The Royal Opera is on a roll. Two weeks after the triumph of the new Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk comes an entirely satisfying revival of a well-loved work. It is 20 years since John Schlesinger’s production of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier was unveiled at Covent Garden, yet it is well worth keeping in the repertoire, as the current revival shows.
With elaborate traditional sets by William Dudley and costumes by Maria Björnson, this Rosenkavalier remains chic, attractive and entertaining. Der Rosenkavalier is the second and most popular opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, respectively the greatest German composer and librettist of the early 20th century. They were later to become dissatisfied with what they had created, yet this product of Strauss’ “love affair with the female voice” continues to delight audiences and critics alike, and it is a cornerstone of the repertoire of opera houses the world over.
It is a credit to the revival director, Andrew Sinclair (John Schlesinger died last year), that none of the many subtle details of the staging have been lost. He reminds us that this is not just a poignant portrait of human relationships but also a neo-Baroque comedy whose main forbear is Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. Thus the humour of the opening scene where the trouser-role character Octavian dresses up as a maid is a clear homage to Mozart’s Cherubino, for example. The social strata exemplified by the juxtaposition of the Princess, the Count, the Baron, the newly-ennobled Herr von Faninal and servants of varying respectability in the final act also make it clear that we are in the mid-eighteenth century, the contemporary setting for Mozart’s work. Few productions make this analogy quite so apparent, so it is well worth buying a ticket just for the dramatic side of the performance.
However, the musical delights are greater still. The company is extremely fortunate in having secured one of the foremost interpreters of this score, Sir Charles Mackerras, to conduct the performances. He captured the Germanic spirit of the music, creating excitement while remaining sensitive to the singers. Almost every word of the entire opera could be heard above the orchestral sound, yet in their big solo moments, such as the opening of Act III, the orchestra let the thrills emerge.
In the role of the Feldmarschallin, Dame Felicity Lott made a welcome return to this theatre in her signature role. Her vocal resources in the ensemble scenes are not what they were, but she gave more power to her solo passages and especially to the Act I monologue. This is the most moving interpretation of this scene I have seen in person, only outdone on record by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Lott also gave a moving performance of the closing trio of Act III, her resolve to let Octavian go “in God’s name” being particularly emotionally convincing. If this is Dame Felicity’s final performance with the Royal Opera (she is not scheduled to sing in the 2004-5 season) it will be a sad loss to the company.
Angelika Kirschlager was singing the role of Octavian for the first time at the Opera House. From her first words in Act I to the end of Act II she was entirely engaging. Although not tall, she gave the role the requisite boyish air of a trouser role. A particular highlight was the Presentation of the Rose in Act II, a moment of outstanding vocal beauty. Her indecision between the Marschallin and Sophie in the final scene was especially vivid.
Making her company debut, the German soprano Simone Nold gave the best performance of the role of Sophie this house has heard since the young Barbara Bonney. I have never heard the high Bs of the final duet sung with such technical assurance; the high legato singing throughout was magnificent. She was also dramatically involved, as was most of the cast.
The smaller roles were all well-sung, but special mention should go to Eike Wilm Schulte in the role of Herr von Faninal, whose warm baritone filled the theatre ably, and Piotr Beczala as the Italian tenor, whose return as the Duke of Mantua and Faust in this theatre next year is highly welcome based on this committed performance.
The Royal Opera will be staging two other Strauss operas between now and the end of the season (Arabella and Ariadne auf Naxos). On the strength of this Rosenkavalier, they should be well worth buying tickets for.