Despite a strong personal inclination for tragedy over comedy (it’s not a proper opera if nobody dies), my first experience of Rosenkavalier was overall an enjoyable one, and will not be my last. However, the performance was patchy, with an unusually clear delineation between the good and bad bits. (On checking out a few other reviews, I am amused to find that certain critics report an almost exact mirror image of my opinion.)
The good bits, as far as I was concerned, were the scenes involving any combination of the Marschallin (Janice Watson), Octavian (Sarah Connolly) and Sophie (Sarah Tynan). All three sounded gorgeous, were individually convincing in their very different parts, and meshed well as an ensemble. I have seen Watson described as a Strauss specialist, and she certainly seemed very assured in both this particular role and the musical style, being particularly effective – and affecting – in Act 1 where she talks of her realisation she is growing old. I have been keeping an ear out for Tynan since seeing her as the scooter-riding Woodbird in the ENO Siegfried a few years ago. Although in comparison to Watson she sometimes gave the impression of lacking confidence, this was not at all inappropriate for Sophie, and so was not an issue. Her voice, although light, was pure and clear enough to carry over the orchestra without any trouble. Sarah Connolly was excellent as Octavian; I like her voice very much, and she is definitely one of the most convincing male impersonators I’ve seen on the opera stage in the last few years! I thought she was rather dashing in her super-shiny suit of armour for the rose scene. It seemed a rather odd thing to be wearing, but I’m quite prepared to believe it was part of the custom of the time and place. The Mariandel scenes were a bit panto-style (albeit quite funny), but then cross-dressing-centric comedy is generally not intended to be that subtle.
The bad bits, again, as far as I was concerned, generally involved Baron Ochs, hammed up to within an inch of his life by Sir John Tomlinson. Accomplished though he is at playing lecherous drunken old pervs, I couldn’t help feeling that the character of the Baron ought to be maybe a little sympathetic rather than just pathetic and dislikeable. He certainly brought energy to the part, but expended most of it on doing funny little jigs (generally as a precursor to sexual assault) and chasing various females around the stage like an operatic Benny Hill. Vocally, he often produced a fine sound for stretches at a time in the middle register, but with very little sound at the bottom, and wayward tuning or shouting at the top. Another unpleasant sound was the squawky Duenna (Janice Cairns), but I’m assuming that was an intentional part of the characterisation. Of the rest of the cast, I can’t really say that any especially stood out for me, although none were unsatisfactory. I was a little disappointed in Andrew Shore, as I think highly of him, but I suppose Herr von Fanimal doesn’t offer the best opportunity to shine vocally.
Not knowing this particular opera, I only have other Strauss works for comparison when it comes to the orchestra. I was glad that Edward Gardner kept it quite spiky and not too lush or rubato-filled, as it could perhaps have been cloying at times (but wasn’t). There were certain times when different sections of the orchestra didn’t sound as if they were quite playing together, but I couldn’t say whether this was due to slightly ragged timing or was in fact the effect Strauss intended. The navigation of some technically challenging ensemble passages in the woodwind was very good, though. I was intrigued by the timbres of the flute section; it sounded like the principal flute was using a wooden headjoint, and the bloke on piccolo played with a woody, quite diffuse timbre which, although lacking in sparkle, blended unusually well with the rest of the section.
The costumes were generally elegant, with pretty long dresses, velvet coats, tall boots, etc. No idea if they were the ‘correct period’, but they all seemed to more or less match, apart from some suspiciously modern-looking hairstyles. There was lots of gold fabric and candles, so it was all quite pleasant on the eye, if not as interesting as one might expect from a David McVicar design. I was surprised that the same set was used for the three acts (with some different furniture), but I took it to be making the point that although the characters all make a big deal about social classification, they are not so different really.
I expect it is sacrilege to say this, but I’d really be tempted to put some severe cuts in this opera (and this is from me who will quite happily listen to every note of Parsifal or Siegfried). The serious bits are wonderful, but the Carry-On-style comedy bits just go on for far too long. The final trio was heartstoppingly beautiful, so why not just end there? Ok, Octavian and Sophie’s final duet is pretty good (especially the regretful discordant woodwind chords where Octavian wonders if he’s really done the right thing swapping his Marschallin for little Sophie), but what’s with the cleaner and the hanky? Must be a comedy thing…