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Monday 6 February 2012

Der Rosenkavalier at ENO


Der Rosenkavalier is one of my favourite operas, but it is also one of the most problematic operas in the standard repertoire, and I do not love it uncritically. On the whole this is top drawer Strauss, one of the most vital and brilliant scores that he ever wrote, allied to one of the finest librettos of any opera. There is so much to love - the classic bits that are often excerpted (the Act I monologue, Act II presentation of the Rose, Act III trio and duet) are amongst the most gorgeous set pieces in opera since Mozart. It is, like its predecessors in Strauss' oeuvre, meticulously crafted, millions of notes splurged across hundreds of pages of score, the whole an unbelievably opulent and ravishingly beautiful aural tapestry which glows with a genuine warmth and a saccharine beauty that Strauss never quite equaled in his other operas. As always his orchestration is absolutely masterful, never misjudged, the breathtakingly beautiful instrumentatations as apt for the aching harmonies as Salome's frothing counterpoint was for the sexually febrile phantasmagoria of that work. Der Rosenkavalier is however about an hour too long, or rather, there is an hour of music in it which is second or even third rate - principally the middle of act II, and beginning of Act III - where Strauss slips into notespinning and dross, and I have never seen a production which has been able to save the audience from these appalling languors. It is an operetta story, given a Wagnerian musicdrama treatment both in the music and in the libretto so whilst it certainly goes further and deeper than any operetta of this period, it also can't quite support it's own massive, glutinous weight.

As already mentioned, the libretto is superb, with Hofmannsthal delighting in providing providing endless "period" details, both actual and from the stage of the time it was set (Marie Therese's Vienna of the 1740s) culled from diaries, his beloved Moliere (from which sprung the later Ariadne auf Naxos also), commedia dell'arte, traditional farce, Beaumarchais and seemingly a hundred other sources to create a complete and vivid Vienna that never existed. This sentimental nostalgia for some notion of "old Vienna" was very common at this time in Viennese culture, even amongst forward looking modern writers and thinkers like Hofmannsthal. That he should be so interested in accurate period detail is fascinating when the overarching concerns of the piece are so clearly contemporary to his time. The plight of women, the atmosphere of sexual infidelities of his time, the ending of old empires in decadence and decay and the rise of the middle classes, the breaking down of class barriers - these were all highly pertinent issues in Vienna in 1909.

One particularly piquant source of inspiration for Hofmannsthal is Hogarth's Marriage a-La-Mode series. Piquant because it is Strauss' polar opposite, Stravinsky, with his own genius librettist, Auden, who also looked to Hogarth to produce their own 18th century pastiche, with such different results.

Anyone who knows the first act of Rosenkavalier well will have fun spotting the number of details Hofmannsthal culled from the above Hogarth. Even the sexual tones of the act are here (though only implicitly): the paintings on the walls all depict scenes of biblical seduction. Elements of act II derive from another of this series.

Operatically then, what are the precedents? Most obvious is Beaumarchais via Mozart and Da Ponte in Le Nozze di Figaro - in fact it was Strauss' initial idea to produce a modern Figaro. The parallels between the Countess and the Marschallin are clear - she is trapped in wedlock to a husband who has ceased to love her and though saddened she is not embittered and remains noble and strong. Dramatically too she functions similarly in the piece: she has the most beautiful music and adds a seriousness and wistful melancholia to the work, though in the earlier work the quasi-sexual undertones to the relationship that she has with her young (travesti) Godson are only hinted at rather than explicit. The passionately impulsive, confused young man played by a woman, who then dresses up as a woman is also an idea Hofmannsthal takes from the earlier piece, though is a classic element of Viennese farce and adds curious elements of sexual ambiguity (and sexual frisson) to proceedings. But the character of the Marschallin also derives from Wagner's Hans Sachs - her reflective monologues on the subject of aging and the passing of time and also her relinquishing of a younger lover. Both are amongst the most moving and complete characters that these two composers created, and are a gift for talented performers.

This is the first revival of David McVicar's 2008 production for the ENO. It's all very traditional looking, with crinolines, lace and chandeliers, so traditionalists need not be afraid. The set is appropriately grand, but not overdetailed, and looks like a palace in the first stages of disrepair - the Marschallin is reflected in her surroundings. Act I was well paced, and if there wasn't quite enough bustle in the central portion the romantic scenes which frame it were very movingly directed. At the end of the act, as the Marschallin lies sobbing silently in her bed, the lighting in the room becomes dimmed and autumnal, and this evocation of day changing to night and of summer becoming autumn intimated in its understated way a death scene.

