New year, new-ish season. I had originally decided against booking Der Rosenkavalier – it was too close to Christmas holiday etc. But as the ROH public booking opened, I ended up grabbing a £20 standing ticket to what turned out to be Renee Fleming’s farewell performance at the Royal Opera (she will retire from the Met with this same production in the spring). Fleming has never been a favourite of mine, but still, I got to tick “see Fleming on stage” off the operatic checklist at the last minute, and that counts for something, even if this was an evening that didn’t quite set the stars spinning.
Der Rosenkavalier is one of my absolute favourite operas – better get that out of the way right away. It has some wonderful music, but (rarely for an opera, let’s face) it also has a very good basic story and it deals with some genuine, relevant issues. The Marschallin is perhaps the wisest, strongest, saddest woman in opera – wistful of time passing, understanding of the hopelessness of her affair to the teenage Octavian, dignified enough to quietly step aside when Octavian’s attentions turn to the young Sophie. She is also articulate about the double standards of the society – she is already a fading beauty (“there goes old Princess Resi”) at the ripe old age of 32, aware that her affair with Octavian, 17, would make her an object of ridicule if revealed, while the Baron Ochs, her contemporary, can marry a teenage girl without anyone as much as raising an eyebrow. Sophie, probably 15, goes from looking forward to the honour of marriage to being horrified by the prospect of marrying someone as coarse and lecherous as Ochs; she is trapped in a life she has no real control over – her newly ennobled, nouveau riche father is effectively buying himself some smart relatives/connections by marrying her off to Ochs, who has an ancient name but no money or manners. Octavian is a good-hearted, sweet and enthusiastic young man. He loves the Marschallin with passion that is wide but not deep, and she recognises that, telling him that one day – today, tomorrow, some day – he will stop loving her; they fight over her words. He petulantly leaves without a kiss, and the next time they meet, he has fallen in love with Sophie and chosen her over the Marschallin. He falls in love at first sight with probably both of them, and the big question (well, one of them) is what will become of his love for Sophie? The Marschallin recognises in Sophie a younger version of herself, a girl she was a long time ago, but does Sophie see her future self in the Marschallin? Do we? Will she become another neglected wife living in aristocratic luxury, bored in her gilded cage while Octavian is big-game hunting, and keeping a young lover to keep the tedium of her life at bay? I also often wonder about the Marschallin’s children; whether she has any seems to be of no importance to her – if she has, she’s not concerned by them, if she doesn’t, the lack doesn’t seem to concern her either. Her life is an empty circle of dressing up, going to the church and visiting elderly relatives, and no doubt she will seek a new distraction soon enough.
The Carsen production is an “adaptation” a 2004 production he staged for the Salzburg Festspiele; the last thing he did in Covent Garden was Dialogues des Carmélites couple years ago. It was a production I loved almost without reservation, and although it on was a grand scale, it was as minimalistic as this production is opulent and (at times) cluttered. I’m not actually quite sure what to think about this. Carsen updates the action to circa 1912 (which is neither here nor there really), and sets the third act in a brothel rather than country inn (it shouldn’t work, but it mostly does). While otherwise on the externals this production is faithful to the libretto (and feels almost conservative), the tone occasionally seemed more Gilbert and Sullivan than Richard Strauss, Carsen emphasising the comedy over the more bittersweet elements.
The sets are huge. The Marschallin’s palace is just that – an enormous crimson and gold cavern with a vista of lined doorways, and a gilded portrait of the Feldmarchall himself, in a magnificent plumed hat, above the bed. The new-money Faninal’s palace in turn is a bare, modern-to-its-period space – enormous Grecian frieze, black art deco furniture, two enormous guns like statues. It is a decidedly masculine space, a hard-to-ignore reminder of Sophie’s lot as a commodity in a world dominated by men. There’s a lot of empty (almost negative) space in both of these sets, and while Carsen fills the stage is with extras, the sense of hollowness never quite goes away. The original version of this production opened with the lovers in bed, the Marschallin naked, but in this they inexplicably are first seen in a hallway outside the bedroom – Octavian sneaks out for a smoke, and soon the Marschallin follows. I kept thinking that they must be freezing as they frolicked, barefoot.
