The Royal Opera is retiring a few much revived productions these days, with the Schlesinger Rosenkavalier the latest to go. There's always a risk involved and, equally, it's clearly a necessary process. In this case picking Robert Carson, on the basis of recent work that I've seen, was a sound choice for a popular work which needs a revivable production. The Board can breathe easier knowing that his new version is revivable. Whether it has the endurance qualities of Schlesinger's is rather more open to doubt.
Carson has chosen to set the work in 1911, the year of its composition. This is most conspicuous in Act 2 and during the final moments of Act 3, elsewhere it is unobtrusive. Carson's best work comes in his direction of the principals. He draws a nicely judged masculinity from Alice Coote's Octavian which creates a really effective physical contrast between her and the other two women. He has thought, as so many opera directors don't, about the interaction between the leads – on many occasions in those powerful intimate scenes at the ends of Acts 1 and 3 he gives extra point to music and emotion by how he has them move. When the large bed was first lowered in Act 3, in a manner reminiscent of the recent Glyndebourne production, I was not convinced but Carson makes eloquent use of it later – as the Marschallin stares at it we feel she is looking back to her Act 1 assignation with Octavian, and when Sophie draws Octavian to it for the final duet there's something lovely about it. Carson also seems to be interested in the idea of moments of this opera taking place as some kind of internalised dream. There is textual support for this – and it creates some effective pictures – the Marschallin listening to the Italian tenor at the levee as if to a record and at the same time remembering nights at the opera (it reminded me of The Drowsy Chaperone, a whole show based on a similar conceit), Octavian and Sophie's first duet in Act 2 where Carson contrives to make the whole room fall away.
Unfortunately, this is not an opera constructed solely from intimate moments and Carson is far less sure footed with the chorus. The problem first really surfaces in Act 2. Faninal's house just never feels bustling enough. The decision to have Ochs accompanied by an entire regiment is harmless in itself, but turning their threats into an exercise in trench warfare feels jarring and as if it has wandered in from some other scenario. When they set the house by the ears it lacks the feeling of real upheaval and ratcheting up of the drama that the best stagings of that sequence that I've seen manage to achieve. The same thing happens in Act 3 – the haunting looked to me as if it was taking place in Weimar Berlin rather than pre-1914 Vienna (though perhaps there are more parallels than I'm aware of). There are far too many extras being ineffectively directed. Carson and his costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel ramp up the sordidness of it which doesn't seem to me to fit with the way Mariandel is written and does raise doubts in the mind whether the Marschallin would ever be seen in such a place. Again, too, the confrontation with Ochs should build in several places and instead the movement goes in fits and starts, ending up, on his departure, with the chorus once again stuck as a blob around him on an unfortunately circumscribed stage area.
The final mistake Carson makes comes at the very end. In principle the idea of an opera so consumed with the passing of time ending with the outbreak of World War One is not a bad one – though it is not new, years ago I saw a stunning RSC Love's Labour's Lost which took the same idea, far more effectively. I think, and this is a rare occasion when you'll find me saying this, that a little judicious use of film over the final bars, or more subtle chorus movement, could have achieved the aim perfectly well. Instead Carson insists on making Mohammed a drunk playing soldiers, has the Feldmarschall and his troops march up from the rear and get mown down and, most problematically of all, has to move two large walls of the set to do it. On Saturday night something either wasn't oiled or get stuck and a very loud crack broke the beauty of the final bars. I am informed that exactly the same thing happened at an earlier performance which suggests it just isn't possible to move the walls silently. The interpretive point is insufficient to justify the interference with the musical moment. If the production's going to be regularly revived Carson would be well advised to revisit at least this element.
There are two other points worth mentioning about the production. There is a general tendency in the big ensemble scenes to ineffective busyness – couches and chairs are carried about the stage rather too often, and the big cannons in Faninal's reception room get in the way (with the sole exception of one moment in the Octavian-Sophie love duet). Secondly, it is just as well that the lights quickly dim in Act 2 otherwise the black and white floor was threatening to becoming pretty unpleasant to look at for 60 minutes.
Musically, this was a very strong line up. Rumours abound that this represents Renee Fleming's (Marschallin) farewell to the London stage. The only other time I've heard her live, as the Countess in a concert performance of Capriccio, I wasn't blown away. Here she is vocally at her best in Act 3, but overall it is always a strongly characterised and often beautiful sound. That character enables her, as far as I was concerned, to get away with the fact that the voice doesn't quite always have the weight that I would like in the part. I also didn't think that in Act 1 she always found the punch in the text that I've heard in other performers – an example would be that bitter little sequence around “Look, there goes the old Princess, the old Marschallin.” Yet Fleming does radiate in that Act overall very powerful feeling around this struggle to come to terms with the passing of time, and the interaction with Coote's Octavian was also finely done. The Act 3 sequence was even more powerful and I will long remember Fleming crossing the stage towards the conclusion of the trio seeming to shake her finger at herself – I said I would bear it – and palpably struggling to do so. Here, the little textual interjections that are especially dear to my heart had all the power they needed (though I was puzzled as to why the supertitles chose to translate “In Gottes Namen” as “So be it” - I realise we're becoming an increasingly secular society, but it isn't at all the same thing).
Fleming's Marschallin is finely matched by Alice Coote's Octavian who gives a performance which is effectively distinctive both vocally and physically, and Sophie Bevan's Sophie – who is particular good in her reaction to the realisation of the Octavian-Marschallin relationship. Matthew Rose is a very good Ochs vocally, that I didn't feel as wildly enthusiastic as some I think has to do with the fact that of the principals Carson is least strong in his direction of him.
This production is also blessed with a very strong line up in the supporting roles. In particular Jochen Schmeckenbecher's Faninal was well characterised and unusually well sung – cutting through the texture in a way I don't often recall hearing. Giorgio Berrugi brought real heft and beauty to the Italian Singer and there was nice vocal work from Angela Simkin's Annina and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Valzacchi (though again I've seen productions that directed them better). The chorus do their best with Carson's under-direction but are in vocally fine form.
In the pit I found Andris Nelsons's direction of the score was also a little bit of a mixed bag. Like Carson he is at his finest in the intimate scenes where the pacing, the sense of when a pause or drawing out would be effective, and the sheer beauty of playing he draws from the Royal Opera House Orchestra are all excellent. He also supports the orchestra to a nicely raucous character, particularly from the brass, in places like the very opening. The Orchestra throughout plays superbly, and deserves particular credit for exceptional work in the many intimate solo lines. But Nelsons like Carson is not so good on the ensemble scenes. In both the riotous sections of Acts 2 and 3 the pacing is fitful, the forward momentum and sense of drama getting lost. Nelsons is also not always spot on in terms of supporting some of the faster conversational sections of the piece – again I've heard versions that get more clarity and point to Ochs's declamations, or to Annina and Valzacchi's interjections.
Taken as individual aspects then, this is a mixed evening. But it ultimately achieves more than those individual elements would suggest. This is mainly because of the powerful emotions generated by the scenes involving combinations of the three principal ladies. Those scenes brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, as they should do. And because it's those aspects that I came away remembering, rather than some of the evening's flaws, it makes it an evening worth seeing – though it might be interesting how it will fare with other Marschallins.