Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 7 December 2009 3.5 stars

Sophie Koch as Octavian (Photo © Mike Hoban)A couple of years off its hundredth birthday, Der Rosenkavalier shows no signs of losing its iron grip on the standard repertory. Long a scourge of modernists, for whom it represents Richard Strauss's retreat from the advanced musical languages of Salome and Elektra, it is now grudgingly admired as a supremely subtle meditation on that most modern of themes: our relationship with time and history. The opera's lasting appeal, however, resides in both Hofmannsthal's delicate libretto and, chiefly, a score by Strauss that wallows unashamedly in its orchestral virtuosity and melodic invention, not to mention a trio of female voices milked for all their sensuous possibilities.

Despite the oft-remarked anachronisms of the music – Thomas Mann was just one prominent figure to object on rather literal grounds to Strauss's pastiche of his Viennese namesakes' waltzes being applied to a mid eighteenth-century setting – Hofmannsthal's libretto masterfully weaves in the social mores of Maria Theresia's Vienna, reflected not least in the characters' subtly variegated speech. As such, one could argue, it's an opera with an inbuilt resistance to directorial reinterpretation. At least that's one possible defence for John Schlesinger's production, now a quarter of a century old and very much beginning to look its age. In its harking back to a more innocent age of opera production through literal, painstaking evocation of the Viennese rococo, it now inadvertently adds another level for the audience to meditate on the passage of time. Like an elderly Marschallin, however, it retains a certain dignity and avoids, at least, some of the cheap laughs of David McVicar's recent take on the work at ENO. There are still plenty of nice details, too, that in this revival – directed by Andrew Sinclair – help to liven proceedings up. Thomas Allen is expert in bringing a nouveau riche desperation to Faninal (his fiftieth Royal Opera role) that matches the cruel poor-taste of his costume. The way Sophie and Octavian are framed as if in a musical box for their final Mozartian duet makes a certain amount of sense, too, although I'm less sure about the freeze-frame highlighting of the preceding trio.

Luckily, this elderly production is enlivened by the youthful presence in the pit of Kirill Petrenko. The young Russian is not someone one immediately associates with Strauss, but with this and an Ariadne auf Naxos scheduled at the Met next month, that looks set to change. He achieved impressive results from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House here, with a strongly virile account of the overture. Yet in case anyone was worried he'd apply a hard-pressed firebrandery to the rest of the work, he relaxed beautifully into the ensuing duet. Although there were a couple of rough edges and a few jolting tempo choices, Petrenko's Peter Rose as Baron Ochs and Lucy Crowe as Sophie (Photo © Mike Hoban)reading was not only highly idiomatic but lively and engaging. The waltzes were sweet and flexible yet rarely have I heard the orchestra's Elektra-like outbursts, particularly in Act Two, articulated with such force.

The cast was split across the opera's ever-present class boundaries: the arriviste Faninal father and daughter both, appropriately enough, making house debuts in their roles. Lucy Crowe, as Sophie, and Allen, as her father, both brought a freshness to roles that can count for little and Crowe's feistiness, in particular, helped create a Sophie of substance. Her voice, somewhat richer than usual in the role, soared reassuringly above the stave while its powerful mid-range hinted refreshingly at burgeoning desires.

The remaining principals are all highly experienced in their roles, headed by Soile Isokoski's Marschallin. A suitably classy presence, she produced some singing of real sensitivity; her monologue was a highlight of a dramatically unsure Act One, including a heart-breaking high G in her penultimate phrase. Earlier in the act, however, she struggled to project, and she made some awkward attempts to assert herself vocally in the final scene against her colleagues, making for a slightly dissatisfying trio. Sophie Koch, on the other Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin (Photo © Mike Hoban)hand, sang with ardent abandon throughout the evening, every inch the impetuous, emotionally immature teenage aristocrat.

Peter Rose, unusually, makes a rather civilised Ochs, youthful and suavely vocalised, the Viennese accent applied with some subtletly, rather than plastered on. It's a refreshing change to have the character portrayed less as a pantomime buffoon than a man with some class, yet despite his sure comic touch he can't quite muster all the vocal resources one ideally wants in the role – the bottom E that closes Act Two was weak and indistinct – and I missed the inherent humour some can impart through sheer voice alone. Of the excellent extended cast, special mention should go to Wookyung Kim – singing Rodolfo later this month – who managed the Tenor's treacherous aria with grace.

It could seem there's little to get particularly excited about in what, on paper at least, reads like a routine revival, well-timed to reap the benefits the London audience loosening its critical faculties and purse-strings in the run up to Christmas. Indeed Schlesinger's production has very little left to say and the cast could be starrier (think back to the 2000 revival with the powerhouse quartet of Fleming, Graham, Schäfer and Thielemann), yet all the elements come together well to produce a satisfying if not particularly challenging evening's theatre. In the end, the test of a successful Rosenkavalier is whether or not it feels long. This one might well have done, yet thanks to Petrenko's revitalising take on the score and an intelligent cast, it flew by.

By Hugo Shirley

Photo Credits: Mike Hoban