The Long Goodbye: Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House.

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier

Feldmarschallin – Renée Fleming
Baron Ochs – Matthew Rose
Octavian – Alice Coote
Faninal – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Marianne Leitmetzerin – Miranda Keys
Valzacchi – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Annina – Angela Simkin
Sänger – Giorgio Berrugi
Ein Polizeikommissar – Scott Conner
Der Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin – Samuel Sakker
Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal – Thomas Atkins
Ein Notar – Jeremy White
Ein Wirt – Alasdair Elliott
Ein Hausknecht – Jonathan Fisher
Eine Modistin – Kiera Lyness
Ein Tierhandler – Luke Price

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Andris Nelsons.
Stage director – Robert Carsen.

Royal Opera House, London, England.  Saturday, January 14th, 2017.

With a work that deals with love, loss and the passage of time, it seemed quite apposite for tonight’s performance of Der Rosenkavalier to mark Renée Fleming’s operatic farewell to London.  It was performed in a new Robert Carsen staging, which was in turn based on another staging of his from Salzburg.  This was clearly an emotional evening for all involved and yet, I’m afraid to say, it didn’t work the magic that Rosenkavalier usually works on me.

Ensemble in Act 1. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Ensemble in Act 1. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Part of that was due to Carsen’s staging.  The sets were large and imposing – in Act 1 offering distant vistas through the warren of corridors in the Marschallin’s palace.  Yet there were also wide open spaces that felt empty.  In a way, one could say that this highlighted the Marschallin’s loneliness but it also felt soulless.  I felt there was little of the usual sense of intimacy between the Marschallin and Octavian and in turn, the burgeoning love between Octavian and Sophie felt dominated and overwhelmed by the high walls of Faninal’s home.  For a work that feeds so much on the intimacy between characters, Carsen’s staging felt surprisingly empty.  It must be said that things improved for Act 3, set in a bordello, where the soft furnishings softened the effect of emptiness that dominated the earlier acts.  Another issue is that Carsen set so much of the action at the extremities of the stage, with much taking place at far stage left.  Given that the sightlines at the Royal Opera House aren’t great, this meant that much of the action was lost to those sitting on the right of the auditorium.

Sophie Bevan, Matthew Rose, Alice Coote & ensemble in Act 2.  Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Sophie Bevan, Matthew Rose, Alice Coote & ensemble in Act 2. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

For Carsen, the events of the plot took place at a time of social change.  We appear to be in the time of World War 1.  At the start of Act 2 we see two large cannons being dragged out and Ochs and his men are dressed up as soldiers.  They crawl along the floor towards the end of the act as if representing men in the trenches.  And yet this is an idea that feels underdeveloped.  At the very end of the evening, during those magical closing measures, the stage opens up to reveal soldiers dying and military machinery.  It’s a strong idea – the thought of the upper classes enjoying life while others died – yet in its execution here feels gratuitous and tagged on.  Had Carsen developed it more throughout the evening it might have been more successful, however, on this occasion it felt like an afterthought.

Matthew Rose & ensemble. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Matthew Rose & ensemble. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

In addition, the relative coldness of the environment led to a coldness in the personenregie.  I felt a lack of chemistry between Fleming’s Marschallin and Coote’s Octavian.  They seemed barely to touch each other, over-dominated by the visuals, and far too often they would resort to stock operatic gestures – an outstretched hand, facing the front and declaiming.  The only principal I felt who managed to overcome this was Matthew Rose’s Ochs who, in his closing scenes of Act 2, managed to fill the stage with sheer charisma.  Rose does have a very handsome bass and a good extension to give us a full and resonant bottom D.  He is also an engaging actor.  His wasn’t an especially echt Wienerisch Ochs – there was some attempt made to get those particular Austrian diphthongs into the text but it felt inconsistent and that he was singing over the text rather than with it.  He also, in common with Coote’s Octavian, didn’t seem to distinguish between the ‘ch’ and ‘sch’ sounds.  Still, his charisma and ability to dominate the stage gave much pleasure and I look forward to seeing his portrayal grow even more with time.

Matthew Rose & Alice Coote. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Matthew Rose & Alice Coote. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Coote’s Octavian is a known quantity and her claret toned mezzo still has much to offer.  Yet, I don’t know whether it was because of the dominating sets or perhaps of the emotion of the evening but it felt something was lacking – I wish I could put my finger on it.  It just felt anonymous.  Sophie Bevan’s Sophie was somewhat wordless and she sounded a little short at the top in the Presentation of the Rose – one could almost hear the physical tension used in sustaining those high-lying phrases.  She warmed up nicely though.  The remaining cast was perfectly adequate though it felt that the company feel that made last April’s Deutsche Oper Rosenkavalier so special was missing.  Giorgio Berrugi was an extrovert and Italianate singer with lots of squillo to spare.  Jochen Schmeckenbecher blustered generously as Faninal.  Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke was a nicely insinuating Valzacchi while Angela Simkin presented Annina with a vivacious stage presence, even if it sounds like the role pushes her to her current limits.  In the further supporting roles I was struck by Thomas Atkins as Faninal’s Haushofmeister, a bright, healthy and striking tenor, and by Scott Conner’s handsome and resonant bass as the Polizeikommissar.

Sophie Bevan & Alice Coote. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Sophie Bevan & Alice Coote. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Then there was Fleming.  Her aristocratic demeanour makes it feel that she was born to sing the Marschallin.  The voice is most certainly there – single cream now rather than the double cream of before – and she used her resources intelligently.  The way she sang ‘ich hab’ dich lieb’ towards the opening of Act 1 certainly brought a lump to the throat.  As the act progressed however, it felt something was missing.  Her tone has now, inevitably, hardened and it led to what felt like a lack of vulnerability in her performance with the consequence that it felt that in telling Octavian what to do, she was his high school teacher rather than his lover.  Had she been able to vary the tone more, to colour it and allow more vulnerability in, then perhaps the effect would have been very different.  As it was, this was the first Rosenkavalier I have attended where I left Act 1 completely unmoved.  Fleming did however cap the trio with a radiant high B and she floated a glorious line at the start of the trio at a horrifically slow tempo.

Matthew Rose & Renée Fleming.  Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Matthew Rose & Renée Fleming. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

It was most regrettable that Andris Nelsons chose to conduct the trio at a tempo that was much slower than the music could sustain.  He isn’t the first to do this but I did certainly admire the breath control of the three ladies who made it through.  His conducting felt quite inconsistent to my ears.  While at times he brought out some interesting details – some surging portamenti in the strings for example – at others it felt that he was skimming over the surface.  He did however get the Royal Opera strings to play in tune, a few momentary passages excepted.  The tuning in the horns however wasn’t always easy on the ears but the winds sounded in excellent form – the solo clarinet especially distinctive.

Renée Fleming. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore
Renée Fleming. Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Tonight, I’m afraid to say, was for me a Rosenkavalier without charm or emotion.  I think part of it could well have been the very moving effect on the cast of this being the last time of singing together and the need to keep it together throughout the evening.  For me, the most moving moment came at the very end, in the curtain calls.  Fleming took a second solo bow and was greeted with an ovation of such loving generosity from the Royal Opera public.  She knelt down and touched the stage to mark her last appearance on it.  At that moment, the sense of the passing of the time that is at the heart of Der Rosenkavlier came to life.  Thank you for the memories Miss Fleming.  You will most definitely be missed.

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