“I didn’t see the audience I felt only the blissful pulsation of my voice, I forgot everything I was just myself alone…” So wrote the legendary Lotte Lehmann of one of her own performances as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. It was this quality of rapt inwardness which was most obvious in Soile Isokoski’s first assumption of the role at the Royal Opera House in its latest revival.
This Schlesinger production has been handsomely revived by Andrew Sinclair: I was at its first showing in 1984 and recall vividly how annoyed the then Marschallin, and many subsequent ones, made me feel the nonsense about getting up and stopping all the clocks, and being old at 33, but Isokoski serenely rose above all that to such an extent that I did not once wonder what getting a Labrador or perhaps a kid or two, might have done for her.
When Régine Crespin recorded the part with Solti, some Viennese found it hard to accept a Frenchwoman as the Marschallin one wonders what they would have felt about this production, graced with a Russian conductor, French Octavian, Finnish Marie-Thérèse, British Ochs, Sophie and Faninal, and Korean ‘Italian Tenor.’ The ROH as ever tries its best to be ‘international,’ and in this case succeeds triumphantly – not for a moment did I feel that the singers did not know each other well, in fact the intimacy between father and daughter, lover and mistress, was striking.
Isokoski’s warm, vulnerable yet dignified Marschallin was heartbreakingly intense at the crucial ‘Euer liebden Kavalier vorfahren mit der Rosen zu der Jungfer Braut’ even if her ‘Ja, Ja,’ was perhaps a little too carefree, and her voice and person seemed to be as one with the orchestra, never more so than in the former phrase, where the throbbing ‘cellos solemnly evoked the beating of her heart.
Sophie Koch’s Octavian is more of a work in progress, in that she does not quite convince as a boy, and her tone is sometimes a little less than ideally burnished, but she gave a fine performance nonetheless, especially in her duets with Lucy Crowe’s feisty, self-possessed Sophie, whose Handel-trained high notes soared into the stratosphere with glorious ease.
Peter Rose was the embodiment of Hoffmansthal’s view that the baron ‘…is still a type of nobleman; he and Faninal complement one another’ in that he was far from just a boor, and made a perfect pairing with Thomas Allen’s anxious, finely sung father has any other singer ever made quite so much of his first phrase? Rose was not quite so impressive in vocal terms, but I suspect that his performance will settle with time, and that elusive low E will be firmly in place.
The smaller parts were all cast from strength, high points being Wookyung Kim’s ardent Tenor, Leah-Marian Jones’ vivid Annina, and Graham Clark’s scheming Valzacchi. The sets were of course beautiful, but on this occasion mattered even less than usual, with the emphasis so firmly on the Marschallin.
Kirill Petrenko gave us a completely unschmalzty account of the score, respecting its richness yet still reminding us that much of it does not look backward to ‘Old Vienna’ but into the future of Berg and Henze. Petrenko elicited marvellous playing from the orchestra, especially in the last act, with a trio which managed to bring on the general sniffles despite not being note-perfect. ‘Sind halt also, die jungen Leut’ and for once it sounded not just avuncular but bittersweet.