Intimate Rosenkavalier in the Round Brings Characters to Life

New ZealandNew Zealand   Richard Strauss,  
Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, Opera in a Days Bay Garden Company, Opera in a Days Bay Garden Orchestra (Leader:  Blythe Press) / Michaerl Vintin (conductor), Wellesley College Hall, Days Bay, Wellington
, 24.8.2014 (PM)

Picture  Credit  Simon Hoyle "Southlight"
Picture Credit Simon Hoyle “Southlight”

Rhona Fraser (Marshallin)
Bianca Andrew  (Octavian)
James Clayton (Baron Ochs)
Barbara Graham  (Sophie von  Faninal)
Matt Landreth  (Herr von Faninial)
Imogen Thirlwall (Annina)
Tehezib Latiff (Italian Singer)
Simon Christie (Police  Commissioner)
Frederick Jones  (Major-Domo / Landlord)
Marian Hawke  (Marianne)
Lachlan McLachlan  (Mahomet)
Bethany Miller, Coshise Avei, Elizabeth Harris, Luka Ventner,
 Declan Cudd, sabelle van der Wilt, Kahu Rolfe, Pania Rolfe, Finlay Barr-Clark


Opera edited and arranged by Michael Vinten
English translation by Alfred Kalisch
Producer:  Rhona Fraser
Director:  Sara Brodie

I readily admit that I approached this Days Bay Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier with mixed feelings and with expectations somewhat on edge, wondering how well one of my favourite operas would emerge from the processes of being not only shortened but also rearranged for chamber-like forces. It’s just that a goodly part of Rosenkavalier’s appeal for me has always been its sheerly sumptuous quality, with  gorgeous late-romantic orchestral writing, and, in stage productions I’d previously seen, costume and set designs reflecting wealth and lavish display – everything, in a word, resplendent.

Counter-balancing these feelings was my previous (and it must be said) resoundingly positive experience of productions at Days Bay –  I had seen operas by both Handel and Mozart successfully performed there, on each occasion in the open air in producer Rhona Fraser’s magnificent garden, in presentations where singers and instrumentalists turned in strongly focused performances that triumphantly invigorated the music and brought the characters engagingly to life. So I was thus nicely poised between both pleasurable and doubtful anticipation as the opera’s beginning-time approached.

This time round, instead of staging the production outdoors and risking their audiences’ exposure to the cold and wet of winter, the organisers wisely took the step of securing the use of nearby Wellesley College’s beautifully-appointed assembly hall, whose harbour-view vistas served as a stunning introductory backdrop to the performing area for we in the audience before the show.

So, it was a production more-or-less “in the round”, with the orchestra at the back, and audience taking up the remaining three sides around the performing area, the singers making their entrances and exits from any of three of the corners. I thought director Sara Brodie’s use of the area beautifully conveyed both fluidity and stillness in her deployment of personages, around and about a centrally-placed bed in the first act, and across the more unimpeded spaces of Acts Two and Three.

I found to my great delight production and performances thoroughly engaging and in places enchanting – in short, most satisfying, even if I’m certain my reaction was partly due to pleasurable relief at experiencing so very much more of the work’s magic than I thought would be possible to convey under the circumstances. Of course, even in a full-scale production a good deal of the essence of Rosenkavalier as a piece of theatre can be found in the intimate exchanges between the characters and in the composer’s own chamber-like scoring of the accompaniments to these, however thrilling those big, fulsomely-upholstered moments remain.

In this sense the production’s excising of certain sequences (conductor Michael Vinten making the adjustments and rearrangements) enhanced the chamber-like nature of what we saw and heard, most definitely to this particular setting’s advantage. We lost detail here and there,  but gained in overall sweep and flow. T%hew production dropped a couple of minor characters as well, but lightened the musical and theatrical textures in doing so.

