Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Glyndebourne, Sussex, 23rd May 2014 4 stars

Der Rosenkavalier 2014Der Rosenkavalier is a favourite opera for many people, and for many different reasons. Some love the moments of pathos--the glimpses of personal suffering behind the social fa çade--that shine out of the libretto and score at key moments (and nearly always involving the Marschallin). Others love the sumptuous visual imagery of eighteenth century Vienna, the 'half real, half imaginary' world created onstage by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, with the discreet help of his friend and mentor Harry Kessler, and the voluptuous sound world that Strauss composed, in a score that has resounded through the world of opera ever since that extraordinary première in Dresden on 26 January 1911. But relatively few in either category of Rosenkavalier fans have experienced the opera as the work that Strauss was determined to try and make it —a comedy for music (its official designation). "Don't forget that the audience should also laugh! Laugh, not just smile or grin" Strauss wrote to Hofmannsthal on 20 July 1909. And in the same letter: "I still miss in our work a genuinely comical situation: everything is merely amusing, but not comic!"

So enter Richard Jones, with his brand new production of Der Rosenkavalier to inaugurate the 2014 Glyndebourne Festival, and that minor miracle happened: a genuinely funny piece of music theatre, crammed with gags and original touches from start to finish, and —given no harm to the musical fabric of the work - a joy to experience. Not everything works quite as intended: there are miscalculations and touches of stage business that clearly need rethinking, but on the whole the production has many innovative and revelatory moments that bring this Rosenkavalier up as fresh and sparkling as any you will see on the stage today. But the show as a whole is huge fun, always respectful of the music, always in tune with the idiosyncrasies of a work that grew like Topsy in the course of its creation, and always thought-provoking. So bravo to Glyndebourne for having the courage to mount a 'modern' production of Rosenkavalier, and bravo to Jones and his team (wonderful, quirky costumes from Nicky Gillibrand and inventive set design from Paul Steinberg) for giving the opera lover so much visual and musico-dramatic pleasure in a work that can —let it be said in print, as it is often whispered privately —drag a bit onstage.

Because so much is new and different, I propose to deal with the production first, the performances afterwards. This Rosenkavalier production starts as it means to go on —with a radical rethink. Those expecting to see Kate Royal as the Marschallin and Tara Erraught as her toy boy Octavian, in post-coital attitudes half under the covers in a Baudoin 'coucher de la mari ée' style bed, are treated instead to a wallpapered, indefinite period room with no bed, but with an apparently naked Marschallin standing in her bath in a rear stage alcove (an explicit Venus di Milo image and attitude), while Octavian bustles around downstage, clad in a dressing gown over 'his' pantaloons. Only here's the first thing: there has been absolutely no attempt to make Erraught look anything like a young man: she is a fresh-faced young girl, with a mischievous and winning smile constantly illuminating her features, and the magnetism (or faux sexual chemistry) between her and her lover Royal is absolutely zero. This seems to be Jones' first message from the piece: the affair between the Marschallin and Octavian is over, she has washed herself clean of him, we all know it is over, and we might as well get on with things as they now are. This does not sit exactly with Hofmannsthal's text in the opening scene, but it avoids the onstage embarrassment that has bedevilled a number of Marschallin/Octavian pairings that I have seen in the opera house over many years. And actually it works just fine.

Enter Mohammed, with breakfast. Daniel Francis-Swaby plays him as a love-struck teenager, a blissful smile on his face as he wanders round admiring his lady mistress, picking up and smelling fragrant discarded items of her clothing, much more of the (silent, brooding) Cherubino figure than Erraught ever attempts to be. It is a valid idea if you make Mohammed a 19 year old rather than a 9 year old. And then enter (after the customary offstage commotion) Baron Ochs, a young-looking mountain climber or hill walker in Tyrolean costume (hiking shorts and leather satchel across his back), and the action really starts. Octavian cross-dresses as Mariandel (without any real attempt to change her appearance from the neck up) and Ochs scents a young girl as Viennese prey —in addition to the Sophie he has not yet met but has come to town to marry. We are away.

