Sunday 13 December 2009

A Venerable Rosenkavalier

Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is one of my favourite operas, but the critics have not been especially kind to the current revival (apparently the sixth) of John Schlesinger's venerable production. Fortunately, to these eyes and ears at least, there is still much to appreciate.

Contrary to received critical opinion I did not find the production tired, and I am fairly certain that I have seen it before. It is refreshing, given the current return to popularity of director's opera, to see a production (like The Enchanted Pig) where you do not constantly find yourself asking such questions as, why is the text being ignored, and what is that wall doing there. The sets are sumptuous and looked fresher than critical commentary had led me to expect. If there is a problem with this revival it is that the direction of the performers has been sloppy. The haunting of Ochs doesn't quite have the necessary precision and drama, and Octavian (Sophie Koch) had a few to many occasions when she seemed to remember a move two seconds too late. Yet there are beautifully crafted moments which very much retain their power. The Marschallin gazing at the abandoned bed and slowly picking up Octavian's flowers at the end of Act 1, and Octavian staring rather hopelessly after the Marschallin at the end of Act 3.

More serious problems in fact arise from some of the performances. First the good. Both Sophie Koch as Octavian and Lucy Crowe as Sophie give superb performances. So much so that for the first time that I can remember I was really powerfully moved by their scenes together in Act 2. Sadly the other two principals do not perform in the same league. I previously saw Peter Rose (Ochs) as Boris Godunov in ENO's recent, pretty unsuccessful production. He did not impress me there, and his performance here is no improvement. His voice lacks the rich deep basso quality that the best Ochs should have, and he isn't a good enough actor to bring the part off. He should dominate the stage when he's on it, and Rose was not able to achieve this. Soile Isokoski's Marschallin is considerably more puzzling. In fact it is one of those rare cases where the singing is superb, but the performance remains insufficient. Isokoski comes across as rather cold. She seems to play the part at the same level for most of the piece, so that until the end she left me unmoved. It is my contention that the listener's heart should break for the Marschallin in Act 1 as she imagines being pointed out as the 'old princess' and muses on the passage of time. Isokoski, despite singing beautifully, did not move me.

Finally, there is Kirill Petrenko's conducting, again a bit of a mixed bag. He favours faster tempi, perhaps most notably in the Act 1 prelude which was thrilling and erotic. Elsewhere this was more of a problem. Much of the text should sound like varied conversation. This requires careful handling and too often Petrenko's tempo seemed to be faster than was comfortable for the singer, and not altogether in harmony with the requirements of the text.

All that said, this opera always has one final trump card. Indeed, I think the last fifteen minutes of Rosenkavalier are possibly the greatest last fifteen minutes of any opera – though I'm sure statement will invite a flood of challenges, not least from my esteemed brother. The extraordinary trio, the wry commentary of Faninal and the Marshallin, the reprise of the Rose music and the fleeting appearance of Mohammed. It is the work of two geniuses, and this Rosenkavalier succeeded in sweeping me away with it. As such, despite some minor thoughts, it is a production well worth another look.

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