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Thursday 29 May 2014

Rosenkavalier with Schwanewilms, Connolly, Crowe, LSO, Elder

With Glyndebourne's new Der Rosenkavalier not yet opened, and the Birmingham performance just around the corner, this concert acted as a wonderful taster menu of this opera, taking all the most delicious cuts of that score, immaculately prepared with the finest ingredients. The good music of Der Rosenkavalier is so great that the opera always comes to mind if I'm asked to list my favourite ten operas (or whatever the latest twitter game might be.) In a great performance with three great female voices, there is little to match it for sheer sonic beauty. The whole thing is made even more moving by Hofmannsthal's wonderful libretto, and again in the hands of an artist who can respond to its nuance and gentle colours, there is little like it in the repertoire. But the appalling languors of the opera, the huge stretches of routine, always stick in my throat, and make the piece exceptionally difficult to stage effectively in my experience, that is, to make it a fully convincing, engaging evening.

These concerns don't arise in a concert performance of highlights, and this generous selection, lasting well over an hour, was pure pleasure from start to finish. We first got the opening sequence - the sex/orgasm overture, afterglow, morning light, Mohammed's interruption, and coffee. The chemistry between Anne Schwanewilms' Marschallin and Sarah Connolly's Octavian was so believable and tender, that I'm not sure I've seen anything more erotic on an operatic stage this year. Funny how the acting can be so much more natural, intimate and engaging without all the other trappings of grand oper: sets, wigs, 'realistic' period costumes, and perhaps most crucially without a long rehearsal process which can kill spontaneity. A 50 year old woman trying to look like a 17 year old boy isn't sexy. A 50 year old woman playing male teenage passion and frustration is. I often find opera singers' acting to be more moving in concert performances, perhaps also because one is often so much nearer (other people on twitter were quick to blame nefarious directional interference (read: regie theatre directors) for this discrepancy when I mentioned it there.I think it can be a straw man - how many of those sorts of productions are there really? In my experience, singers are just as often disengaged and just "walking a part" in traditional productions).

Then with the same two singers, we got the Marschallin's monologue, the final half hour of the first act. Where in the first act Schwanewilms had been all smiles and hand caresses, here she was preternaturally still, and barely even looked at Connolly, who looked not just upset, but destroyed, her eyes red lakes of fear and sadness. Text book being an obstacle to your fellow actor from Schwanewilms! She has one of the most interesting and strangely beautiful soprano voices on the stage today, and chooses to access an enormous palette of vocal colours so that each phrase, each word, is delicately but precisely shaded. Though she can spin a shimmering legato line with the best of them (Her "Da drin ist die silbernc Ros'n" and "Hab' mir's gelobt" were both exquisite), in Strauss she more often chooses to utilise an intimate parlando, and the gentle strength and resonance in the middle and lower register means that this approach works. Her great forebear in the infinitely nuanced vocal line is of course Schwarzkopf, and though the approach is similar, the effect is very different - with Schwarzkopf you get the feeling that every single detail was sculpted and polished in advance, immaculately prepared, but animated in the moment by her smiling spirit. With Schwanewilms it all feels much more spontaneous, that she "lets" the voice do what it will in that moment, whilst playing the intention that she has. This has benefits and drawbacks. On the one hand she is able to truly react physically and vocally to anything her stage partners might throw at her, which means she is always engaging and always "on"; on the other hand, the voice can occasionally do something quite unexpected and unbelcanto - one of her mannerisms is a single bell like note that is totally disconnected from the line, especially for a sudden leap above the stave. I often get the feeling with her voice that she is masterfully, but constantly, navigating a fundamentally 'bumpy' vocal topography that is intrinsic to the voice. Again there is a similarity here to Schwarzkopf (though with Schwarzkopf the feeling is much less acute as the basic vocal technique was so exceptionally well controlled), who one also feels sometimes has found a creative technical or expressive solution to a fundamental, intrinsic unevenness in the vocal mechanism, however beautiful the timbre is. The opposite would be say Tebaldi, whose vocal registration has an absolutely smooth topography as she moves up and down the scale. I personally enjoy the colours and quiddities of Schwanewilms's voice because the expressive intent is always so clear, the connection with text is immediate and nuanced, and the voice has just combination of shimmer and depth. She will often do something quite unexpected with a familiar phrase which means one can hear this much loved music afresh.

