Friday 23 December 2016

Rachel Willis-Sørensen & Anna Stéphany in Der Rosenkavalier

Anna Stéphany, Rachel Willis-Sørensen - Der Rosenkavalier - @ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Anna Stéphany, Rachel Willis-Sørensen - Der Rosenkavalier
@ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Richard Strauss Der Rosenkavalier; Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Anna Stéphany, Sophie Bevan, Matthew Rose, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, dir: Robert Carsen, cond: Andris Nelsons; Covent garden
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 22 2016
Star rating: 4.5

A return to Robert Carsen's new production to hear two very different singers as the Marschallin and Octavian

We returned to Robert Carsen's new production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier on 22 December 2016 at the Royal Opera House to see the alternative cast (see my review of the production's first night). This time Rachel Willis-Sørensen was the Marschallin and Anna Stéphany was Octavian, with the rest of the cast remaining the same; Matthew Rose as Ochs, Sophie Bevan as Sophie, and Jochen Schmeckenbecher as Faninal with Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Helene Schneiderman and Giorgio Berrugi. Sets were by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet, choreography by Philippe Giraudeau, with Andris Nelsons in the pit conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen won first prize at the 2014 Operalia competition, was a winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and spent three yeas as a member of the ensemble at the Dresden Semperoper. She is moving into jugend-dramatisch territory, singing Eva in Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden, Beethoven's Leonore and Freia. I am unclear whether this was her first Marschallin but it certainly isn't a role which she has sung extensively, yet! We last heard mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany singing the title role in Handel's Serse with the Early Opera Company (see my review), and she first sang Octavian in 2011 at the Bolshoi and returned to the role more recently at the Royal Swedish Opera.

Anna Stéphany - Der Rosenkavalier - @ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Anna Stéphany - Der Rosenkavalier
@ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Rachel Willis-Sørensen might have a potentially large-scale dramatic voice but she also knows how to fine the voice down and her Marschallin was notable for her dignity and restraint. She is quite a tall woman and in Act One achieved a notable degree of calm poise and graciousness, and the firmness with which she dealt with Matthew Rose's Ochs at the end of Act Three was quite notable. She was also quite serious and thoughtful, so that the monologue at the end of Act One seemed to arise naturally and you suspected that this Marschallin had books by a couple of obscure philosophers by her bedside. Willis-Sørensen produced a beautifully modulated well controlled line, which showed that she knew exactly how to scale her voice back when necessary whilst still shaping the music. If I have a complaint it was that she did not make enough of the text; the great moments were audible but this was performance which paid more attention to musical values. The end of Act One was meditative and thoughtful rather then deeply insightful, and I felt that this was an interpretation which can only grow. Not that there was anything lacking, the whole provided a deeply satisfying experience, (very different to Renée Fleming) and a notable performance. This was made all the more engaging by the strong rapport which Willis-Sørensen developed with Anna Stéphany's Octavian.

Stéphany is quite slight of figure and this sense of boyishness emphasised Octavian's youth, something which Stéphany combined with a nice feeling of touchy dignity. This Octavian was not quite sure enough of himself to relax, which made the outburst towards the end of Act One all the more understandable. Stéphany was rather more serious and less gleeful as Mariandel, particularly in Act Three were her first solo had clear links to Marlene Dietrich type performances. And later on in the scene you felt that Mariandel was leading Ochs on in way which made him uncomfortable. In the run up to these performances.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen - Der Rosenkavalier - @ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
Rachel Willis-Sørensen
@ ROH. photo Catherine Ashmore
I had a discussion with a colleague about the lack of soprano Octavians nowadays. Whilst still a mezzo, Stéphany had a lithe brightness to her voice, along with a nice easy top, with brought out the youth of the character. It also meant that the duet with Sophie Bevan's Sophie, after the Presentation of the Rose, was notable for how the two voices merged and intertwined as both produced a lovely sense of line. The elegance of Stéphany's line was notable (Handel and Mozart roles are significant in her repertoire), so that this was not a lush, Romantic sound, but still one which filled the opera house with ease. In Act Three the touchy young man started to grow up, and the final trio and duet were simply glorious as Rachel Willis-Sørensen matched the fineness of line of the other two.

Returning to the production so soon after seeing the premiere, and sitting in a very different part of the opera house (in the Amphitheatre this time, rather than the Stalls Circle), it was the little details which caught my attention. The way Giorgio Berruti's Caruso-esque Italian Tenor mesmerises his audience, the first verse drawing everyone to him, the second verse sung to the mannequins yet distracting the hairdresser's assistant. The way the circling of the mannequins displaying clothes to the Marschallin at her levée was echoed in Act Three by the way the tarts circled Octavian as he chose the outfit he was going to wear. But there were also niggles about Carsen's changes to the dramaturgy; what on earth was the Marschallin doing at such a brotherl in Act Three, especially dressed so grandly?

I also admired again the sense of fully rounded portrait in Matthew Rose's performance as Baron Ochs, the way the role was beautifully sung with the minimal of mugging, really bringing out the disturbing undertones to the role. In most performances of Der Rosenkavalier, Ochs gets away with his behaviour because he is funny. But here, without the leavening of humour, he was far more arrogant and without altering the essential dramaturgy created a prescient character which related to the militarism to come.

I have to confess that I closed my eyes for the final three minutes, allowing Richard Strauss's postlude to the duet to surround me without any of the images of militarism with which Robert Carsen feels necessary to close the opera.

See my review of the production's first night, with Renée Fleming and Alice Coote

Elsewhere on this blog:

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