Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, December 2016

The essence of Robert Carsen’s powerful new production is time. By setting it in the period of its creation, the early twentieth century rather than the mid-eighteenth, he compresses time, giving those glorious late nineteenth century waltz melodies and the story itself the feel of a world about to be changed forever, as indeed it was.

All images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

All images ROH/ Catherine Ashmore

Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal created this in 1911 shortly before the Great War, seen in a fleeting glimpse at the very end. Yet time is with us throughout the opera, notably in the Marschallin’s poetic Act I soliloquy about its depredations where she admits to rising occasionally in the middle of the night to stop all the clocks. And in Act III Carsen seems almost to play with time itself. Immediately the Marschallin has finally banished Ochs (Ist halt vorbei) the scene changes to the exterior of the brothel for his departure pursued by bills and creditors, before revealing again its interior, for a superbly sung trio. This has the effect of separating from the real world the feelings emerging from Octavian, Sophie and the Marschallin, allowing time to stand still before moving forward to a future none of them can foresee as Franz-Joseph’s Austrian Empire sleepwalks to its destruction.

Ochs and Mariandel

Ochs and Mariandel in Act 1

Renée Fleming was an elegant and beautifully nuanced Marschallin, Alice Coote a boldly thrusting Octavian, showing fine masculine presence and timbre, Sophie Bevan produced gloriously gentle top notes as Sophie, and Matthew Rose portrayed Ochs as a narcissistically stylish, rural Don Juan, rather than the coarse oafish persona he is sometimes given. Indeed Strauss was very particular on this point, as he was on the acting ability of the singers, and Carsen’s success in this respect provides both wit and poignancy. Sophie’s father Faninal is an arms dealer of great determination, and his daughter takes after him in this trait, insecure and out of her depth with the gracious Marschallin.

Ochs and Mariandel in Act 2

Ochs and Mariandel in Act 2

The stylised choreography in Act II adds a clever note of contrivance to the Faninal drawing room where brand new cannons appear for the delectation of the guests, and I loved the large Greek warrior frieze around the walls. There is much to like in the details of this production: the military pictures on the walls in Act I convey a sense of the Marschallin occupying a world not entirely her own, the white-suited Italian tenor, gloriously sung by Giorgio Berrugi, represents Enrico Caruso as he hands her an early recording disc, the skilfully crafted movements of Annina (Helene Schneiderman) and Valzacchi (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) never go over the top, and the transvestite brothel owner (Alasdair Elliott) adds a note of gay abandon to the trap set by Octavian.

Sophie out of her depth with the Marschallin in Act 3

Sophie out of her depth with the Marschallin in Act 3

One could quibble about the rather too obvious lighting changes and a lack of magic in the Silver Rose presentation, though the house of an arms dealer anxious to attach himself to the established nobility is hardly a place of enchantment. Jochen Schmeckenbecher portrayed this wealthy dealer to perfection, and Scott Conner as Police Commissioner was excellent.

Musical direction by Andris Nelsons, who also conducted Strauss’s Salome and Elektra at Covent Garden in recent years, was muscular and full-blooded while retaining a lightness of touch. This was a very different Rosenkavalier from the previous one, but utterly compelling.

Performances, with some cast changes, continue until January 24, and a BBC Radio 3 broadcast is scheduled on January 14 — for details click here.

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