tue 23/07/2024

Der Rosenkavalier, Garsington Opera review - musical marvels, drama less often fulfilled | reviews, news & interviews

Der Rosenkavalier, Garsington Opera review - musical marvels, drama less often fulfilled

Der Rosenkavalier, Garsington Opera review - musical marvels, drama less often fulfilled

Classy singing, conducting and playing, directorial holes in bold shot at rococo Strauss

A knot to be untied: Sophie (Madison Leonard), Baron Ochs (Derick Ballard), Octavian (Hanna Hipp) and the Marschallin (Miah Persson) in Act 3Julien Guidera

Whatever else happens on the country opera scene this summer, the golden rose award for sheer chutzpah goes to the ever-ambitious Garsington team in pulling this off in no small style. Planning any production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s intricate 1911 “comedy for music” is daring at the best of times; in the still-shaky Covid era, the decision to go ahead might have seemed foolhardy.

The life-saver would seem to have been Eberhard Kloke’s reduced orchestration of the 100-plus-players original, briefly annoying in places where a piano substitutes for instruments still available, but otherwise sounding rich and full in this acoustic with superlative Philharmonia playing under a young conductor who really knows what he’s doing, Jordan de Souza.

Production-wise, things fare less well under director Bruno Ravella, hampered no doubt by the no-touching rule (Garsington’s Onegin seems to get round it more successfully, taking into account that close encounters can last for up to a minute, one-metre distance for a quarter of an hour). In the Marschallin’s bedroom, rather overwhelmed by the swirling grey rather than silver stucco excrescences of Gary McCann’s set, a smug Cupid (spiritedly played by young George Nearn Stuart) leaves us to imagine the goings on between the 32-year-old Marschallin and her 17-year-old lover in the horny Prelude. They have to keep their distance, too, in a not so intimate breakfast, and while in the great final scene of Act One, where the Marschallin’s musings on the situation of a young girl being married off to an odious aristocrat lead her to reflect on passing time, there’s a distance between the moody lady and her lover, some attempts on Octavian’s part to shake her out of her half-melancholy need to be seen. Miah Persson and Hanna Hipp in Der RosenkavalierThat’s partly why Miah Persson’s Marschallin, newly ravishing in 1950s fashion (pictured above by Johan Persson with Hipp), seems more petulant and unkind than half-gracious. We do catch a moment of inwardness towards the end of the soliloquy, but the through-processes which dictate her behaviour, and which could be read in the close quarters of the Garsington pavilion, don’t really register. The real pain belongs to Octavian, impulsively sung with flaming top notes by Hanna Hipp. I still wonder if more could be done at a conversational level; as in the Onegin; conifdentiality would work better and would certainly carry in this space. In the resolution of the triangle which develops when Octavian, at her bidding, takes the silver rose to the bride-to-be and falls in love with her himself, there are psychological holes in what should be the tensions between the three, though the rightly celebrated trio is finely paced by de Souza and brings top vocal rewards. Sophie, the feisty daughter of title-hunting nouveau-riche Faninal, is vividly played and sung by Madison Leonard, an ideal performance (pictured below by Julien Guidera with Hipp in the Presentation of the Rose). Presentation of the Rose at GarsingtonHow often do you come across a Rosenkavalier where all four principals are up to the mark, as they are here, love 'em or hate 'em? Baron Ochs, sexist pig, is a real horror in the energetic characterisation of Derrick Ballard: beyond the hilarious red-headed and -whiskered look, there’s nothing to make us warm to him (perhaps Ravella doesn’t intend that we should). He treats his bastard son and valet Leopold appallingly; you think there’s more to be developed in that non-singing role, but the poor boy doesn’t progress beyond being cuffed and looking miserable.

The Marschallin’s levee in Act One is too low-key, and it’s an obvious mistake to have the Italian tenor’s aria on its first appearance sung offstage by a character who emerges as a gardener with white roses (Oliver Johnston, sounding too good when he does appear to have been kept in the wings). Group action chez Faninal is much better; the promising young singers of the 24-strong chorus – one of two that Garsington have championed this season – always know what they’re doing and deliver the bit parts with aplomb, above all, in the sleazy private pub room of Act Three, Alexander Aldren as the spivvy innkeeper and the police commissar of Julian Close, rich bass-baritone who could step into Ochs’s shoes at a moment’s notice (he’s sung the role before). Scene in the inn from Garsington's RosenkavalierThe two big ensemble crises fly like the wind, mostly thanks to de Souza’s impeccable pacing and the brilliant articulation of the Philharmonia players, but Ravella does have some good gags, especially at the inn, with the splendid children purporting to be Ochs’s offspring, sporting red wigs, and the pregnant “country wenches” popping up through trap doors and walls. Hipp has fun here with Octavian’s pointedly bad drag as chambermaid “Mariandel”, ripe for deflowering by the Baron, and Kitty Whately’s Annina-as-discarded-wife relishes her role too (pictured above centre-back by Julien Guidera with Ballard's Ochs and the "children", Richard Burkhard's Faninal and Close's Commissar on the right). She’s brilliant in the Act Two waltz-finale where she reads the assignation letter to Ochs, never better pointed.

From all this you may see that I ended up loving it in spite of the shortcomings; a musically together and vocally rich Rosenkavalier isn’t to be sniffed at. Radical, no, neither as meticulously detailed as Richard Jones's Glyndebourne triumph or as thought-provokingly off-piste as Barry Kosky's dreamworks for Munich (the only production of recent years not to have adopted the usual cuts). Moved I wasn't beyond the sheer sound of the women’s voices; but I’m glad the whole enterprise is being filmed – there’s way too much to relish in this labour of love to let disappointments gain the upper hand.

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