Although right from the start it was intended to be the text for Strauss's opera, Hofmannsthal's compact and witty libretto for Der Rosenkavalier could easily function as a highly entertaining stand-alone play. Delivery of the dramatic concept with all its details is therefore of vital importance. Fortunately, three of the cast in the current run of performances at the English National Opera are truly great singer-actors. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (Octavian), bass Sir John Tomlinson (Baron Ochs) and baritone Andrew Shore (Faninal) are returning to their roles which they presented back in 2008 for ENO's performances of this commendable staging by David McVicar.
Connolly is entirely convincing as a young man as well as the young man playing a young woman. Her movements and gestures appear to have been worked out right to the smallest details. Furthermore, as portrayed by Connolly, one has no difficulty in believing that Octavian is only seventeen years of age.
Regardless what opera (or other dramatic role) he appears in, Tomlinson is a master of the stage. His diction is second to none and his timing adheres to the words as well as to the music. Tomlinson's charismatic stage presence and intelligent probing into his stage characters creates exciting theatre: he entertains but also challenges the audience to think. His Ochs is neither an idiot nor a caricature, as often seen elsewhere. Here he is, as surely Hofmannsthal and Strauss intended, a somewhat uncultured and relatively impoverished Austro-Hungarian aristocrat who has full faith in his right to womanise as he pleases. (This particular right of the aristocrat is neatly portrayed in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.)
Andrew Shore is luxury casting as Faninal, the upward seeking, nouveau-riche father who yearns to be accepted by aristocrats and thus intends to arrange an aristocratic marriage for his daughter. Like Tomlinson, Shore too shows the vulnerability of his seemingly repulsive character. His shock on realising that his daughter Sophie may not oblige – "Not give your hand, no more?" (Act Two) – is a spell-binding dramatic moment; suddenly his whole world may collapse and we cannot help but feel for him.
Connolly, Tomlinson and Shore are great singer-actors and all three sing their roles as the world class singers which they are. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Amanda Roocroft to these three singers, especially as she is new to the role of the Marshallin. Nevertheless, hers is possibly the most important role in the opera. I am not sure if Roocroft's voice is well suited to that of the Marshallin. Occasionally she sounds strained in the top registers and the voice sounds lighter than what one might envisage for a mature woman (even if only 33 years of age as the Marshallin is supposed to be). But dramatically Roocroft is up to the challenge. My heart nearly stopped when the Marshallin gave the order to "go to my clocks and stop them" (Act One): Roocroft's voice, diction and body language beautifully express the longing to stay young.
Sophie Bevan is a strong Sophie (von Faninal); indeed, one wonders whether she should have taken the role of the Marshallin. Adrian Thompson (Valzacchi) and Madeleine Shaw (Annina) are superb, vocally and dramatically, individually as well as in their double act.
McVicar's staging and set designs leave no doubt that we are, as Hofmannstahl and Strauss intended, in Austro-Hungarian Vienna in the early 20th century. However, I am puzzled as to why the 'little black boy' of the libretto becomes an adult as well as the Marshallin's trusted confidante in McVicar's interpretation. This extra dimension throws a different light (from what might have been intended by the authors) to the Marshallin's love affair with Octavian. It is also of note that this adult black gentleman gestures at the end that the play is over. According to the score the 'little black boy' looks for a handkerchief, finds it and leaves. Thus the authors seem to indicate that the episodes we witnessed are over. McVicar, on the other hand, emphasizes that we were watching a stage play, not a slice of life.
It is unclear why Lepold and Ochs's other servants are presented as such idiots: surely Ochs would have had more sense than keeping and paying such useless employees. The four children in the libretto are represented by seven (or more?) on McVicar's stage: why? On the other hand, I don't have the heart to complain about the dog (which is also absent in the libretto) except that I would have liked some mention of the dog or the dog trainer in the programme notes. This puppy appears in Act One and appears to improvise a sustained backlegs-stand. Either way, it is a charming interlude and fits in perfectly with the scenario of the chaotic morning in the Marshallin's quarter.
Tanya McCallin's costumes are well suited to the period but Octavian's shiny silver suit in Act Two is far too shiny to look at for a sustained period, even if the concept is justified.
ENO music director Edward Gardner conducts with zeal, occasionally at the expense of musical space. But the clocks tick for him too – not only for the Marshallin – and, for better or worse, in due course his relationship to space and zeal might alter.
A great Wotan (Sir John Tomlinson) and Alberich (Andrew Shore) – this time as Ochs and Faninal – meet in Hofmannsthal's Austro-Hungarian Vienna. An experience not to be missed.
By Agnes Kory
Photo: Clive Barda