Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, January 2012

For those who love this Strauss/Hofmannsthal collaboration, the programme booklet contains an interesting essay by Mike Reynolds, describing the vital contributions by Hofmannsthal’s collaborator, Count Harry Kessler. This well-connected and talented man, who was brought up in France, England and Germany, chose the plot and had a huge influence on its structure and realisation. The result inspired Strauss to create one of the most glorious operas ever written, and in Ronald Harwoood’s play Collaboration when the 80-year old Strauss is faced by allied soldiers at his house in 1945, he says, “I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Rosenkavalier“.

The silver rose in Act II, all images by Clive Barda

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act I

Such a fabulous opera deserves performances of the highest calibre, and we had some here at the ENO. John Tomlinson is perhaps the finest Baron Ochs I have ever seen, giving this dreadful character a boorish aplomb that never goes over the top, and his diction, as ever, renders surtitles superfluous. He finds his match in the Octavian of Sarah Connolly, who invests this travesti role with youthful rambunctiousness, and sings with glorious power.  And then there is the Sophie of Sophie Bevan, who after a nervous start in Act II sang with quiet charm, floating her high notes above the confusion created by Ochs. Her meek responses to the Marschallin in Act III were enunciated with a tension that will remain with me as a template for all future performances of this opera. The Marschallin herself was Amanda Roocroft, a singer I have admired greatly as E.M. in Makropulos,  as Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, and more recently as Eva in Meistersinger, but she has yet to inhabit the present role. I liked the wistfulness she showed in Act I after Octavian has left and she suddenly realises her little joke may kill their amours, and again in Act III her acceptance that the affair with Octavian is now over, but her portrayal needed more gravitas, and her appearance to quieten the confusion in Act III, which can be a high point of the opera, fell rather flat.

Amanda Roocroft in Act I

Musically the performance flowed with great charm under the baton of Edward Gardner, who gave fine support to the singers and produced magnificent climaxes from the orchestra at suitable moments, such as after Octavian leaves in Act I, and in the final Act.

The supporting roles were performed with great panache, the scheming Valzacchi and Annina well portrayed by Adrian Thompson and Madeleine Shaw, who whirled elegantly to the waltz time of the music as she handed the letter to Ochs towards the end of Act II. Marianne Leitmetzerin had great stage presence as Sophie’s duenna, prodding her charge with a fan to keep her on track in the conversation with Octavian, and Gwyn Hughes Jones was super as the Italian singer at the Marschallin’s levée in Act I. As Sophie’s father Faninal, Andrew Shore bristled with restrained emotion, and as he walked over to embrace his daughter towards the end of Act III he invested the moment with heartfelt reality.

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act III

This is a revival of David McVicar’s 2008 production, which comes from Scottish Opera, and I’m afraid I have reservations. Could someone please tell the supers not to run round pointing rifles at Ochs in Act III — this is the Austro-Hungarian empire, not the wild west — and Faninal offers Ochs a very old tokai, not a brandy. Tokai is a lovely sweet wine from Hungary, low in alcohol, just right for that time of day. Why can’t Alfred Kalisch, the translator keep with the original? And while on the topic why does he introduce claret when Ochs lies wounded on the couch? The text says nothing of claret, and in any case it was not served in a claret bottle.

These irritations aside, the scene for the presentation of the silver rose with Octavian in silver armour had a fairy-tale charm, and the musical quality of the performance makes this a must-see, particularly with the glorious representations of Ochs and Octavian by Tomlinson and Connolly.

Wonderful stuff, but be aware that performances, which continue until February 27, start at 6:30, or 5:30 on Saturdays — for details click here.

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