Monday, 30 January 2012

Review of Der Rosenkavalier at the London Coliseum

This was a welcome revival of David McVicar's attractive and intelligently traditional production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. Originating with Scottish Opera, the production was first seen at the London Coliseum in 2008 and we saw the first night of the current revival (Saturday 28th Jan).

Returning to their roles were Sarah Connolly as Octavian,  John Tomlinson as Ochs and Andrew Shore as Faninal. In fact Connolly sang the role of Octavian when the production was created in Scotland.

Of great interest were the artists new to the production, both also making their role debuts, with Sophie Bevan singing her first Sophie Faninal and Amanda Roocroft giving her first Marschallin. I saw Roocroft's debut as Sophie with WNO (in the early 90's I think). So it was fascinating to see her returning to the opera in the role of the older woman. It helped emphasise the fact that in Sophie, the Marschallin sees her younger self, forced to marry a much older man; something which helps us understand the Marschallin's sympathy with Sophie's plight despite Sophie taking Octavian away from her.

Roocroft's triumphant return to form in recent years has been centred on the operas of Janacek (though not exclusively). Janacek is immensely responsive to speech rhythms and Roocroft brought something of this feeling to her Marschallin. (Off the top of my head the only other soprano who specialised in Janceck and Strauss was Elisabeth Soderstrom, not a bad role model to have).

It was very lightly sung, in fact there were moments when I thought that Edward Gardner could have been more sympathetic over balance with the orchestra. Only on a few occasions, notably when telling off Ochs in Act 3, did Roocroft use the full steely tones of her voice. For most of Act 1 she was quietly and intensely responsive to the nuances of the text. This was a very conversational performance Roocroft does not have an instrument capable of easy refulgence and soaring tone. She made a virtue of this, giving us a detailed  and profoundly moving portrait rather than falling into the trap of relying on the broad brush of gorgeous tone.

The Marschallin is one of the greatest secondary characters in opera history. She appears in under half the opera (Act 1 and the end of Act 3) but is capable of transforming the performance. The singer must tug the heart strings in the monologue in Act 1 and then bring this atmosphere back with her into Act 3. This Roocroft did in spades. Her's was one of the most vividly and intelligently touching Marschallins that I have seen in recent ears. In Act 1 there were no grand histrionics, just a woman coming to term with time and ageing. In Act 3 she was nicely aristocratic without ever feeling overly grand.

Roocroft's upper register is not the easiest of instruments and I was aware of the moments when she seemed to be carefully managing it. (Gwynneth Jones, a great Marschallin whom I heard in the '80s, was another singer of whom you were aware that a significant amount of voice management went on). The concluding trio was not the loveliest I had ever heard but it was well balanced in terms of tone and timbre and profoundly expressive.

Sophie Bevan made an immensely promising debut as Sophie Faninal. Bevan has a voice fuller and richer in the lower registers than many Sophies, but she was able to float the high notes with gorgeous ease and the duet with Connolly at the Presentation of the Rose had the requisite magical beauty. Bevan's Sophie was high spirited and emotional, you suspected that she and Octavian would have a very lively married life.

Connolly's Octavian is starting to feel a tad maturer than 17, but it is still a magnificent creation. She captures Octavian's egotism and surly volatility. Her relationship with Roocroft's Marschallin in the opening scenes was fun, funny and very sexy, the two artists had obviously developed a strong rapport. Connolly's relation to Bevan's Sophie was different, more solicitous but equally affecting. The closing scenes were nicely delineated by all 3 artists and consequently rather moving.

John Tomlinson's Ochs is still an amazing creation, though as the singer has now reached his mid 60's you do wonder how much longer he can perform at such a level. Strauss and Hoffmanstal intended Ochs to be only slightly older than the Marschallin and rather less of a boor than he is usually made out to be. But Tomlinson inhabited the role so entirely that this didn't matter. The upper lying passages are now somewhat laboured, but he takes care of individual details in a brilliant manner. Whilst Tomlinson's Ochs was larger than life he was part of a strong ensemble and Tomlinson did not pull focus the way he did as Pogner in the recent Meistersinger at Covent Garden.

Whilst it was a welcome treat to re-encounter Connolly and Tomlinson in this opera, I did think that it might have been a good opportunity for ENO to entirely re-cast the opera with a younger cast.

Andrew Shore repeated his nicely detailed Faninal  In the absence of Jaewoo Kim, due to illness, Gwynne Hughes Jones was luxury casting as the Italian singer. Jennifer Rhys-Davies made a lively and dramatic duenna. But she succeeded no better than others in this role in getting across the words of her narration, "Er kommt". Perhaps one day I will attend a performance where you can understand what the Duenna is describing.

The most touching Marschallin that I have heard at the London Coliseum was Valerie Masterson whose peerless diction succeeded in getting a remarkable amount of text over. The present cast were not quite peerless but all worked hard on diction and Bevan's was particularly notable.

Madeleine Shaw offered a rather better sung Annina than I have heard in a long time and she as well paired with Adrian Thompson, almost unrecognisable as Valzacchi.

Edward Gardner conducted a well paced and free flowing account of the opera, keeping things nicely conversational whilst never rushing the singers. He brought out the felicities of Strauss's orchestration and there were moments of great beauty.

I have to confess that this is an opera where I miss the original German and I hope before very long to encounter Roocroft's Marschallin in the original language. It would be nice to think that their success with this opera might encourage ENO to add more Strauss to its repertory. Surely one of the talented group of sopranos who ahve come to fore at the Coli in recent years would be ready for a role like Arabella?

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