A substantial cut was the lengthy orchestra-only preamble to Act Three, normally accompanying the “booby-trapping” of the room at the inn organised by the lascivious Baron Ochs for his illicit dalliance with the Marshallin’s “maid”, Mariandel (Octavian, the Marshallin’s young lover, in disguise). Most adroitly, Michael Vinten had merged Acts Two and Three together as one, so that the Baron, tricked by Octavian’s letter at the end of Act Two suggesting the “tryst” goes straight from the music of his beautifully lascivious Waltz-tune to meet up at the inn with Octavian/Mariandel.

So, all the “ghostly” irruptions intended to unnerve Ochs, and usually demonstrated during the Prelude were dispensed with, shifting the focus of the Baron’s discomfiture to the appearance of a bogus ex-wife and children, and of course, the arrival of the Faninals, father and daughter, and the Marshallin herself, to properly put the seal on Och’s downfall.

In light of these divergencies from the original the venture required a surety of focus, a kind of determination, even zeal, to bring it off – and right across the spectrum of production, of stage and musical direction, of singing and acting, and of orchestral playing one sensed this burning commitment to make it all work, a veritable glow which settled over certain moments in particular, but which for me resonated in ambient terms most satisfyingly thoughout the entire performance.

Three things got the proceedings away to a wonderful start – firstly, the playing of the famous Act One Prelude, with its bubbling energies capped by those notoriously orgasmic horn passages (Ed Allen’s playing gloriously exuberant at that point), followed by some extremely tender, beautifully-realised instrumental sounds of all persuasions, from the players.

Secondly we enjoyed director Sara Brodie’s inventive ploy for getting the lovers into the bed for their opening exchanges,  the Marshallin and Octavian entering in the midst of a flourish of bodies (a “chorus of many characters”) and quickly and unobtrusively sliding under the covers as their cohorts stood and bowed to us, by way of acknowledging our presence, before leaving as quickly as they had come.

Thirdly Bianca Andrew’s singing of Octavian’s opening lines (the opera was sung in English), had such a refulgent glow, a sound one wanted to simply bask in for a blessed time, getting the opera off to a most mellifluous beginning, voice-wise, one amply and characterfully furthered by Rhona Fraser’s dignified, worldly-wise Marshallin, Marie Therese. A pity we were distracted more than we ought to have been by the latter’s wig which seemed to be giving the singer cause for concern every now and then – the Marshallin could, at the very opening, surely have displayed her own hair as befitted the intimacy of the situation, as her young lover’s semi-clothed state certainly did!

Throughout the opening Act Bianca Andrew brought out the full gamut of her character’s youthful bravado, very much an infatuated youth prone to extremes of feeling, with great and natural exuberance followed by episodes of near-debilitating despair. And her acting when disguised as Mariandel was sheer delight, by turns engagingly gawky and irresistibly coquettish.

Equally as absorbing, but in an entirely different way, was Rhona Fraser’s Marshallin – as previously remarked, a dignified portrayal, if more than usually sober and reflective a figure from the outset, making us feel as if, perhaps even from the moment of waking she had already begun distancing herself from her young lover. The opportunities for lightness, even coquettishness between her and Octavian weren’t relished and pointed as one might have expected, in places such as her cool response to the young man’s’s angst at her hastily retracted “Once…..”, suggesting that he was by no means her first illicit lover.

So we got more of a progression in the Marshallin’s demeanour and attitude towards Octavian throughout the Act than a contrast before and after her encounter with her boorish, gold-digging cousin Ochs. However, Fraser’s circumspection gained full force with her “growing old” soliloquy after her cousin’s departure, as well as in the terms of her dismissal of her lover with the words “One day you will fall in love with someone younger and prettier”. She gathered in all of our sympathies throughout this scene by dint of her firmly-centred singing, and a patient, gently-etched delineation of the predicament faced by an older person enamored of somebody more youthful. And Michael Vinten’s control of the finely-woven orchestral texturings at the end, made for moments of such magic.

