A hair’s breadth away from a curate’s egg

An egg bad in parts is nonetheless, despite the curate’s protestations to the contrary, a bad egg.  Strauss and Hoffmansthal build Der Rosenkavalier of sterner stuff and, on the basis of the Royal Opera’s presentation of their rose this evening, it’s a damn good job that they did.

The overriding bad memory of the whole experience is almost certainly the least satisfactory conducting of Strauss that I think I have ever heard.  Kirill Petrenko led us through what sounded to me like a muddy, murky, stodgy, unbreathing, unsmiling mess.  No bloom, no glow, no magic.  By the end of the levée scene, I was ready to go home at the interval.  People on stage seemed to be glued to the conductor, the orchestral sound was uncertain and murky and all of that was layered on to a production which frankly was a mess of comings-and-goings.  But for the ‘big moment’ that is the Marschallin’s monologue, things improved and the chaotic murkiness cleared momentarily for a moving (if low-volume and low-energy) remainder of the act.

Act 2 was an improvement, and generally managed to maintain a more transparent feel, though again there seemed a marked contrast between brash, bombastic ‘big moments’ (the Presentation of the Rose notably) and the more conversational ‘businessy’ bits which were ill-defined and difficult to keep attuned to.  Act 3 was more successful still, though still repeating earlier flaws, but building to a very moving conclusion in the trio and duets.  Knowing the wonders of which the Royal Opera House Orchestra are capable, their rather lacklustre outing on this occasion I can only put down to a lack of leadership by Petrenko. 

The whole thing seemed to have no clearly defined beat, precision or perhaps we should call it ‘ping’, so that it became difficult to follow: the prelude to Act 3 was just an unfathomable ramble.  Singers seemed to be adrift, which may have contributed to what sounded like tentativeness through Act 1, though some other parts fared better.  All of this was in the least energising, most boringly ‘traditional’ production imaginable.  I don’t remember it being this boring, but it was.  When they dug it out of the storage, I dread to think how much dust was released into the atmosphere.  It’s run its course; now it’s time for the bolt gun and the trip to the knackers yard.  Do not resuscitate.  More importantly, do NOT revive.

The smattering of people who applauded the tatty old chocolate box of Act 2 should be taken out and horsewhipped in the Piazza; not because of the inherent naffness (in the American mode) of applauding sets, but because they don’t deserve applauding.  They had their applause in 1984; keeping it up just seems undignified, so it’s now far nicer just to nod and let them pass by without comment.  And anyway, the audience were on restless, consumptive, badly behaved form.  Bah!

Soile Isokoski was a thoughtful Marschallin but it felt like her presentation had been designed for a smaller theatre.  She simply didn’t register in the further reaches of the House, though again I think Petrenko has something to answer for in that.  Little details which seems so significant for sketching character – for example, when she approaches the Police Commissioner and asks him if he was her husband’s orderly – go for nothing in Petrenko’s all-is-mush approach.  Sophie Koch was ardent and gauche in all the right places, and her hard-edged voice did carry, but there was a little something undefinable missing (but by no means much!).  Of the main trio, that leaves Lucy Crowe who was utterly stunning, I thought.  I marvelled at her voice in the stratospheric Act 2 moments, coupled to her forthright rich lower range in other passages.  She was vibrant and characterful, and all-in-all a delight to watch; this was no wispy soubrette but a feisty girl who was in charge of her future.  Fabulous.  Peter Rose put over a good Ochs, best in the later parts of Act 3 when grappling to understand his situation.  Thomas Allen did a marvellous job of conveying a man whose tentative grip on his big day is rapidly unravelling around him. 

There’s a moment in Rosenkavalier which just seems to be magic, pure magic.  It comes just before the trio and is that simple phrase for the Marschallin about it all being simply nothing… ‘Gar’ nichts…’  And then there’s a pause of heartbreaking tension, and then the trio launches.  It’s as though the whole act has been slowing and slowing to this moment of stillness: utterly wonderful.  The trio launched wonderfully but built itself in a manner a little unbalanced; but by then the performance had successfully got me out of my analytical brain and into my emotional brain and I was absorbed entirely.  It’s a comment on the production that as the characters stepped out of the set and onto the forestage at the start of the trio, the emotional tension ratcheted up immediately.  Success at last.  And at the right moment. 

Despite the shaky start, I went home tripping on air.  “Das ist’s, was ich von Ihm erwart.

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