was suitably overflowing. Her voice, if occasionally heavy, projected well. Janice Watson, too, is no stranger to this opera; she sang the Marschallin in the last revival of Jonathan Miller’s production (in 2003). In Act One she is afraid of impending middle-age; Watson caught this uncertainty beautifully.

Having the work sung in English, however, meant that the many duets lose their musical nuance, particularly at the end of Act One, where Octavian and the Marschallin meet again before the former leaves “without even a kiss”. The sublime ‘trio’ for the three sopranos at the end of Act Three, where Octavian is passed from lover to lover, produced sympathetic singing. After this, the Marschallin leaves, unnoticed, and Sophie continues rapturously, not believing that she and Octavian are together. As Sophie, Sarah Tynan gave her character the requisite vulnerability as well as feistiness, such as when we first meet her, being repelled by Baron Ochs’s boorishness.

There are many smaller parts. Alfie Boe is ‘A Singer’ in the first four performances, but made little of the small part. The others parts passed with little notice, because of the busyness of the staging.

In the pit, Edward Gardner needs more time to explore the many intricacies of this glorious score. A lot of the playing sounded like hard work, without revelry and enjoyment, even in its debauched passages and most of the ‘familiar’ parts of the score were rushed, the orchestral accompaniment was turgid and close to undermining the singers. However, Gardner does manage to avoid sentimentality and some of Strauss’s masterly orchestral colours came off well – such as the ecstatic shimmer that greets Octavian’s entrance with the Silver Rose in Act Two where glinting armour cast a hypnotic spell (similar to John Boorman’s 1981 film “Excalibur”) – but if only the stage-lights had been turned down then the senses would have been heightened even further.

Overall, a low-key first-night outing that, as yet, lacks the fullest characterisations and a real sense of coherence between stage and pit.

  • Further performances on May 24, 28 & 31 and June 2, 5 & 7 – at 6.30 p.m., Saturdays at 5.30 p.m.
  • Box Office: 0871 472 0600
  • English National Opera
  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 14 June

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