Act II is difficult to direct because it climaxes so early musically and the rest seems like tedious working out. Unfortunately, the set hardly changed although the location had, which meant it was visually fairly boring, and McVicar failed to make the action characterful enough for it not to drag. The presentation of the Rose was at least well handled, and with such a large cast watching from onstage, and such restrained action from both of the young lovers, one was really drawn into these characters trying to contain their rapture and ecstasy in such an embarrassingly public space.

The farce of the third act was great, largely due to John Tomlinson, and meant it hardly dragged at all. Unfortunately again the set had hardly changed meaning that the Marschallin's bedroom turned out to be little different from a room in a brothel. Maybe McVicar was trying to show the moral equivalency of the three social classes here, but I don't think so. Hmm. Though the Marschallin's entrance was commanding, I found the final trio strangely underwhelming both dramatically and musically.

This brings me on to the biggest problem with this production: The ENO. The problems are two fold. First, the Coliseum. The acoustics are just awful, and in this of all works you need a combination of detail and power for it to make its impact. Both of these things were lacking here and what emerged from the pit was a sort of hazy, pasteley, mezzo-piano mush. I had an excellent seat (row B of the Dress circle), so it wasn't the famously terrible boxyness of the large overhangs. At first I thought it might have been the fault of Edward Gardner with the ENO orchestra who seemed to be holding everything on a leash, but I think it was as much to do with the building as anything. It's impossible to be enveloped in the sound in there.

The second problem is that it is sung in English. I've complained about this before, but again, in this of all works, the marriage of text and music is one of the most beautiful in all of opera, and to divorce them is to lose something fundamental to its appeal. Though this translation is a good one as far as it can be, it has not one tenth of the beauty of Hofmannsthal's original German. And though I speak German, even for someone who doesn't understand German I think this is an issue: the way that Strauss uses the language, the rhythm of the speech, the colours of the words and contours of each phrase, these things are all compromised so heavily as to be disfiguring when sung in translation and a very significant part of the beauty of the work is lost.*

Before I attended this, I was very worried about Amanda Roocroft's Marschallin after the highly uneven singing I witnessed from her at the ROH last year in Peter Grimes. Here things were more under control, though we weren't treated to the luxury silk on velvet that we have come to expect from singers in this role. Her acting was largely good, though in her Act I monologue she was singing it to the audience too much - we are meant to feel that we are witnessing an extremely intimate moment of reflection and self doubt - the drama needs to be internal and draw us in, rather than presented to us as if she really is talking to an audience, even imagined. Sarah Connolly is a good Octavian, though I can't trumpet her like others seem to - the voice is a little mature sounding and she seems a bit too commanding as a man - the vulnerability that we might expect in a 17 year old just isn't there. Sophie Bevan I thought sounded a little dark for her role - this is the apogee of silvery soubrette roles, it needs to be effortless and girlish and shimmering. She can certainly sing the notes though, but I think she might be better cast in something else (Donna Elvira? Gluck? Handel?)

The role of Ochs is one of the lowest and highest of all Bass roles, and John Tomlinson barely made it at either end of the tessitura. But the middle is still firm and powerful, and he is a superb actor - absolutely inhabiting this role, he brings to Ochs a tremendous energy and vitality that make him almost too likable - certainly the most likable Ochs I've ever witnessed! A joy to see him as ever, despite the vocal wear. The many lesser roles were mostly well taken, though Gwyn Hughes Jones was a horribly forced and nasal sounding Italian tenor.

All in all then, not the most enjoyable outing of this lovely work, and not quite worth it for its defects. But it was nice to see it just before Figaro at the ROH and so soon after Meistersinger.

*The ENO will, for the first time do an opera in it's original language in three years time - Ariadne Auf Naxos with the prologue in English and the Opera in German - so there is hope!!! I know so many people who actively avoid the ENO mainly because of the English singing. I really think it's one of the things which holds them back. I don't know anyone who likes going because it's in English.


  1. Excellent news about 'Ariadne': well, partially excellent. I couldn't agree more about the issue of translation, especially in an age of surtitles. At best, ENO's translations do not get in the way too much; far too often, they ruin everything. A particular culprit here is Jeremy Sams: those unforgivably cheapening monstrosities he has inflicted upon Mozart... Likewise, I have never met a single soul who has spoken of translation as an attraction; reactions range from 'what a pity' to never darkening the doors.

    I think you are, if anything, too generous in the present case. The translation used was often misleading, inconsistent, and straightforwardly banal. If I remember correctly, the Marschallin's final words were 'oh yes'...

  2. I agree with everything you say of course. Though I pity them because it's an impossible task really to do an accurate translation, that is poetically beautiful, true to the spirit of the original, and keep within the meter, especially with this particular composer and librettist. Part of Hofmannsthal's genius is how much he says with so little, and never is that truer than in the Marschalin's monologue, where the translation's limitations were felt most keenly.

    Ya, ya.