WNO’s ‘Musically Glorious’ Rosenkavalier shines in a Perceptive and Focused Production

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Tomáš Hanus (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 10.6.2017. (GPu)

Rebecca Evans (Marschallin); photo credit: Bill Cooper.
Rebecca Evans (Marschallin) in WNO’s Der Rosenkavalier (c) Bill Cooper

The Marschallin – Rebecca Evans
Octavian – Lucia Cervoni
Sophie von Faninal – Louise Alder
Baron Ochs – Brindley Sherratt
Herr von Faninal – Adrian Clarke
Valzacchi – Peter van Hulle
Annina – Madeleine Shaw
Marianne Leitnetzerin (Sophie’s Companion) – Angharad Morgan
A Lawyer – Alastair Moore
Landlord – Michael Clifton-Thompson
Commissar of Police – Matthew Hargreaves
The Old Marschalin – Margaret Baiton
Major-Domo to the Marschalin – Adam Music
Mohammed – Kayed Mohammad-Mason

Director – Olivia Fuchs
Designer – Niki Turner
Chorus Master – Stephen Harris
Costume Designer – Deirdre Clancey
Lighting Designer – Ian Jones

The libretto which Hugo von Hofmannsthal provided for Der Rosenkavalier seems to me to be amongst the richest in the operatic canon. It has so many different dimensions of possibility – there are plentiful opportunities for comedy, a good deal of ‘philosophy’ (bound up with questions of individual psychology and emotion) and much that is genuinely moving. And, indeed, there is a good deal of real poetry.

As such, it offers much (too much?) to directors and opera companies. The ‘muchness’ has its difficulties: how to balance the diverse elements? How to sustain an overall coherence? How to make sense of a sizeable range of characters of contrasting attitudes and, above all, of utterly different levels of self-awareness? The opera also needs a large and accomplished orchestra and at least four good soloists (for the roles of the Marschallin, Octavian, Sophie and Baron Ochs) as well as a large supporting cast.

Musically speaking, the evening was an unqualified success. For the second time in his first season as musical director of WNO, Tomáš Hanus displayed his mastery of the Viennese tradition. He elicited a great deal of beautiful playing from the orchestra, sumptuous when it needed to be, delicately chamber-like in the attention to detail when that was needed. The singers were thoughtfully supported throughout, with dynamics and tempi perfectly judged.

The team of principal soloists was excellent. Rebecca Evans’s early reputation was, to some extent, built on her interpretation of the role of Sophie in this opera, so that there was something very appropriate in the fact that she should now be making her debut as the Marschallin. Her understanding of, and sympathy with, Strauss’s writing was absolute and the results had beauty and grace in almost every phrase. Evans’s beauty of tone had a dignity and maturity that became profound elements in our understanding of the Marschallin’s character. As Octavian, initially the youthful lover of the Marschallin and ultimately betrothed to Sophie, the Canadian mezzo Lucia Cervoni (making her company debut) was impressive, secure in tone and pitch and with a sufficient range of vocal colour to convince (within the conventions of the form) both as a young man being a young man and as a young man pretending to be a young girl. The Sophie of the highly-promising Louise Alder was an absolute joy, sung with ardent lyricism at all points, whether in her initial naivety, her brave resistance to her arranged marriage to Baron Ochs or her growing realization of her love for Octavian. The blending of these three female voices in the Act III trio was a thing of extraordinary beauty and power. That trio strikes me as almost worthy of Mozart, though obviously very different in idiom, and I have rarely, if ever, heard it sung better. Strauss’s writing for Baron Ochs is a good deal less interesting than the music he gives to the three women, but Brindley Sherratt found some moments of gruff beauty in it and showed us what a flexible and precise bass voice he has. This, after all, is a man who has sung important roles (such as Sarastro) at major opera houses around the world. There are many smaller, cameo roles in the opera, and these (some of them sung by members of the WNO chorus) were uniformly well done.

This was a co-production between WNO and Theater Magdeburg and Olivia Fuchs’s production was first performed in Magdeburg some three years ago. It is, largely speaking, very good. My one reservation is that it is weaker in its presentation of the work’s comedy than its representation of its ideas and sentiments. Ideally, for example, the first part of Act III, in which a series of comic contrivances interrupt and prevent Baron Ochs’s seduction (or rape?) of the supposed Mariendel should have an uproarious chaos like something from a Marx Brothers film. Here, though everyone put into the scene as much energy as they could, it never took flight, never became truly uproarious. Nor did Brindley Sherratt’s repulsive Baron Ochs get as many laughs (however uncomfortable) as it might have done, earlier in the opera.

Elsewhere, however, there was much to admire. I generally feel rather uneasy about the current directorial fashion for the addition of a kind of silent doppelganger of one of the main characters. Fuchs added a frail, elderly Marschallin, played with eloquent dignity by Margaret Baiton, a ‘vision’ (in more senses than one) of the future of the Marschallin (and of all of us, of course).  This silent figure while never menacing and not present in every scene, was a powerful silent embodiment, as she wandered slowly around, and through, several scenes, of that process of growing old, the experience of mutability and transience which is one of the things at the heart of Hofmannsthal’s libretto. The moments when the eyes of the 32 years old Marschallin met those of her elderly ‘self’ were full of poignancy and emotional ambiguity,

Although the production was set in the Vienna of 1911, rather than of the mid-eighteenth century as in the original, Olivia Fuchs made less effort than many directors do to bring out the work’s anticipations – they are certainly there – of social breakdown, the First World War and the demise of the Austrian empire. Nor did she do much to emphasise the difference between the ‘real’ aristocracy of the Marschallin’s world and its attempted imitation in the pseudo aristocratic world of the arriviste von Faninals. Fuchs’s focus was, rather, on the personal experience of ageing and transience, and on the related acquisition (or not) of self-knowledge. One might argue that this is a more universal theme, and in its exploration of such a theme, this production worked well and memorably.

As I suggested earlier, this is by no means an ‘easy’ opera to mount. It is, however, an important, subtle and beautiful work and all concerned in this fine production of it deserve a good deal of both praise and gratitude.

 Glyn Pursglove



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