Comedy, no heart, in Glyndebourne’s Rosenkavalier

That Ochs sustains his injury in act 2 by being stabbed in the arse by the stem of the silver rose tells you most of what you need to know about Richard Jones’s production of Der Rosenkavalier for Glyndebourne. Of course, you can picture most of the rest from the fact that it’s a Richard Jones production: a vaguely 50s/60s setting, garish lighting, a supporting cast of grotesques, sharply angular sets clad in vibrantly hideous wallpaper. Glyndebourne could restage Anna Nicole in these Rosenkavalier sets without any amendment.

I will admit that, from our seats in the slips there was some difficulty staying engaged with the piece: much of the action happened at extreme right and left, so was inevitably hidden. Partly the price of a restricted view, obviously, though I thought it excessive and unnecessary for the most part. And frankly, I’m not sure it would have changed much: in this production there seemed little trace left of what, for me, makes Rosenkavalier such a special work.

The opening scene of the Marschallin showering naked, full frontal (in body stocking), was bizarrely pointless. The saucy flirtation with Octavian was taken to the edge of something slightly stronger, but served little useful purpose other than to strip the character of that ‘still’ dignity on which can be layered her musings about the flowing of time. When that moment came, after the typical Jones succession of grotesques in the levée scene, it was hard to believe that this Marschallin had the depth for such philosophising. Maybe she was distracted by the rather ponderous moving around of the oversized sofa which kept being required. Not for the last time in this performance, one of the work’s significant moments passed by, leaving me cold and uninvolved. A rare first for this work.

The swanky Faninal pad was nicely constructed, and the movement between main ‘public’ room to a quiet ante-room was well done, achieved by dropping a wall – more wallpaper, obviously – across the front of the stage. For the public scenes following the presentation of the rose, a rather odd large table was rolled out to practically the width of the stage, and Sophie was uncomfortably required to ‘parade’ on it for an inexplicable horse-trading show (as far as I could tell) between Faninal’s sidekicks and Ochs’s. For act 3, the general style was already established for the room at the inn – blue this time – with action largely confined to the oblique outer walls, and then curiously lost whenever it moved into the central expanses of the set. By then I’d gone beyond caring anyway.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind a good bit of comedy in Rosenkavalier – for sure, it’d be a long evening without it. If a comedy were all it is, however, it would not be the masterpiece that it unquestionably is. The crucial act 1 monologue and duet that close the act are a critical point for the work: the injection of emotional strain caused by the Marschallin’s reminiscence, followed by the speed (and realism) with which a relationship begins to fall apart in front of us, establish the human focus of the work. Without that, the pathos of the closing scene of act 3, perhaps most importantly the section preceding the trio, have not been set up effectively. Even the meeting of the two young lovers at the presentation of the rose in act 2 needs some careful handling: Jones’s solution was to have them sway whilst facing each other as if hypnotised by each other. Cue laughter.

What this production seems to have nicely illuminated – for all the wrong reasons – is the extent to which Der Rosenkavalier is lightly dressed as a comedy, but its heart lies in dilemmas for the characters which are all too easy to relate to: a woman approaching an early middle age, a young man growing up, and a younger woman emerging awkwardly into a baffling social world. A refreshing contrast to the rage and violence of an Elektra or Salome, and without these stories told clearly – especially the Marschallin’s – the comedy is vaguely amusing, but very flimsy indeed.

In terms of performances, all of the singing was top notch. The Ochs of Lars Woldt was absolutely outstanding, going beyond the standard bluster to paint him as much more actively dangerous and unappealing. Tara Erraught was a fine Octavian as well, vocally sumptuous and with a great line in impetuous indignation. If she was costumed unattractively, she was in good company since no-one on stage had much to wear that gave any pleasure. Teodora Gheorghiu was an attractive sounding Sophie, if not large-voiced, and she was well-integrated into Jones’s concept with her awkward, bespectacled ‘homely’ look being transformed by the dressmaker into something more glamorous.

Kate Royal’s Marschallin was curious. Vocally she was unfailingly attractive and secure, a pleasure to listen to, but whether it was the production or her performance, it did not come across to me as a complex presentation of the Marschallin and her troubled thoughts. If the Marschallin is the beating heart of the work, sadly it didn’t beat for me on this occasion. Faninal was played with exasperated vigour by Michael Kraus. Marianne Leitmetzerin (Miranda Keys), Valzacchi (Christopher Gillett), and Annina (Helene Schneiderman) were all excellent comic contributors.

Robin Ticciati seemed to favour the overall sound and pace rather than the details, which gave the whole score a somewhat impetuous feel: a bit more nurturing of the more plangent phrasing may have helped lift the emotional tone in those significant moments I mentioned above. Having said that, it would have been in direct competition with the staging and its cold, broad-brush approach.

At least the interval picnic with friends on a warm, sunny(ish) afternoon was a more uplifting affair!

When I reflected on the Royal Opera’s 2009 outing of Der Rosenkavalier, begowned in the fusty swagging of John Schlesinger’s production, I hoped that it would be the last for these old, very traditional designs. For the record, Jones’s Glyndebourne version was not what I had in mind. Ah well, in the whirligig of opera production, you win some and you lose some. It’s just more than usually painful when the casualty is Strauss’s so intimate and warm-spirited drama.

4 comments

  1. A very fair review. I disliked the production intensely and it proved to be a major distraction from some high quality singing. While this opera is meant to be amusing and sentimental – characterised, in part, by a response to audience enthusiasm for opulence and decadence, this version focused on comedic send-up at the expense of emotional depth – there was no sense of heartache. I felt that Robin Ticciati’s pacing was erratic, Kate Royale’s portrayal was glamorous but with too little authority (there is potential for her to develop in the role, however), while Tara Erraught demonstrated real dramatic engagement with the role coupled with vibrant singing, and Lars Woldt was outstanding.

    1. Thanks for commenting… watching bits of the online transmission I did wonder about Ticciati’s contribution: I did think it lacked detail in places, the pauses and different instrumental voices were a bit lost in an overall orchestral blend, which perhaps contributed to the sense of it all going past in a rather generalised way…

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