Richard Strauss : Der Rosenkavalier

Stemme, Breedt, Aiken, Muff; Zurich Opera/Welser-Möst

Royal Festival Hall, 13 April 2008 4 stars

Nina StemmeA month and a half before David McVicar's new production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier opens at the English National Opera, the forces of Zurich Opera under Franz Welser-Möst treated a packed Royal Festival Hall to a concert performance of the work of considerable refinement and quality. With the orchestra on the stage in front of the singers, it was inevitable that their contribution would be to the fore and they stood up very well to the scrutiny in Strauss's taxing score, while Nina Stemme's imperious Marschallin led a cast drawn largely from the Zurich Opera ensemble.

Welser-Möst led a swift account of the score but, despite the fast tempos, things never felt hard-pressed or rushed. The orchestral sound was rarely visceral or brilliant – moments like the outburst after the Marschallin's reappearance in Act Three were a little underwhelming – but this was some highly civilised orchestral playing. The woodwind soloists, in particular, were outstanding and there was an easy naturalness to the strings, particularly in the waltz sequences, that exuded refinement and class. There were a few moments where ensemble failed, the worst of which was briefly after the final duet, but this was still a quietly virtuosic and impressive performance. Welser-Möst's direction emphasised the resigned melancholy that pervades the work and if there was an occasional lack of thrust, this did enable us to appreciate more fully the delicacy and wit of the music over and above its occasional excesses.

Der Rosenkavalier is a highly theatrical opera and it seemed a shame that no better solution could be found for this concert performance than placing the singers in a line behind the orchestra without any room to move or interact. This meant that the exchanges between Michelle Breedt, in tails, as Octavian (Mariandl) and Alfred Muff's outstanding Baron Ochs required a certain amount of imagination from the audience. However, the singers' obvious familiarity with their roles – there were scores and a prompter on hand, neither of which really seemed to be required – meant that these problems soon dissolved.

Breedt's Octavian and Laura Aikin's Sophie were both very convincing characterisations. Breedt was ardent and if her voice sometimes failed to project over the orchestra that was probably less down to any vocal inadequacy than to the unrealistic balance created by the placement of the soloists. She projected Octavian's youth and impatience well and settled down into a nicely comic portrayal of his chamber maid alter-ego. Aikin has just the right sort of voice for Sophie - pure but with a dash of vulnerability – and despite a slight slip up intonation-wise at the very end, gave a near ideal performance.

It was Stemme and Muff, though, who rightly dominated. Now one of the world's leading Isoldes, Stemme obviously has a voice that has more dramatic capability than most Marschallins, but it's not lost anything in the way of focus, control or tonal beauty. Her monologue in the First Act was deeply affecting and she launched the final trio with a beautifully spun, long line as Welser-Möst let the tempo broaden. While Stemme was the embodiment of sage, aristocratic goodness, Alfred Muff, as her cousin, gave a consummate portrayal of aristocratic corruption and hypocrisy. Rather than Franz Welser-Möstsimply playing the buffoon, though, here was an Ochs - sporting a delicious Viennese accent - who oozed amoral charm and half-baked sophistication. He therefore came across as a far more three-dimensional character than is sometimes the case and was more comic as a result. This was also a vocally impressive account. Although more a bass-baritone than a true bass, he easily encompassed the extremes of the role, having no problems with the sustained low E that finishes the Second Act.

The other parts were all well taken very well by the Zurich ensemble. Rudolf Schasching and Kismara Pessatti were excellent as the scheming Valzacchi and Annina, although they seemed particularly frustrated by the confined performance space and restrictions imposed on their acting. Rolf Haunstein made the most of the role of Faninal, capturing well the character's desperation, while Reinhard Mayr stood out as an unusually authoritative police inspector. Piotr Beczala made a cameo appearance as the Italian singer and sang his fiendish aria as well as one could ever expect to hear it.

London is lucky to enjoy regular visits from the Zurich Opera and each time they come, the company further cements its already excellent reputation. Although the cast were excellent, much of the credit for evening's success must go to Welser-Möst for leading such a thoughtful, considered and well-executed account of the score.

By Hugo Shirley