Friday 11 November 2016

Elegance and anxiety: Aleksandar Markovic conducts Der Rosenkavalier at Opera North

Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Helen Sherman as Octavian, Mark Burghagen as Leopold and Henry Waddington as Baron Ochs. Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Helen Sherman, Mark Burghagen and Henry Waddington
Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Strauss Der Rosenkavalier; Ylva Kihlberg, Helen Sherman, Fflur Wyn, Henry Waddington, dir: David McVicar/Elaine Tyler-Hall, cond: Aleksandar Markovic; Opera North at the Lowry
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 9 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Words to the fore, engaging and vital revival of David McVicar's production.

We caught Opera North's latest revival of David McVicar's well travelled production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at The Lowry, Salford Quays on 9 November 2016. The production originated at Scottish Opera and was first performed by Opera North in 2002, we previously caught English National Opera's performances of the production in 2008 and 2012 (see my review).

Opera North's current run of performances of Der Rosenkavalier represented Aleksandar Markovic's first outing as the company's musical director, adding extra added interest to the performances. David McVicar's production, designed by McVicar and Tanya McCallin, was revived by Elaine Tyler-Hall, with Ylva Kihlberg as the Marschallin, Helen Sherman as Octavian, Henry Waddington as Baron Ochs, Fflur Wyn as Sophie, William Dazeley as Faninal, Jung Soo Yun as the Italian tenor, and Victoria Sharp and Aled Hall as the Italian intriguers.

Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Fflur Wyn, Ylva Kihlberg, Helen Sherman - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn, Ylva Kihlberg, Helen Sherman
Photo Credit: Robert Workman
The Lowry has quite a dry acoustic (it was my first visit to the theatre), with a large orchestra pit which projects a significant amount from the stage. This meant that while the sound perhaps lacked bloom it brought great clarity. During the prelude we were able to appreciate the clarity of detail in the orchestral writing, despite Markovic's lively tempi. And throughout the piece we delighted in details of Strauss's orchestration which do not always come over. Because of the openness of the orchestra pit, the balance rather favoured the orchestra, but I found that my ears soon adjusted.

Markovic's approach to the prelude was almost hectic, you sensed that he took the orchestra to the brink of the possible, but the result successfully incarnated the carnal activity that is being depicted, complete with some fabulously orgasmic horn whoops.

Whilst none of the principals was native German speaking, what I noticed about the performance was the sense of drama in the dialogue, and the primacy of the word. Partly because Markovic kpet this flowing at a lively pace, which meant that the conversational passages were vivid rather than dallying over incidental delights.

None of the principles has what might be called a luxuriant voice, yet all the women (Ylva Kihlberg, Helen Sherman, Fflur Wyn) had great character and a distinct timbre. Markovic took advantage of this to bring out the lively conversational drama. This was a performance with few of the longeurs sometimes attendant on Der Rosenkavalier, and all three acts (including the closing scenes of Act Two) sped by. I have heard more luxuriant Der Rosenkavalier performances but rarely one which was so vital and involving.

Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Henry Waddington, Fflur Wyn - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Henry Waddington, Fflur Wyn - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Ylva Kihlberg made an elegant, young looking Marschallin, much more the sort of age Strauss expected. A poised, self-possessed Marschallin, Kihlberg also made the character's uncertainties very poignant and rarely have I seen a Marschallin so visible balanced between the poised commanding outer and uncertain inner. Kihlberg has an interesting edge to her voice which made her performance rather spicy and slightly surprising. But she also had a superb command of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's fine text, so that many of the great moments told because of her way with words. And this was a Marschallin of whom you knew, as Strauss and von Hofmannsthal intended, that Octavian would not be her last lover.

As Octavian, Helen Sherman made a wonderfully surly and almost brattish young man, very much on his dignity and with emotions which turned on a pin. Sherman aptly captured the right physical language to encapsulate the awkward boy. This was time I had heard Helen Sherman in a late-Romantic role, previously I have heard her in Monteverdi, Donizetti and Mozart. She does not have a large-scale instrument and instead brought an attractive litheness to the part, singing with a warm flexibility and nice intensity. At the very top, her voice developed an interesting flutter under pressure which suggested that heavier roles are still some way off.

Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Helen Sherman - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Helen Sherman - Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Der Rosenkavalier is a strange opera, Act one concentrates on one heroine, and Act Two on another, then neither appears till the end of Act Three. By the time Sophie first appears, the Marschallin has had plenty of time to establish herself in our hearts.

Fflur Wyn made a wonderfully feisty Sophie, poised and controlled by bristling and simmering inside, quite the little spitfire. She sang with light focused tone, spinning a lovely line which emphasised the character's youth. So the presentation of the rose was a gorgeous mix of two different but complementary voices. The final trio and duet was extremely expressive, made all the more telling thanks to the detailed psychological interplay which had gone before it. This revival was full of sharply focused little dramatic details which contributed to the whole.

 Henry Waddington was a delightfully selfish and pompous Ochs. Waddington had a nice ear/eye for comedy so that the Act Two hi-jinks worked well, but there was never doubt that Ochs was Baron Ochs, a nobleman. His retinue might be a rag tag mixture but he kept his bearing. Waddington sang the memorable waltz in Act Two with a lovely smile in his voice, but there were also occasions when the extremities of his voice lost focus..

The supporting characters were all very strong and it was nice to see so many stepping out from the Opera North chorus. William Dazeley made a surprisingly strong Faninal, and his big outburst in Act Two really told. Though neurotic, he made the character more sympathetic than some, less fussy. Jung Soo Yun was an admirably firm toned Italian tenor, Victoria Sharp made much of the duennas big Act Two solo, but also brought out a nice line in non-verbal communication during Sophie and Octavian's subsequent dialogue. Helen Evora and Aled Hall were a vivid pair of Italian intriguers, making the most of these gifts of roles.

Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Fflur Wyn as Sophie, Helen Sherman as Octavian, William Dazeley as Faninal, Helen Évora as Annina, Victoria Sharp as Marianne, Henry Waddington as Baron Ochs and Mark Burghagen as Leopold, with the Chorus of Opera North. Photo Credit: Robert Workman
Der Rosenkavalier - Opera North - Fflur Wyn as Sophie, Helen Sherman as Octavian, William Dazeley as Faninal, Helen Évora as Annina, Victoria Sharp as Marianne, Henry Waddington as Baron Ochs and Mark Burghagen as Leopold, with the Chorus of Opera North. Photo Credit: Robert Workman
I think that David McVicar's production works better on the smaller scale theatre than in the vast open reaches of the London Coliseum. So the whole seemed tighter with the fine details of the production pulling together. Partly this was because Aleksandar Markovic had knitted his intelligently characterful cast into a vividly engaging whole.

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier
Opera North at The Lowry, 9 November 2016
Marschallin - Ylva Kihlberg
Octavian - Helen Sherman
Baron Ochs - Henry Waddington
Sophie von Faninal - Fflur Wyn
Herr von Faninal - William Dazeley
Marianne - Victoria Sharp
Valzacchi - Aled Hall
Annina - Helen Évora
Italian Tenor - Jung Soo Yun
Leopold - Mark Burghagen
Mohammed, the Marschallin's servant - Durassie Kiangangu
Police Commissioner - Dean Robinson
Marschallin's Major-domo - Graham Russell
Faninal's Major-domo - Ivan Sharpe
Notary - Jeremy Peaker
Innkeeper - David Llewellyn
3 Noble Orphans - Rachel Mosley, Cordelia Fish, Hazel Croft
Pet Seller - Warren Gillespie
Dressmaker - Miranda Bevin

Conductor - Aleksandar Markovic
Original Director - David McVicar
Revival Director - Elaine Tyler-Hall
Set Designer - David McVicar
Costume Designer - Tanya McCallin
Lighting Designer - Paule Constable
Language Coach - Rahel Wagner

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