Der Rosenkavalier at WNO

I’m in London attending a cosmology meeting (of which more, perhaps, anon) but I couldn’t resist posting a quick review of yesterday’s birthday treat: the first performance of a new production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. It wasn’t exactly a first night as such because it was a 3pm start. In fact it was still daylight when I got home..

Der Rosenkavalier is superficially a comic opera but it also moments of great depth and poignancy, dealing with the passage of time and the nature of love. The libretto contains some lovely passages, such as this:

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts.
Aber dann auf einmal, da spürt man nichts als sie.
Sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie,
im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
in meinen Schläfen fliesst sie.
Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder,
lautlos, wie eine Sanduhr.

Most of the comedy is supplied by an intrigue involving the boorish Baron Ochs, played brilliantly by bass Brindley Sherrat, who wishes to marry the innocent Sophie (largely to acquire the property of Sophie’s father). The Baron engages dashing young Octavian to deliver a ceremonial silver rose to Sophie as a wedding gift. Octavian arrives with the gift but falls in love at first sight with Sophie and his feelings are reciprocated. When the Baron turns out to be the horrible git that he is, Octavian engineers a plot to discredit him, rescue Sophie from a potentially disastrous marriage and claim her for himself. The cunning plan, which proves successful, involves Octavian dressing as a maid in order to catch the Baron in flagrante.

It’s worth mentioning that the part of 17-year old Octavian is played by a female singer – in this production the excellent Lucia Cervoni – who at one point has to be a girl playing a boy playing a girl, rather like Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro. Sounds silly? Well, it is but it was beautifully done and gloriously funny.

Octavian (right) presents Sophie with the silver rose..

Octavian is a `trouser role’ but in this production the character begins with trousers off, having a bit of rumpy-pumpy with the Marschallin (played by the wonderful Rebecca Evans), who is much older than Octavian. At the start of the Opera they are in a passionate relationship, but the Marschallin is conscious of the passage of time and that her relationship with Octavian can’t last. At the end of Act I, she points out to Octavian that their relationship can’t go on and he storms out, shortly to meet young Sophie (in Act II).

In this production the Marschallin is often accompanied on stage by the silent and solitary figure of an old lady, who it turns out is a representation of herself in later life. It’s a clever device and would have been even more effective had the old lady not reminded me so much of Madge Allsop

The staging is in period, and for the most part pleasantly straightforward but there is a rather gimmicky element of steadily encroaching sand, presumably ‘the sands of time’ referred to in the last line of the excerpt quoted above. I felt this was neither necessary nor convincing. The theme of time’s inexorable progress is clear enough. There’s no need to labour it.

Near the end of Act III, after much coming and going, and the odious Baron’s entrapment and humiliation, the Marschallin  is left alone with her former lover Octavian and his intended bride Sophie, we arrive at the Opera’s emotional high point, and indeed one of the most sublime moments in the entire operatic repertoire, the sumptuous trio Hab Mir’s Gelobt,  in which the Marschallin comes to terms with the loss of Octavian and blesses the relationship between him and Sophie. This is one of the pieces of music that really affects me very powerfully, and I am not too proud to admit that I did let go a tear or two. Maybe more. Not because it is especially sad, but because it’s so very beautiful the way the three voice blend together and with the orchestra.

I don’t give star ratings but from a vocal point of view this is definitely one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on the Opera stage. All four principals: Rebecca Evans, Lucia Cervoni, Brindley Sherratt and Louise Alder (Sophie) rose to the challenges of their roles in great style. All were superb so it would be wrong to single out one, but I will say that I was surprised to discover that this was Rebecca Evan’s debut as the Marschallin – she was just about perfect in the role.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera directed by Tomas Hanus played Strauss’s lush score with great precision and passion,  holding together a wonderful afternoon at the Wales Millennium Centre. An altogether excellent way to spend a birthday afternoon!

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5 Responses to “Der Rosenkavalier at WNO”

  1. I did wonder when the old biddy wandering about in the 1st & 3rd Acts would get to sing, and was slightly disappointed that she didn’t. Surely they could have written something in for her? Also surprised to see the sand falling from the flies in Act 1 finding its way into both von Faninal’s house and the inn. Sands of time maybe, but there did seem to be an awful lot of it.

    But the reaction of the audience said it all. People all around me were sobbing into their handkerchiefs at the end. And as you say it was a wonderful cast: Brindley Sherratt demonstrating that it is possible to be a real bass and still sing in tune, Rebecca Evans showing that even as her lower register is becoming richer with time, she can float her trademark high pianissimos as well as ever – [“Da drinn ist die silberne Ros’n” at the very end of Act 1 was magic.], and some real talent in the minor roles too.

  2. “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.
    Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts.
    Aber dann auf einmal, da spürt man nichts als sie.
    Sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
    In den Gesichtern rieselt sie,
    im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
    in meinen Schläfen fliesst sie.
    Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder,
    lautlos, wie eine Sanduhr.”

    Time is a strange thing
    Unnoticed when living care-free
    Then suddenly one feels nothing but time
    It surrounds us and is inside us
    It runs in faces
    It runs in the mirror
    It flows in my temples
    And it flows between me and you
    Silently, like an hourglass

  3. Not to be outdone, I attended a Baroque concert last night for which I bought the ticket about a year ago (I like to sit in the front row). Although part of a series featuring Anna Prohaska, it in fact featured several soloists, on violin, flute, harpsichord, and trumpet. I don’t think that I have ever attended a concert after which there was more applause. Rather oddly, there was no encore. This might have been because it would have been difficult to find something featuring all the soloists, and singling out one (or doubling out two) would have been strange.

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