United Kingdom Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (concert performance). Soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, Andris Nelsons (conductor), Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 24.5.2014 (RD)
Soile Isokoski – Marschallin
Alice Coote – Octavian
Sophie Bevan – Sophie
Franz Hawlata – Ochs
Mark Stone – Faninal
Bonaventura Bottone – Valzacchi
Pamela Helen Stephen – Annina
Elaine McKrill – Marchande de Modes / Marianne
Ted Schmitz – Major Domo / Innkeeper
Ji-Min Park – Italian Tenor
Eddie Wade – Notary / Police Inspector / Servant
We have been used to the CBSO, and indeed Symphony Hall, mounting thunderously successful full-length opera occasions since the days of Simon Rattle. This Der Rosenkavalier, a scintillating and ravishing performance under the baton of Andris Nelsons – all too soon due to depart to Boston – and the CBSO was a highlight not just of this season, but surely of the whole of Nelsons’ tenure. That is saying something, because so much of what he has delivered over the last few years has been edge-of-seat, high-voltage music.
Here, in this delicious opera centred around infidelity, cradle-snatching, voyeurism, something-on-the-side – and ultimately honesty, acquiescence and resolution – there was little doubting the overwhelming star of this performance. Of course there was Soile Isokoski’s beautifully crafted Marschallin, with all that polished purity that makes her a great Mozartian too. And naturally we waited eagerly for Alice Coote’s Octavian, she being another of those ravishing Straussians – her Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos is surely one of the definitive readings of that role anywhere in Europe.
But the smash-hit performance here came from Baron Ochs. Franz Hawlata – one of the outstanding Wagnerians and Weberians today, both on stage and on disc – was pure joy in this bumptious, irritating, and, in his case, self-mocking role. Hawlata has a wonderfully supported voice, expressive across the full range, and seems able to engage in any amount of tomfoolery – merrily traipsing round the orchestra – without the tone quality drooping for a second. At times the hilarious action seemed not far from TV’s ’Allo ’allo.
This was, for me, the most exciting ‘new’ characterisation of a male role in German opera to hit Symphony Hall since Volker Vogel emerged as a superlative Loge during the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland’s triumph in Birmingham with Das Rheingold. Both readings had character oozing from them. When Hawlata waltzed ‘Mit mir, mit mir’, twirling Sophie around like some limp doll, or slyly cosied up to conductor Nelsons and virtually took over the band, he supplied some of the wittiest moments since Boris Yeltsin seized the baton 20 years ago. Clarinet and bass clarinet, each superbly played (John Bradbury, Steve Morris) seemed to be Ochs’s favoured instruments.
But there was so much more to praise. Sophie Bevan as Sophie made such a heavenly sound you could almost forgive Ochs his urge to grab and possess her. This was a gorgeous reading by any standards of one of Strauss’s most exquisite roles. Mark Stone made a memorably articulate Faninal – Sophie’s father. Alice Coote was not flattered by the costumes she was given which made her look, well, a teeny-weeny bit ungainly. I also surmise this was not the best Octavian Coote will ever do.
A special cause for admiration was the quality among the lesser members of the cast. As Faninal’s major-domo the young tenor, Ted Schmitz made a tangibly beautiful, strikingly focused sound. Four likely lads – Nicholas Ashby, Paul Curievici, Edward Harrisson and Joseph Kennedy – made a glorious ensemble job of footmen and general factota – Strauss gives them plenty to do. To have singers of the quality of Bonaventura Bottone and Pamela Helen Stephen – who is a character actress to be reckoned with, just as Bottone proffers glorious tenor coloratura – as the intriguing duo provided riches indeed.
Soprano Elaine McKrill made a nice, bossy job of Sophie’s Duenna/chaperone. That was no surprise: she has sung Isolde and Brünnhilde with some of the top conductors in Europe, and was part of both Simon Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic and Antonio Pappano’s Royal Opera Ring cast.
Simon Halsey’s richly prepared CBSO Chorus had less to do than usual, but came up with all the goods – vital and attentive – as they invariably do; and the CBSO Youth Chorus had fun scaring Hawlata’s creepy Ochs witless with their sneery ‘yahs’ and ‘tee-hee’s’. Indeed, the orchestral flair and rhythmic finesse Nelsons drew forth in the ‘witching scene’ was one of the most perfectly devised moments of the evening. It all made for rich comedy alongside the exquisite beauty and poignancy of the main story.
Of course, it was the great final trio of Act 3 we were all waiting for, and as with everything else about this reading, Nelsons – who can occasionally overegg the pudding – did not disappoint. Resting mostly on a chair to conduct, with oddly relaxing consequences that benefited all, he conjured up timings that seemed perfect, time and again; he made wise decisions about when to ground the baton altogether and focus on his expressive left hand; and his balances were such that sections of orchestra never vied with each other to the detriment of the opera’s glorious dénouement. That was in the hands of, first, Soile Isokoski, perhaps an unlikely teen-tickler but utterly lovely in her expression of the conclusion’s honourable resignation: the epitome of noblesse oblige, by which the Marschallin yields up Octavian to Sophie and youth at last has its way.
It is not just the unmatched beauty of Strauss’s music for the occasion, first unveiled in Dresden in 1911, but the serious intent – the poignancy of this unmatched farewell, and the rightness and moral uprightness of the great lady’s concession, by which the torch is handed on to the future, and wedlock replaces dalliance, that makes Strauss’s opera truly great – and truly Mozartian in the spirit of The Marriage of Figaro. How lucky we were to be there in Symphony Hall to wonder at such wisdom and surpassing musicianship.