Saturday, 12 November 2016

Review of Opera North's Der Rosenkavalier

Don’t say masterpieces from the past can’t find new relevance today. As we came out for the second interval of Der Rosenkavalier, after the scenes in which Baron Ochs, the overweight, uncouth, ill-mannered, women-abusing buffoon of the story, becomes the chief butt of amusement, you could hear it all around: ‘He’s Donald Trump, isn’t he?’

But there was more than that to Opera North’s revival of David McVicar’s production, which began life at Scottish Opera and was last seen here in 2002.

I liked the production a lot first time round. It’s realist, set in the period the story is meant to occupy (Maria Theresia’s imperial Vienna), and catches a sense of crumbling grandiosity in its design. It tells the story clearly, comedy and sentiment included, while keeping a clear focus on the pain of the mature woman (the Marshallin) who gives up her toy-boy lover, Octavian, for the greater good and to bring happiness to him and his true love, Sophie. Their youthful ardour wins.

There’s gentle satire in the behaviour of Faninal, the nouveau-riche who wants to marry his daughter into the aristocracy, and a host of comic bit-parts for minor characters.

Composer and author Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstal brought a conscious echo of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (and other Beaumarchais-based tales) to the piece by having Octavian – the ‘Knight of the Rose’ of the title – sung by a woman. He has to don women’s clothes, like Cherubino. (Opening with girl-on-girl action, as some might put it, in a bedroom scene may have incongruous resonances for us, but in 1911 was probably a safer way to represent sex than with a male and female. So you just have to get over that).

The major roles cast list here included several notable singers trained at the Royal Northern of Music, among whom Helen Sherman (Octavian) was the stand-out. Her voice was strong, secure and finely modulated, and her acting superb. Fflur Wyn (Sophie) also brought lovely tone to her role and a sense of stagecraft, though some of the delicacy she essayed did not meet quite sufficient gentleness from the orchestra pit.

Likewise Henry Waddington as Ochs, though looking and acting the part with magnificent presence, could not always summon the weightiness he wanted. William Dazeley was well cast in the other baritone role of Faninal, where his airiness seemed just right.

Ylva Kihlberg (previously star of Opera North’s The Makropulos Case and Jenůfa) was a very fine Marshallin. No one could write soaring melody for the female voice quite like Richard Strauss, and the final trio for the three girls was beautiful.

This is the first full show to be conducted by Opera North’s new music director, Aleksandar Marković, since he took over. He brought energy and precision to the score, and though he has not completely mastered stage-pit balance in the quirky Lyric Theatre acoustic yet, drew some moments of exquisite delicacy.

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