Unlike Wagner's late operas, which pay ever increasing dividends for the time invested, the inadequacies of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier become ever more apparent on repeated exposure. Hofmannsthal's wordy libretto is partly to blame: everything seems to continue on long after the dramatic and musical point has already been made. And when this is combined with Strauss's realist style, where events follow one after another without building cumulatively to a climax, the result is a bloated three and a half hours that ought to have been squeezed into a tight two and a half. The job of any performance is to mitigate the inevitable fatigue that sets in between the glorious set-piece soprano duets and trios that everyone goes to see. This evening's effort had its moments, but it wasn't inspiring enough to prevent the eyelids from drooping during the longeurs.
One thing the opera doesn't lack is lush orchestration. In many recent performances of Strauss in London (both at ENO and Covent Garden) there has been an over-emphasis on damping down the tone so that the words can be heard. This is often compounded by that deplorable habit of taking the first act more quietly and slowly than marked in order to manufacture a feeling of intensification over the whole opera. Conductor Constantin Trinks understands that a large part of the pleasure of a Strauss opera is to be had from the orchestra. This didn't mean the singers couldn't be heard – he never went into full concert mode – but rather that Strauss's musical iconography and thematic interplay were allowed full-throated participation in the argument
Opera audiences love a star and Renée Fleming, as the Marschallin, received a rapturous reception after each act. There was even a bit of old-fashioned bouquet tossing by one enthusiastic gentleman, which was a little embarrassing to witness. The role is all about bowing out gracefully before your time is up. But Fleming, especially in the bedroom scene with the 17-year-old Octavian, had a delightfully youthful stage presence – quite unlike the stately elegance of Kiri te Kanawa, for example. As the rose bearer of the title, the show lives or dies with the performance of Octavian. Sophie Koch, as usual, was perfect. Her mezzo-soprano is so secure, accurate and even across the range that you forget all about it and enjoy her remarkable transformation from petulant teenage boy, to comic chamber maid; and then from star-crossed lover to brave hero. The same could not be said for Camilla Tilling as Sophie who, as well as having an unpleasant shrillness in all registers, had some trouble pitching her high notes. She came over more as spoilt brat than feisty teenager.
In one of his signature roles, Franz Hawlata knows all the tricks in the book to make that filthy old lech Baron von Ochs as comically repugnant as possible. Faninal, Sophie's nouveau riche father, who can in the right hands become an obnoxious nincompoop to rival Ochs, was played disappointingly straight by Martin Gantner. The most notable of the lesser parts were Emanuele D'Aguanno who nailed perfectly 'slightly naff tenor' – I do hope that's what he was aiming for – and Heike Grötzinger as the wicked Annina, who stole every scene she was in.
The opulent set and costumes – by Jürgen Rose in a production by Otto Schenk – have been in service at Munich for nigh on 40 years. While it still, just about, looks magnificent, it's not going to be long before this production is going to have to take a lesson from the Marschallin and bow out gracefully.
By Marc Brooks