Monday, 5 June 2017

The sands of time: Olivia Fuchs' new production of Der Rosenkavalier at Welsh National Opera

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Lucia Cervoni, Margaret Baiton, Luise Alder - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Lucia Cervoni, Margaret Baiton, Louise Alder - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier; Rebecca Evans, Louise Alder, Lucia Cervoni, Brindley Sherratt, dir: Olivia Fuchs, cond: Tomáš Hanus; Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on June 04 2017
Star rating: 4.5

The passing of time and memory form the backdrop to WNO's first new production of Strauss's opera since 1990.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Rebecca Evans, Margaret Baiton - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Rebecca Evans, Margaret Baiton (photo Bill Cooper)
Olivia Fuchs' new production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a co-production between Welsh National Opera and Theater Magdeburg. The production debuted in Magdeburg last year and now Welsh National Opera is presenting the production as part of its Summer season, the company's first Der Rosenkavalier since 1990 (when the cast included Rita Cullis as the Marschallin and Amanda Roocroft making her role debut as Sophie).

The new production debuted at the Wales Millennium Centre on Sunday 4 June 2017 conducted by Tomáš Hanus, the company's new music director, with Rebecca Evans making her role debut as the Marschallin, Lucia Cervoni as Octavian, Brindley Sherratt as Baron Ochs, Louise Alder as Sophie, and Adrian Clarke as Faninal. Designs were by Niki Turner, with lighting by Ian Jones.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier is a complex theatrical mechanism which seems to defy radical re-working and Fuchs has not tried to re-invent the opera whilst still providing a way of seeing the plot anew. All the familiar details and the essential dramaturgy were there. Like many recent productions, Fuchs and Turner had set the opera in 1911, the year of its composition but the very opening showed us that this was not an entirely traditional take on the piece. During the prelude (which depicts the Marschallin and Octavian making love), we did indeed get flashes of the two characters in vigorous sexual positions, but the main focus was of an old woman, the old Marschallin (Margaret Baiton), sitting remembering holding a small picture in 1949.

The old Marschallin would be present for much of Act One, and a quotation from Rilke plus the sands of time running through Turner's stripped-back yet traditional set gave us an indication that the idea of time would be important to the production.  In Act Two the same essential set was partially skewed and the sands of time had started to form piles in the corners. For Act Three, the set was partially de-constructed and sand formed huge piles. The old Marschallin returned at the beginning of this act, still remembering but this time video footage seemed too evoke series of convulsive conflicts that we know would erupt between 1911 and 1949. Thankfully, this meant that the normal comic dumb-show of setting up the joke was abbreviated.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Lucia Cervoni, Rebecca Evans - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Lucia Cervoni, Rebecca Evans - (photo Bill Cooper)
At key moments during the opera the old Marschallin (Baiton) and the younger one (Rebecca Evans) seemed do interact, and it was unclear whether we were experiencing the older woman's flashbacks or the younger one's flashes of premonition, and of course during the opera the Marschallin does indeed become increasingly obsessed with time.  At the very end, Fuchs allowed herself a small joke. Strauss intended the final orchestral postlude to depict the Marschallin's page Mohammed returning to the inn to find a lost handkerchief, one last jeu d'esprit. And indeed Mohammed (Kayed Mohammed-Mason) did appear but this time as an old man, still serving his mistress.

Rebecca Evans made a touching and thoughtful Marschallin, much given over to the emotions of the moment; this was a highly volatile performance with Evans beautifully reflecting the changing emotions of the text. Text was highly important, and Evans clearly was concerned to make the text as important as the music. Truly lyric soprano Marschallin's are relatively rare, and Evans performance really did make you think of Sophie grown older. Evans' voice lacks the heft to really impose itself, and occasionally I thought that Tomáš Hanus could have helped a little in the balance, but Evans never forced and sang with a profoundly beautiful sense of phrasing. This was not a luxuriant voice, instead it was touching, with Evans occasionally taking the risk to really fine her voice down to stunning effect. Clearly Evans has a long career as the Marschallin ahead of her, and this assumption was a notable achievement.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Brindley Sherratt, Lucia Cervoni - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Brindley Sherratt, Lucia Cervoni (photo Bill Cooper)
Louise Alder's Sophie was perhaps less headstrong than some we have seen recently, and Alder really conveyed the sense of Sophie still struggling to find her way in the world, sometimes bewildered sometimes angry, and somewhat confused by the sudden rush of her relationship with Octavian. Alder brought the ability to finely spin a line, but also to demonstrate a strong feel for character.

The Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni (a principal at Theater Magdeburg) made a nicely touchy Octavian, not a little self-obsessed and very much on his dignity. Cervoni very successfully showed the way the young man struggled both with the Marschallin's philosophising in Act One, and with the sudden rush off young love in Act Two, bringing out the sense of youthful impulsiveness. This is an opera very much defined by its relationships; Evans, Cervoni and Alder really established the sense of the different pulls in this triangle, so that when all three characters met for the first time at the end of Act Three we got a strong sense of the different tensions, with many pregnant pauses. Cervoni was successfully able to lighten her voice in the upper register so that the three women blended beautifully for a radiant final trio and duet.

