Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

English National Opera

ENO at The Coliseum, London, 23 May 2008 3.5 stars

Janice WatsonHaving now experienced David McVicar's production of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera, I have to wonder even more why the company has chosen to stage it in preference to their previous production by Jonathan Miller. Miller's staging was gorgeously designed and intelligently directed, and it had surely not been revived often enough to warrant its dismissal. McVicar's production is, in my opinion, inferior in every way and one of his weakest creations. It comes from Scottish Opera, where it was first seen in 1999, a mere five years later than Miller's luxurious but focussed production was unveiled at the Coliseum. Has the cash-strapped ENO really benefited from the (presumably costly) move?

The plus side is that the lighting by Paule Constable (revived by Clare O'Donoghue) is atmospheric, especially when the false candle-shaped footlights and dangling chandeliers dim for the closing scene. Some of the costumes by Tanya McCallin are also stylish, notably Ochs' red suit for the first act and the Marschallin's stunning dress for the final scene, though Octavian's cumbersome suit of armour in the second act does nothing to enhance the depiction of the trouser role (of which, more anon).

But McVicar's self-designed set is surprisingly uninspired. A single basic setting has to serve for all three acts, with the addition of only a few movable props such as the bed and screens in Act I and the dinner table and chairs for Act III. In itself, the space is attractive and in period, with a creamy tinge on everything from the false proscenium to the doors. But it seems to me to serve the plot very badly, because each of the three acts is meant to take place in a location of contrasting class and atmosphere, whereas here there was little to distinguish between them.

McVicar's other problem is a tendency to energise the comic interludes at the expense of the more poignant storylines. The crowd scenes are mostly effective, with the actors moving around fluently, but the heart of the piece is largely empty, for me at least. Better Personenregie is needed to heighten the dilemmas of the three main female roles. There are times when McVicar does not listen to the music, either. It's all very well to have Mohammed the 'page' played by a grown man, who appears to be the Marschallin's confidante in the first act in this version, but the final curtain of the opera is rendered heavy-handed. Strauss clearly depicts a small boy running round the stage to retrieve Sophie's dropped handkerchief, to the sound of high woodwind instruments in what should be an amusing final gesture that is clearly printed in the score and libretto, but here an adult is flopping about onstage instead. It seems unnecessary and it kills the atmosphere generated by a moving rendition of the closing duet.

John TomlinsonThe cast was largely very good at this performance. However, I have serious reservations about Sarah Connolly's Octavian. Whilst she undoubtedly can sing the role with enviable colour, power, nuance and assurance, scarcely putting a foot wrong indeed, I missed the convincing portrayal of a male character that made her Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne so special. Her hairstyle is that of a modern woman, whereas it ought to more closely resemble that of the other male characters, and neither her costumes nor her movement was particularly masculine. For me, this made the plot's many cross-dressing deceptions very weak indeed, and I'm afraid I also wondered whether, in her mid-forties, Connolly ever had much of a chance of resembling a seventeen-year-old boy. Her ENO Agrippina last year indicated to me that she's ready to move on to more feminine, and perhaps more interesting, roles, and I wish she would do so.

As the Marschallin, Janice Watson was ideally cast. Vocally, she is well equipped with the powerful mid-register tone which is required for much of the part, and the firmness of her line was a pleasure to hear, even if the very top of her voice doesn't float quite as effortlessly as it once did. Her performance was imposing and imperious (though I thought her wig rather peculiar), never letting the other characters forget that she is a Princess, while both the psychological pain of the first-act monologue and particularly the majestic dismissal of Ochs at the end were acted brilliantly. Britain deserves to see more of Watson's Strauss roles, if this is anything to go by.

Also marvellously assured was the Sophie of Sarah Tynan. A couple of small tuning issues in the final duet aside, Tynan's singing had an ideal Mozartian purity that the role needs. Although her voice is light, Tynan projected strongly and manage to combine the passion of Sophie's attraction to Octavian with the restraint demanded of her by society. This young singer goes from strength to strength and is surely destined for great things.

Sarah ConnollyI doubt there's anyone in the world who could teach Sir John Tomlinson anything about the role of the lecherous Baron Ochs of Lerchenau. Tomlinson's diction is admirably clear, rendering the need for surtitles unnecessary, and his acting of the character stems from a direct response to each individual word rather than a generalised viewpoint. The middle of his voice is still powerful, too, but I'm afraid that in places he seemed overstretched at the top, even resorting to shouting rather than singing a couple of times. However, he is so well suited to the role that it scarcely mattered, and Sir John is one of the strongest aspects of the revival.

Alfie Boe was a late replacement for Dwayne Jones as the Italian Singer – amusing to see one of Covent Garden's former Young Artists take over from one of ENO's current Young Arists – and he acquitted himself reasonably well, though I felt his sense of line was rather choppy for such an elegant and smooth aria. Janice Cairns was luxury casting as the Duenna, and she gave a stunning performance of great poise; praise too for Madeleine Shaw's confidently-sung Annina, definitely a young singer to watch. Andrew Shore acted Faninal's frustration very well, but I thought he lacked a warmth of tone for the part.

The orchestral playing was enthusiastic and energetic, but this was not remotely a Viennese-sounding Rosenkavalier. All those waltzes and classical melodic arches need a lot more warmth than the players were able to muster under Music Director Edward Gardner. The balance of instrumental groups seemed odd to me in places, often lacking the cohesion of sound that Strauss pretty much hands us on a plate in his superb orchestration. More sensuality was required, not least in the orgiastic opening pages of the score, and what was really missing overall was that elasticity of tempo that any Strauss score needs. Nevertheless, this was a perfectly respectable reading, with no moments of serious unease, and the performance did gain more warmth after the epiphany of the Marschallin in Act III.

Whilst I have many reservations about this Rosenkavalier, it is not at all a disappointment. One could go a long way and see a lot worse, and the main principals all offer great value for money, one way or another. Nevertheless, it is difficult to dismiss the memory of various excellent recordings of the piece which, by comparison, seem to get to connect with its heart a lot more closely.

By Dominic McHugh

Review our interview with Janice Watson about playing the Marschallin in this production of Rosenkavalier here.
Also read our interviews with Sarah Tynan, John Tomlinson and Andrew Shore.

Photographs: Clive Barda