Sunday 25 May 2014

Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne, or, Bigger Problems than Octavian

Since this production opened a week ago seemingly endless column inches, tweets etc. have been concerned with the appearance of Octavian in it, and whether certain words used by certain critics to describe this were justified. Having now seen the show, I agree that neither Tara Erraught's vocal performance, nor Jones's direction and Nicky Gillibrand's costuming of the character are unproblematic. I also think that this show has bigger problems.

Richard Jones's directorial approach does not produce a convincing vision of the work as a whole. Much of the design and the direction seems intended to imply that the story should not be taken too seriously. I found the garish wallpaper, and, in particular, the costumes, rendered it difficult to believe in the characters or their relations. There are some individual moments of silliness – the staging of the haunting in Act Three with zombies and the noose is ineffectively bizarre, the plays on smell in the first Octavian/Sophie meeting are unnecessarily crude – though they fit with an attitude that too often suggests Jones does not believe in the romance of the piece. The less said about Jones's attempt to suggest Mohammad is going to be in bed with the Marschallin after the curtain has fallen the better. Movement, for which Sarah Fahie is credited, is also problematic – Octavian and Sophie spend much of that first moment of meeting singing to the audience instead of to each other; Sophie is placed on an enormous table and subjected to a bidding war later in the same scene – yes, okay, I take the point, but it's crudely done and I failed to see why she simply didn't get down. Jones is at his worst directing the crowd scenes. When the orchestra is going wild leading up to the Marschallin's entrance in Act Three there's a sad lack of threatened riot on stage, a) because Jones has trapped a large number of people in a space that is far too small and b) because he's had them all bring in chairs and line up in rows (there is far too much ineffective business with chairs and couches in this production).

The most serious problem though is the way certain things undermine character and emotion. The Octavian/Sophie meeting already mentioned is a good example, as is his treatment of the Marschallin's monologue. I can see the point he seeks to make in having her deliver it to a silent psychotherapist (presumably intended to be Freud) but since I think that a crucial aspect of the Marschallin is that she sees things that others do not see, that she is in isolation in that moment and that the loss of Octavian is driving her towards the bleak solitude of the old princess, giving her a confidante, however silent, suggests a possible escape and thus the emotional power of the character is mistakenly lessened. What is so frustrating about all this is that there are flashes of brilliance (the bed in Act Three is superb) and the last part of Act Three shows a Jones abruptly focused on character and emotion in a way that packs real emotional punch - if only he'd done this for the whole work.

Musically it is also a mixed evening. I have heard finer accounts of all four principal roles, and I have also heard performances where the various combinations of female voices blend more satisfyingly. That said, there are good things about everybody. In Act One I found Kate Royal sounded to me just a bit too small for the Marschallin. In Act Three, almost I felt by sheer force of will (and deserving of an award for character transcending a costume which one felt might have been deliberately designed to deprive her of authority) she really slew me emotionally. Teodora Gheorghiu's Sophie sounded a little sour in places, and whether owing to direction or the singers until the end of Act Three there was little chemistry between her and Octavian, but again was powerfully moving in the final scenes. Tara Erraught's Octavian I've already mentioned. I agree with those who have said she sounds and looks most convincing as Mariandel. Elsewhere vocally she's at her best at full voice. There are moments as Octavian particularly her boyish frustration at the Marschallin's mournfulness at the end of the first act which work really well. But Jones mistakenly seems to dismiss the idea that Octavian goes on any kind of emotional journey. The best Rosenkavaliers I've seen transform Octavian through his meeting with Sophie, bring him to a new emotional maturity. The duel, and his silent taking up of Annina and Valzacchi can be key markers of this. In this reading Octavian comes across as pretty much the same person at the end of Act Two as he was at the beginning. The duel, which others seem to have found hilarious, is a particular misstep – not least because it seemed perfectly straightforward for Ochs to avoid any injury. Lars Woldt's Ochs's is the most solidly sung of the four, but again the staging tends to render him silly rather than menacing – not least in yet another case of mistaken costuming in Act One. The large number of supporting roles are generally well taken.

This production marks Robin Ticciati's first as Glyndebourne's new musical director. He draws fine playing from the LPO and clearly has a sharp eye for details of the score. I did feel though that this sometimes came at the expense of a sense of the piece as a whole, though the way the production works against the music in places may have clouded my perception. Either way, it isn't a reading to compare with my benchmark live performance from Zurich Opera which carried me unquestioningly from start to finish at the South Bank a few years ago.

The evening was a proof of just how powerful Strauss and Hofmannsthal's writing is – although Jones gets the build up to it wrong in many ways the second half of Act Three still sent shivers down my spine, and moved me for the plight of the characters. This is not a production to infuriate (though certain things did make me clench my teeth in irritation) and as such it will probably have a fair life at Glyndebourne. But overall it works too much against the character of the piece. I wouldn't go quite as far as those critics who have suggested the heart has been removed, but it has certainly been problematically operated on.

Note: It is perhaps worthy of note that my two companions for the evening (company which made it a joyous day despite my not being wholly sold on the performance) are neither as opera mad as I, had never seen the work before and had far fewer misgivings about the performance!

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