Richard Strauss’ best-loved opera is a delicate balance between genuinely moving emotion and slapstick farce. The beautiful, aristocratic Marschallin has found love with 17-year-old Count Octavian but knows that sooner or later he will leave her for someone his own age – and she must come to terms with the fact that she is no longer young.
Meanwhile boorish Baron Ochs is engaged to young, rich, bourgeois Sophie von Faninal, while pursuing the Marschallin’s maid ‘Mariandel’, who is in fact Octavian dressed as a girl. Octavian being one of the most celebrated trouser roles in opera, this means we have the classic spectacle of a girl dressed up as a boy dressed up as a girl.
All of this is set to Strauss’ lushest music, with two set-pieces that accompany many people to their desert islands. The presentation of the rose – Octavian becomes the Rosenkavalier to perform the ritual presentation of a silver rose to Sophie on behalf of Ochs, and of course falls in love with her – can be a heart-stopping moment. And of course the trio in the last act, when the Marschallin recognises that Sophie and Octavian are in love, and that her forebodings were all too true, is one of the most sublime moments in opera.
It’s important that the slapstick doesn’t take over, and while John Tomlinson as Baron Ochs – the character most likely to offend in many productions – judges this to perfection, Diana Montague as Octavian is less successful. It doesn’t help that she is the least masculine Octavian I’ve ever seen. Even the cut of her hair looks feminine: inexcusable; and the revival director seems to think that slapping your thigh is enough to show you’re a boy. Her efforts therefore to become ‘Mariandel’ were rather confused, and while her voice was good it wasn’t good enough to distract us from her appearance.
Janice Watson, and she may or may not be pleased to read this, is not yet old enough for the Marschallin. Her stage presence and composure in the last act bodes very well, but she doesn’t have the gravitas in the first to convey the great lady that she is, and her exquisite melancholy as she realises time is speeding up. There are some lovely moments though: as the curtain falls she lights a cigarette and gazes out into the rain-soaked garden in contemplation (that’s just what you would do, comments my husband gratuitously). She also sings exquisitely, and the stunning outfit she wears in the final act reminded this lady, at least, that there are some compensations for getting older.
Susan Gritton is a petite and charming Sophie. Her voice sounded a little smaller than usual – was she trying to sound younger or was she below par? Andrew Shore was excellent as her nouveau-riche father – the production allows the score to paint him as bourgeois without overdoing it.
The action in this 1994 production has been updated by Jonathan Miller to 1911, when the opera was written, and both looks good and works well. Elegant pale wood for the Marschallin’s bedroom, a flashy mansion for the von Faninals, with the huge paintings not yet unpacked, and a coy inn with nooks and crannies for the comic undoing of Ochs in the final act.
The diction, unfortunately, is poor throughout – with one exception. John Tomlinson not only manages to make Ochs a credible country boor – one almost feels sorry for him by the end – but also acts and sings everyone else off the stage. It really should be a lesson to the younger generation to see such a complete professional in action.
The ENO orchestra was in its usual good form and conductor Vassily Sinaisky, recently Music Director of the Russian State Orchestra, brought out a thrilling recklessness in the score.
ENO staff are to be commended, too – despite present troubles – for their usual helpfulness. A gentleman seated behind us was presented with his credit card just before the start of the performance, having left it by accident at one of the kiosks in the theatre. The staff member went to the trouble of finding out where he was sitting, to return it. Full marks for service.