This is all to say that she is an exceptionally accomplished and moving Marschallin, and now that Fleming, the greatest Marschallin since Schwarzkopf, is declining and only inconsistently at her best, Schwanewilms may well be the finest exponent of this role on the stage today. Refined, noble, wistful, thoughtful, beautiful: I certainly don't know of anyone I would prefer to hear in this role currently.

Sarah Connolly is still surely the most handsome performer of travesti roles around, and one hopes that she will continue to sing them into her sixth decade, when traditionally mezzos start giving them up. The voice and approach is very different from Schwanewilms' which makes her an excellent partner in this opera. Connolly has a much more traditional, consistent vocal production, capable of delivering Octavian's glorious, powerfully soaring outbursts without strain or compromise. One hears in the timbre that the voice is beginning to age, but the line remains firm and the voice in control. Though her German pronunciation is very good, one senses that the words are not being lived one by one in the moment - the whole phrase has the right emotional colour, but it doesn't sound like she has fluent German. The same was true of Lucy Crowe, whose pronunciation was also very good, but lacked that hard to define sense of true fluency and nuance. Perhaps this is expecting too much, but in Strauss of all composers, I miss that last degree of textual acuity because Strauss often composes word by word rather than by phrase, so any loss of specificity in the response to the text notices far more than many other operatic composers. I'm being insanely fussy perhaps and that this was even in question is partly an indication of the high standard of the whole performance.

Lucy Crowe was very nice as Sophie: a lovely shimmery vibrato, just right for her fach, and a very slight hoarseness in the sound that adds colour and bite. Her musicianship and vocal solidity in the lower registers means she can more than tackle an oft underestimated role. What is slightly uncomfortable is a pronounced wobble above the stave, the vibrato widening and relaxing at just the point when it should be most gleaming and vibrant. I don't know if this was a one off problem or a recurrent issue, but one hope it will be addressed soon, lest the voice decline before its time. The collection of tenors and baritones that made up the Marschallin's coachmen and then Faninal's single phrase in the last scene were true luxury. I have never heard these parts better sung, ever. Unfortunately I can't find my programme, and they're not on the Barbican website, so do comment below if you know who they were!

The LSO under Mark Elder played with great vigour, utilising a big boned, lustrous tone - appropriate for the Barbican's acoustics, but I can imagine that it might have covered the singers a little too often had I not been sitting so close to the stage. What was missing was that refined Viennese glow in the sound and lissome flexibility in the rhythm, but with playing as accurate, juicy and confident as this it's hard to complain. The final trio, which is somehow more special in live performance even than on record, was superbly delivered from all. From my seat, seeing and hearing every nuance from these singers, in the most glorious sections of maybe the most sumptuously beautiful opera ever composed, this was one of the most enjoyable concerts I've been to this season.


  1. Schwanewilms is my favorite in this role, but I LOVE adrianne pieckzonka in the part as well. Have you seen her on the salzburg DVD ?

  2. Yes I've seen it. It's obviously a lush voice, but I find the acting unconvincing and I'm not super keen on the interpretation - all seems quite generalised to me. Also her chest register, crucial in this role, is not there. Other people have other tick boxes, so I can see why people might like her!

  3. Apparently she was an excellent empress this year in munich. I've seen her in Arabella and Ariadne and though she was fantastic both times. Agree that she can be generalized and is lacking in star magnitude but I think that, now that Mattila, Fleming, and Isokoski are past their best, she, along with Schwanewilms, is the best Strauss singer currently singing.

  4. Also, just out of curiosity, what is your opinion on Mattila?

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