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Peter Van Hulle, Brindley Sherratt, Madeleine Shaw - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Peter Van Hulle, Brindley Sherratt, Madeleine Shaw (photo Bill Cooper)
Into all this blunders Brindley Sherratt's comically self-obsessed Ochs. A hilarious, key moment was in his Act One scene with Evans' Marschallin when Sherratt's Ochs comically motored on with his speeches, blissfully unaware that the Marschallin was not paying him any attention. It was this blissful unawareness of other people's reactions which made Sherratt's Ochs such a comic monstrosity, his self-image never punctured until the Marschallin's biting retort at the end of Act Three.

What really brought the production alive was the constant sense of detail in the characterisation, not only had Fuchs clearly worked with her principals but these major characters were set against a welter of smaller details. In a sense this was a superb ensemble production, and this really counted when it came to providing a setting for the complex relationships between Evans, Alder, Cervoni and Sherratt's characters. Only a couple of moments seemed too generic, or jarred; Ochs retainers in Act Two could have come from a number of productions, whilst the characterisation of his son Leopold (George Newton-Fitzgerald) verged in the patronising, but overall there was a feeling of the production being vividly thought through. This was certainly helped by Niki Turner's stylish period costumes (though I would have preferred something other than cod-armour for Octavian in Act Two).

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Louise Alder - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Louise Alder (photo Bill Cooper)
The sense of detailed characterisation paid off when combined with Tomáš Hanus superb pacing of the opera, so that the action flowed smoothly and there were few, if any, of the longeurs which can occur (particularly towards the end of Act 2). I have no idea what the exact timings were, but this felt like one of the swiftest accounts of the opera that I have heard, not because Hanus' speeds were fast but because the drama flowed and held one's attention. Even complex scenes such as the Marschallin's levée were filled with lovely little details which, rather than holding up the action, simply made the drama fall into place.

Providing this back-drop was a fine array of supporting characters. Adrian Clarke's Faninal was superbly characterful and his Act Two outburst made far more of a dramatic impact than often is the case. Peter Van Hulle and Madeleine Shaw as the intriguers were a delightfully over the top couple (who even got their own enthusiastic sex-scene at the opening of Act Three!). Paul Charles Clarke made a fine Italian tenor, very much obsessed with the effect he is having on his potential patron, Matthew Hargreaves was a finely upright commissar of police. Angharad Morgan's Marianne Leitmetzerin managed to combine vividness with very fine diction (which does not always happen in this role). Morgan is a member of the WNO Chorus and the production was notable for the number of chorus members in small solo roles.

This was not the most luxuriant of performances, with cast with largely lyric voices you felt that in Act One Tomáš Hanus could have been a little more aware of the balance. But Hanus had a good feel for the music's flow, keeping it moving whilst allowing a nice fluidity and giving the singers space to shape their lines. The orchestra responded well to Hanus' direction and produced a performance which finely complemented the singers in its musicality.

This was a notable achievement from the whole company, and I certainly hope that we do not have to wait too long to see the production again. WNO's new production of Der Rosenkavalier is at the Wales Millennium Centre on 10 & 17 June, and at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 1 July 2017.

This review also appears on

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Angharad Morgan, Louise Alder, Lucia Cervoni - WNO 2017 (photo Bill Cooper)
Conductor: Tomáš Hanus
Assistant Conductor: Kalle Kuusava
Director: Olivia Fuchs
Designer: Niki Turner

The Marschallin: Rebecca Evans
Old Marschallin: Margaret Baiton
Baron Ochs of Lerchenau: Brindley Sherratt
Octavian: Lucia Cervoni
Sophie; Louise Alder
Von Faninal; Adrian Clarke
Italian Singer: Paul Charles Clarke
Annina: Madeleine Shaw
Police Commissar: Matthew Hargreaves
Valzacchi: Peter Van Hulle
Mohammed: Kayed Mohamed-Mason
Marianne: Angharad Morgan
First Noble Orphan: Anitra Blaxhall
Innkeeper / Animal Trainer: Michael Clifton-Thompson
Faninal’s Major-Domo: Gareth Dafydd Morris
Boots: Laurence Cole
Footmen: Simon Crosby Buttle, Stephen Wells, Joe Roche, Laurence Cole
Third Noble Orphan: Helen Jarmany
Milliner: Emma Mary Llewellyn
Notary: Alastair Moore
Marschallin’s Major-Domo: Adam Music
Second Noble Orphan: Louise Ratcliffe
Waiters: Simon Crosby Buttle, Howard Kirk, Philip Lloyd-Evans, Alastair Moore

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  1. It's Margaret Bainton, not Balton.

    1. The programme book lists her as Baiton and I have corrected according. Apologies for my mistyping.

  2. Rebecca Evans was indeed exquisite as The Marschallin. The role was created by Margarethe Siems, who later created Zerbinetta, and I thought the role benefited (as it did with Valerie Masterson at ENO) in not being cast too vocally heavily as it enabled the essential youth (not first flush thereof) of the character to be most movingly portrayed.


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