Act One, as we know, is going to involve a crowd of people for the Marschallin's levée. With no bed onstage, and no other furniture in sight (apart from framed oval photographs on the walls of the Marschallin and her ever-absent husband, the Feldmarschall —the face depicted being a Glyndebourne in-joke), Jones opts for an outsize, enormously long sofa to be carried in and placed almost across the entire stage for the Baron to occupy, so as to deliver his monologue and subsequent aria, while the Marschallin and Octavian are arranged either side of him. This works well, Lars Woldt as Ochs displaying genuine comic timing —as well as verbal and vocal dexterity —in putting across his stream-of-consciousness narrative, with frequent asides to Mariandel. The stage then fills, and the sofa has to be turned around through 180 degrees —and here the joke doesn't quite work, the stage blocking proving clumsy and the singing (and sight lines) of the principals inhibited by the sheer bulk of the furniture moving that has to be executed. The decision, too, to play everything side to side front of stage (width of action rather than depth) makes us lose overview of Valzacchi, Annina and the Italian tenor at times —there are simply too many bodies onstage in too small an area. But as we revert to the act's key moments —the duet between the Marschallin and Octavian, the Marschallin's solo reflections on the passage of time —the stage pictures are lovely and the blocking subtle and discreet: Jones' Personenregie for his principals is masterful.

If I had doubts —well, certainly thoughts —about how well this production had dealt with the challenges posed by Act One, they were very largely dispelled by Acts Two and Three. Jones starts Act Two in front of a downstage passageway wall in Faninal's house, front of stage, and we see an excitable Sophie (Teodora Gheorghiu) being dressed, shod and prepared for the arrival of the rose-bearing emissary from Ochs. Her strident duenna Marianne (Miranda Keys) keeps throwing open the door to the hall to report on progress, and Sophie's excitement grows: at the first climactic musical moment the wall rises and the modernistic, garish Stadtpalais of Faninal in all its glory is revealed: with his name in bulky neon-lit capitals across the back of the stage. The presentation of the rose is made into play-acting: Octavian and Sophie both face front, side by side, until the Persian rose oil has been smelt: when they look into each others' eyes they sway back and forth, in time to the music: it sounds corny, but it works onstage. For the meeting, and subsequent confrontation between Sophie and Ochs, a table even longer than the Act One sofa is placed across the entire stage, and faceless men sit at it, making silent 'bids' on cards for Sophie as she is paraded before them in a sort of meat market: too blatant, and it doesn't really work. However the passageway wall descends, Sophie and Octavian have their scene front of stage and genuinely in private, the intriguers creep through the door and Ochs swiftly joins them. The ensuing confrontation between Octavian and Ochs, and the duel they fight, is dealt with by the best (brilliant) gag of the evening: the sword of Ochs is the quill pen he had been using to sign the contract, and that of Octavian the sharp stalk end of the silver rose, plunged into an Ochs buttock: deft, brilliantly timed and laugh out loud funny (pace Strauss). As Ochs bellows and staggers, the wall rises and he can collapse (gingerly) onto another centrally-placed sofa, and see out the act.

Finally, Act Three. I have never enjoyed the inn scene that starts this act as much as in this production: it is sharp, witty and beautifully played. As if to make up for the lack of bed in Act One, Jones places an enormous red leather bed (operated by electric motors) upstage right, and controls the crowd scenes in masterly fashion: for once, all the comedy in the stagecraft seems to work. The great merit of his direction here is that he dispenses with chorus when the narrative does not require them: we see, and hear, a series of exchanges that are much more private, and focused, than in many conventional productions. For the trio, the blocking is fairly standard: for the subsequent duet, and departure of the Marschallin with Faninal, little moments from Act Two are recalled. At this stage, on the first night, the cast seemed to sense that the audience were with them, and the final fifteen minutes of the opera really bloomed. For Act Three as a whole, for once in my life I found myself thinking that it is not actually that ponderous and overlong after all: as with so much in the course of a fast-moving evening, it worked.

