Sunday, 5 February 2012

Der Rosenkavalier at ENO; Philharmonia/Masur; BBC SO Jakobín

Amanda Roocroft as the Marschallin (c) Clive Barda
Towards the close of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character watches two actors rehearsing the end of his play, which in turn stages the happy ending that the film has failed to provide. ‘You know how you’re always trying to get things to turn out perfect in art’, he says, turning to the camera, ‘because it’s real difficult in life?' ENO’s revival of Der Rosenkavalier made me think of this clip (against which, incidentally and not inappropriately, we begin to hear Diane Keaton’s Annie start singing ‘Seems like old times…’), because rarely have I felt more aware of the different levels in Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s work: between broad comedy and deeply-felt tragedy on the one hand, and between exquisitely-crafted artifice and exquisitely-observed reality on the other.

The Marschallin’s awareness of the passage of time and the realization that, to borrow another phrase from Annie Hall, she and Octavian might soon have a dead shark on their hands, came across in Amanda Roocroft’s moving portrayal as all too realistic--the slight vulnerability of her voice above the stave and its weakness in the mid-to-low range only added to this impression. The heady love-at-first-sight of the Presentation of the Rose seemed all the more idealized in comparison. Hofmannsthal's brilliantly clever in underlining that artificiality, too, in having the Silver Rose laced with 'Persian rose-oil'. For Adorno this was evidence of 'Spontaneity produced by technique, [which] is the Straussian magic formula'. But here, in David McVicar's economical but cleverly detailed and observed production, such 'spontaneity produced by technique' put the more 'real' story of the Marschallin into relief. This was achieved nowhere better than in the final scene: the Trio was elucidated by little gestures and looks that made clear that the awkwardness of the moment cannot be expected to dissolve as Strauss's dominant 7th slips us gently into D-flat major; the subsequent cutesy duet, then, became an attempt exactly to get right in art what we'd just seen go so wrong in life.

Sarah Connolly as Octavian (c) Clive Barda
Alongside Roocroft's Marschallin, Sarah Connolly's Octavian was extremely good. Not only does the voice have all the glinting splendour of the blingy armour of the character's Act-2 entrance, but Connolly has mastered teenage ardour and stroppiness--not to mention the gangly walk of a lanky 17-year-old. Sophie Bevan's Sophie was outstanding, too: charming and disarming, and wonderfully secure in the vocal stratosphere. The rest of the cast, including a typically persuasive Faninal from Andrew Shore, put on a brilliant ENO team effort.

The distance that opened up between the comic elements of the opera--embodied by John Tomlinson's bawdy, boisterous and roughly-sung Baron Ochs--and the rest was perhaps less welcome. There's no doubting Tomlinson's charisma on the stage, or the clarity with which he can get a text across, but parts of this role are simply beyond him in vocal terms, and I felt myself wince in anticipation of every high note. This lack of vocal finesse, allied to the fact that Alfred Kalisch's workmanlike translation necessarily robbed Ochs of his verbal acuity, made for a distinctly unaristocratic portrayal. Surely, I thought, Ochs should be the incarnation of the same mixture of sophistication and lasciviousness that defines the Act-2 waltzes. 

Tomlinson and Connolly in Act 3 (c) Clive Barda
McVicar's one-set-fits-all production also came a bit unstuck at the start of Act 3, where we really missed having a properly booby-trapped Beis'l for Ochs's undoing. (There's also some rather tiresome stuff with the upgraded Leopold, particularly his learing attempts at getting involved in the Act-3 seduction). 

I'd not enjoyed Edward Gardner's conducting when the production was new--he drove the score hard and the orchestra played with little warmth. Here, however, he balanced sugar and thrust perfectly, and the ENO players demonstrated real command of the score. In fact, I'd not enjoyed much of the production as a whole when it was new (Connolly's Octavian excepted); but here it all clicked, and clicked brilliantly and powerfully. It's been getting universally great reviews--and deservedly so. Get a ticket if you can.

Many of the key moments in Der Rosenkavalier involve the stopping of time. The Marschallin, she tells us in her monologue, attempts literally to do so by stopping the clocks in her palace; Strauss seems to do so with the musical freeze-frames of the opera's great set pieces--the Presentation of the Rose and the Trio. Bruckner, particularly in his later symphonies, might not stop time but he certainly reconfigures it, stretching forms in a way that requires a special sort of interpretative skill. Kurt Masur, now in his mid-80s and looking very frail indeed, has been conducting these symphonies for god know's how long, and he brought all that experience to bear in the Seventh Symphony at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday. There was nothing showy here, nor anything terribly revelatory, but rather an honest, expertly-paced account of this great work (although I'm still not sure about the finale). Similarly, Arabella Steinbacher's beautifully played account of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in the first half provided simple, straightforward pleasure. That's not to damn it with faint praise, however; impeccably musical and with every phrase sweetly sung, this was the sort of civilised, unshowy playing that often brings out the best in this composer. (And it's an approach that works pretty well in the slow movement from Beethoven's Violin Concerto, too, as below--none of her Mendelssohn seems to have made it on to YouTube).

Finally, there was a brilliantly enjoyable performance of Dvořák's Jakobín at the Barbican last night, courtesy of Jiří Bělohlávek, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and a lovely Czech cast. The piece is jam-packed with some glorious music, even if it is fatally compromised by a dithery libretto that can't work out where to focus its attention. I was there for OPERA, so can't write too much here, but it's certainly well worth catching when broadcast on Radio 3 this coming Thursday at 2pm.

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