In dark, damp December we need good cheer, and Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House delivers colour and spectacle. Indeed, it's not entirely a disadvantage that the staging is antique. Obviously the costumes (Maria Björnsen) are new-made, and the sets (William Dudley) have been refreshed, but the air of musty decay is deliberate, because it's an essential part of the narrative.
The passage of time haunts Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin knows she'll never be young again, and accedes to a new generation. Strauss depicts a Vienna that by 1911 was about to be swept away. Even Octavian and Sophie have long gone. At its 1984 premiere, John Schlesinger's production was state of the art, so seeing it after 25 years is like looking back into the past. What would Christmas be without reminiscence and fond memories?
There are those who think operas should be museum pieces, preserved forever at the moment of birth. In real life, though, every revival is a new work because the people involved are coming new to it. Even if they've sung the roles many times before, the specific demands of performance create a new dynamic. Directing revivals isn't easy, because everyone has to be inspired all over again.
Soile Isokoski is one of the greatest Strauss singers of our times. Her experience and reflective, emotional depth could have made this an exceptionally well-rounded Marschallin. Isokoski's voice has a smoky, wistful timbre that captures the Marschallin's true personality. For whatever reason, in this production, Isokoski's subtle approach seemed sidelined. Because so much is going on in the second act, it's easy to forget how the Marschallin permeates the opera even when she's not present. She was kleine Resi, just as Sophie is now. What happens in Faninal's mansion may well have happened in her paternal home. She may not appear again until the end, but it's "her" story, reprised anew.
Because the production is so high on visual values, the balance shifts to Octavian, who is, after all the Rosenkavalier, the personification of youth and the future. Sophie Koch is good, even her slight weaknesses play well into the character's immaturity. More gusto in the "dialect" passages would have been welcome, connecting to the social satire in the plot. Who knows what Octavian might become when he grows older? Lucy Crowe's Sophie is well acted, bringing out the spoilt brat parts of the role. Octavian could end up eaten alive. Strauss had Pauline, so he knew very well that in real life marriages don't follow the "rules" of society.
Indeed, there's a strong element of subversion in this opera, often overlooked in the frills and frou-frou. Strauss sends up the social order, parodying Viennese waltzes, depicting the baseness of aristocratic rule. Peter Rose's Baron Ochs is suitably brutish. Even a nobleman as debased as he would have been marginally literate, but von Hoffmansthal points out his illiteracy twice, so it won't be missed. Strauss builds similar crudity into the music, which Rose might have made more grotesque, but it wouldn't have worked against Kiril Petrenko's fairly civil and well-behaved conducting. It was good to hear two other Grandees of British opera, Thomas Allen and Graham Clark, as Faninal and Valzacchi.
This revival (directed by Andrew Sinclair) won't go down as one of the great moments in perfomance history, because it lacks the fire and pain that lies in the score. Nonetheless, it's still immeasurably better value than the usual level of "festive fare" on offer at this time of the year. Even if it's muted, it's still a decent artistic experience. Please also see production pictures and review on Opera Today.
PLEASE SEE my other posts on this Rosenkavalier, including a defence of the 1984 design. Also look up Elektra - also a revival but better than the premiere