As for the force of rustic gallantry gone awry that was Baron Ochs, this was a part splendidly brought to life by Australian baritone James Clayton, all the more telling because of his and the production’s avoidance of excessive caricature. Clayton was a younger, more virile and physically personable Ochs than usual, whose oafishness lay more in his arrogance and sexist behaviour than anywhere else, a far more believable, and potentially dangerous figure than the usual boorish and physically repulsive character presented in the role. In his unfussily elegant eighteenth-century costume he actually cut a splendid figure, though the depiction of his attendant “love-child”, Leopold, sailed perilously close to caricature.

Act Two burst upon our sensibilities like a firecracker, the relative lack of tonal weight in the orchestra countered with plenty of “glint” and wonderfully incisive playing. Matt Landreth’s Herr Faninal wanted only a tad more metal in his tone to further resound his great excitement when announcing the “wondrous day” of his daughter Sophie’s betrothal to Baron Ochs. As for Barbara Graham’s Sophie, the portrayal would, I’m sure, have ticked everybody’s set of boxes  – she was girlish, pretty, vivacious, tremulous, exuberant and impulsive, and her singing was clear, unforced and accurate, both radiant and charming in her responses to Octavian and the Silver Rose. The actual presentation scene was as breath-catching and for me as goose-pimply as ever, those gorgeous wind arabesques cleverly supported by the piano when sounding their usual lump-in-throat progressions. Both singers “caught” and superbly held the intensity of exchange and the growing of emotional experience of each of their characters.

The reintroduction of Ochs and his father-in-law elect properly burst the scene’s romantic bubble, and the subsequent business culminating in Octavian’s wounding of the Baron in a duel went with a roar and a swing – this production “made do” with only one “conspirator” rather than the usual Machiavellian pair, Imogen Thirlwall using her comic talent and gift for characterization as Annina to great effect. She nicely teased the wounded Baron with Octavian’s “Mariandel” letter, and set him up to positively revel in his famous Waltz Song – a nice “stage-business” touch was allowing Ochs every opportunity to seize the opportunity to waltz suggestively with the nearest available female every time the music appeared!

Without the “haunted-room” aspect, the final act centered much more on the “gulling” of the Baron by public exposure of his intentions, the setting up of the bogus wife’s arrival and her children more of a comic diversion here than a significant nail in his coffin. At the end I thought the innkeeper and his cohorts standing in a group bearing their sheaves of bills could have profitably contributed to the choreography of swirling bodies around and about the befuddled would-be-Casanova, rather like an added circlet of punishment from Dante’s Inferno! – the children’s efforts, complete with their compromising cries of “Papa! Papa!” were sturdy and valiant, but more of a maelstrom of activity around the Baron would have heightened the effect even more hilariously. Still, the Baron’s penchant for waltzing to his “tune” was nicely inverted by Imogen Thirlwall as the “bogus wife” grabbing hold of him and putting him through his reluctant paces once more, for all to see!

By this time Ochs’ undoing had been well-and-truly gazetted, with all the major players plus a Police Commissioner on the stage re-aligning the situation (the latter a sturdy comprimario from Simon Christie), and Octavian having put “Mariandel” to rest, to the unfortunate Baron’s eventual and bemused realization. With his exit came the famous trio for the Marshallin, Octavian and Sophie, here sung and acted as heartrendingly as if there was to be no tomorrow, by the three principals, followed by the Marshallin’s dignified exit with Herr Faninal, and the final duet for Octavian and Sophie. It would be churlish of me to comment that I thought Bianca Andrew’s delivery of the final ascending phrase a fraction too full to “balance” properly with Barbara Graham’s, so I will conclude instead by conveying a sense of the feeling which, among other things, overtook me as we listened to the opera’s final pages of being made to feel young once again – the efforts of all concerned with this production had, for this listener, resulted in a memorable and intensely-moving outcome.

Peter Mechen

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