Now to the performances. The first voice we got to hear properly, and to enjoy, was that of Tara Erraught as Octavian. She has a strong, nicely-focused mezzo, with bags of power in reserve, decent enough German diction and a delightful stage presence. She is by no means, however, a conventional Octavian: she is a girl, playing a girl, playing a girl. That changes things slightly, although not necessarily to the work's detriment if, as here, it was being played unashamedly for laughs. So, a strong performance, quirkily miscast, but with all forgiven on the strength of her excellent musical portrayal and characterisation of the role.

Kate Royal was singing her first Marschallin (and she will probably never again be asked to articulate 'Beklagt er sich?' in quite the same costume and attitude!) Act One lies low for any Marschallin, and her voice took time to warm up and become expressive, but by the middle of Act One I had decided: she has it in her to become one of the great Marschallins of our time. She looks magnificent —regal, disdainfully amused, totally in control of her body movement and her effect on others —and she began to sound in wonderful voice, never afraid to sing quietly in the key passages that demand it, but with instant variation in tone and dynamic to complement Strauss's ever-changing orchestral textures. Her appearance and demeanour in Act Three, and her vocal line in the trio, were all wonderfully expressive and totally believable: she has the physique du role and as she sings her way into the remaining performances of the run, she will become ever more confident and commanding.

If Royal got ever better as the evening progressed, the same cannot be said of Woldt as Ochs: from first to last he was in simply great voice, firm, decisive, with quicksilver intonation and some wonderfully stentorian moments. He also proved to be an excellent comic actor, but always keeping the vocal demands of the role firmly in the forefront of what he was doing. His Act One aria was well controlled and modulated and the light and shade in his voice (as well as his excursions into Austrian vowel sounds) a constant delight. He omitted a low C when I expected one, but his command of the role is completely assured, and he has delightful stage presence: all in all, a highly auspicious Glyndebourne debut.

The Sophie of Teodora Gheorghiu was also a Glyndebourne and UK debut, and I found much in her characterisation of the role to enjoy: she has an assured stage presence, knows how to act, and turned her Sophie into a strong, wilful, determined character. I heard Gheorghiu sing Adèle in Die Fledermaus in Geneva at Christmas, and liked her performance there a great deal. As Sophie, however, I found her voice on the small side (or perhaps she simply under-projected), and there was not quite the lustre in her high tessitura that I had hoped for: her tone is clear, and bright, and she is right on the note, but there is scope to project her melodic line more persuasively. So, promising, but not yet the full article.

The supporting roles were mainly well-taken: an excellent Faninal from Michael Kraus, strong and noble in tone, a well-projected (but vocally thin) Valzacchi from Christopher Gillett, a mellifluous Annina from Helene Schneidermann and good work from the chorus. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, and it showed.

In his first appearance as Glyndebourne's new Music Director, Robin Ticciati paced himself and the wonderfully supportive London Philharmonic Orchestra admirably. There was not quite the lushness, and overripe sound quality —nor the Viennese lilt —to the opening bars, but everything was beautifully in place, and both the string sound and woodwind chording got ever better as the evening progressed. In the hands of a master, Rosenkavalier sounds quite easy and straightforward, but attend a performance with a second-rate conductor, and you begin to realise the pitfalls that are present on many pages of this score. It was to Ticciati's huge credit —and down to the work he has clearly done in rehearsal —that so much of his reading sounded easy and natural: he has a clear beat, and his singers followed him admirably. All in all, a great start for him in his new role —and an exciting moment for music at Glyndebourne.

The first night started with a sad but wonderful moment: Gus Christie paying a warm and affectionate tribute to his father (and to the support Sir George Christie had always been given by his wife Mary) and reminding us of his enduring legacy: not only everything Sir George had done for opera in the UK, but the construction and fitting out of the very house we were all sitting in —the new Glyndebourne (now 20 years old). The 2014 Glyndebourne season is devoted to Sir George: the admiration and affection in which he was held by so many was expressed not only by a warm and lasting round of audience applause, but also by a riot of his favourite red socks onstage as the cast took their final calls. It was a fitting moment in a wonderful opening night to the season.

By Michael Reynolds

Photos: Glyndebourne Festival Opera