Love at First Sight: Der Rosenkavalier at Den Norske Opera

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier

Feldmarschallin – Marita Sølberg
Baron Ochs – Henry Waddington
Octavian – Adrian Angelico
Faninal – Fredrik Zetterström
Sophie – Mari Eriksmoen
Marianne Leitmetzerin – Eli Kristin Hanssveen
Valzacchi – Thor Inge Falch
Annina – Ingebjørg Kosmo
Sänger – Henrik Engelsviken
Ein Polizeikommissar – Jens-Erik Asbø
Der Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin – Marek Lipol
Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal – Gabriel Birjovanu
Ein Notar – Øystein Skre
Ein Wirt – Hallvar Djupvik
Eine Modistin – Kristin Rustad Høiseth
Ein Tierhändler – Ørjan Bruskeland Hinna

Norske Operakoret, Norske Operaorkestret / Joana Mallwitz.
Stage director – David McVicar

Den Norske Opera, Operaen, Oslo, Norway.  Saturday, March 16th, 2019.

Of all operas, it could be argued that Der Rosenkavalier is one that is so closely tied to the time and place of the libretto, that any deeper interpretation might be impossible.  This appears to be the starting point for David McVicar’s staging of the work, imported from Scotland, and tonight given its premiere at the stunning Oslo opera house.  Yet, despite its billing as a new production, McVicar’s staging already feels dated.  The dusty fustiness of the Marschallin’s boudoir, with subdued colours and moody lighting, makes Schenk’s venerable Munich staging, for instance, feel cutting edge.  Personenregie seemed perfunctory in the first act – a fair bit of staring into the middle distance and holding arms out aloft.  The single set, also served as Faninal’s Stadtpalais, there accessorized with some drapes, as well as the tavern of the third act.  It is absolutely possible to bring a fresh approach to this sublime work – one need only think of Olivia Fuchs’ incredibly moving Magdeburg staging, that I saw in Wales, or Andreas Homoki’s time-travelling production at the Komische.  Both managed to create an even more emotional meditation on the passage of time and flourishing of first love than McVicar gives us.

Photo: © Erik Berg

The main issue I have with McVicar’s staging is that it feels skin deep, always sitting on the surface, not fully mining the emotional depths below.  It feels prosaic and in its sartorial decadence, with large dresses and ornate wigs, makes it harder for the cast to get the full depth of the story across.  Harder but not impossible, because after what seemed like a cold opening act, something happened at the start of the second act, which meant that the performance started to take wing.  That moment happened with the entry of Mari Eriksmoen as Sophie.  For once, her opening reflections actually meant something, rather than the filler one often experiences waiting for the blockbuster moment that is the presentation of the rose.  Here, Eriksmoen used the text, bringing to life the excitement of the young girl and her imminent engagement.  There was an undeniable electricity in the chemistry between Eriksmoen and Adrian Angelico’s Octavian and, as the voices began intertwining in their magical duet, the effect was glorious, both soaring with seemingly limitless ease.  This was a role debut for Eriksmoen and she is already an exceptional Sophie.  The voice has a dusky beauty, combined with that effortless ease on high, that is ideal for the role, especially as she uses the words fully to bring out the full range of emotions of a character who can so often feel one-dimensional.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Angelico was an ardent and winning Octavian.  I must admit it took the voice a little while to take flight – in Act 1 he wasn’t always audible over the orchestra, not helped by stage direction that had him placed upstage far too often.  Yet, from the second act onwards he grew in confidence, his juicy, claret mezzo opening up thrillingly on high, and singing with spirit and generosity.  As an actor, he is exceptionally expressive – the sadness in his face as the Marschallin took her leave of him at the end of Act 1 was palpable.  Similarly, the comedy of Act 3, as he taunted Ochs dressed as Mariandel, was delightfully vivid.  Perhaps, he could have made more of those uniquely Viennese diphthongs as the servant girl, but the text was always clear.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Marita Sølberg’s silky, silvery soprano was well deployed as the Marschallin.  The voice is in fabulous shape, well-placed and forward, and she floated her ‘silberne Rose’ enchantingly.  Yet, this is a role that lives through the text and here, I have to admit that I found Sølberg, despite the undeniable gorgeousness of her vocalism, somewhat anonymous, not quite colouring the text and drawing out the emotions within.  Perhaps it was first night nerves, because in Act 3, she grew in stature, finally bringing out a commanding warmth through the voice and blending miraculously with Angelico and Eriksmoen in a sublime trio.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Henry Waddington is an experienced Ochs, having sung it in England.  The voice is somewhat grainy and he sounded taxed on top, though the lower reaches of the role were most certainly present.  There was some effort made to bring out the Viennese dipthongs, but it felt that he was singing over the text rather than with it, making his portrayal also feel somewhat anonymous.  He was deliciously uplifting in the closing pages of Act 2 and he had solid comic timing throughout.  The remainder of the cast contained some interesting voices.  Thor Inge Falch was a peppery, conspiratorial Valzacchi and Ingebjørg Kosmo a vivacious Annina.  Fredrik Zetterström blustered efficiently as Faninal and never succumbed to the temptation to hector, always maintaining the integrity of the tone.  Henrik Engelsviken gave us an impassioned and extrovert Italian Singer, while Jens-Erik Asbø offered a full and resonant bass as the Polizeikommissar – indeed, I wondered if he might make a very fine Ochs.  The remaining roles were effectively taken and the house children’s chorus was delightfully raucous.

Photo: © Erik Berg

The house orchestra was on terrific form for Joana Mallwitz.  She led a reading that was wonderfully fleet, allowing the work to unfold at a natural, conversational pace.  Perhaps, it felt that Eriksmoen and Angelico would have preferred a little more room to blossom in the presentation of the rose, but the trio was ideally paced, happily far from the endless dirge so many subject us to.  Mallwitz cultivated a big, bold orchestral sound and in Act 1, it did feel that it worked against the singers in a way, with the cast not always audible across the undeniably magnificent wall of sound emerging from the pit.  As the evening progressed, balance improved and the work unfolded with a natural, unhurried ease.  The depth of string tone was most impressive and the brass tremendously extrovert.  The piquant clarinets added spice to the texture.  Towards the end, there were a few ragged chords here and there, but these were passing.  On the whole, the quality of the orchestral playing was impressively high.

Photo: © Erik Berg

Overall, this was a bit of a mixed evening.  We had a somewhat earthbound first act that led, in Act 2, into a vivid and moving portrayal of that coup de foudre of true love.  The staging was disappointingly prosaic but, thanks to the electric chemistry between Eriksmoen and Angelico, grew into something quite special.  The orchestra was excellent on the whole and led in a reading that was fluent and alive.  Certainly, in Angelico and Eriksmoen, Oslo has two world class interpreters of their roles.  The evening was met by a warm and generous ovation from the audience.

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