The third act again saw the double set of a hallway and then a sitting room in an upscale brothel, and it was everything you could imagine it to be – there’s a woman in pantaloons (and nothing else) talking on the phone and striking cute poses, everyone is wearing big Edwardian-style big hair and corsets and dressing gowns, the men have period underwear, and as the situation unravels the Bouguereau-style nudes on the wall reveal more real women behind them, only this time there are no pantaloons. I bet the worthy parents of the (surprisingly numerous) young children in the audience wished they had left their offspring home – this scene may have taken some explaining. While it was all almost excessive, the sense of something lacking never quite went away.
I suspect it might have at least partly been due to the two leads – there wasn’t much chemistry between Fleming and Coote, the sort of warmth and sexual radiance that the abrupt end of their affair feel so painful. They were barely touching (as opposed to not being able to keep their hands off each other), and the coldness of the opening scene stripped it of any intimacy. The presentation of the rose played out before a number of couples waltzing on one side of the stage – they were no doubt supposed to be silent, but the men’s shoes squeaked against the floor, the shuffling creating a distracting backdrop to what should be a romantic, intimate moment. It almost felt like Carsen was afraid to let go, unleash the emotion within the music and the libretto. When 100% would have been required, we got at best about 70%, which wasn’t quite enough.
It feels that it would be ungracious to say anything but good things about Fleming’s performance. Train schedules forced me to leave the moment the curtain came down, but I hear she was rewarded for her 20-odd year Covent Garden career a standing ovation, which without doubt was well-earned. She is regardless wise to retire from the stage while she’s still on top of her game; the voice is starting to sound dry, and she took a while to warm up and steady her pitch properly. Once she did, the monologue at the end of Act 1 was the most genuinely touching moment of the evening, and the sight of the Marschallin leaving, alone, through those grand doors and empty rooms stunning. Coote didn’t fare quite so well – she was at times almost inaudible, and seemed wary and self-conscious, especially with Fleming. But, while she couldn’t quite swagger, she did strut rather well in her disguise as Mariandel, the good time girl.
Sophie Bevan warmed up nicely and her performance was vocally strong (and kept getting stronger). She must have been really young when I first saw her in the role at the ENO (and she’s still a spring chicken), but be it the direction or her maturing as an artist, she seemed a bit too… knowing to fully convince as a sweet young thing fresh out of convent.
As irritating and horrible as Ochs von Lerchenau is, he is entertaining, and he gets more screentime than any other character, and Matthew Rose – strong in voice, powerful in slapstick – made most of him, as did Carsen, leaving no gag unplayed. Rose is on the youthful side as Ochs, the casting perhaps emphasising his coarseness and lack of manners and respect over him being a lecherous aging man. When seeing Rosenkav I often wonder to what extent Ochs is supposed to be a caricature of a sort of degenerate aristocracy in general, a social commentary – to make this point, it would be interesting to see the Faninals presented as socially anxious but civilised, well-mannered, understated people, not just keen to fit in, but to not to stand out. That point is missing here, but Rose effortlessly dominated the stage when he was on it. It is a Straussian joke that Ochs get the sweetest, most hummable tune in the opera, and Carsen had his coterie of rough soldiers dancing to it – a moment that had a surprising magic to it.
While Andris Nelson’s conducting was at times musical and passionate, his tempi were uneven and the orchestra not always articulated. The first act was very slow throughout; he picked up in the second act, only to slow down again as the third progressed. The final trio didn’t quite reach the sort of ecstatic climax it should – the tempo was slow and perhaps because of the placing of the singers on the stage, the sound was slightly imbalanced. In the end, Octavian and Sophie lie down on the brothel bed and make out, the stage disappearing into darkness as the Marschallin walks past them. It was perhaps fitting that as the sets slid back, one half seemed to catch on something, squeaking loudly as it stopped, making the audience chuckle.
Fleming and Coote have finished their run in this production, but the second cast has two more performances left, closing on 24th. Fleming’s farewell performance was broadcast live on Friday, and is available on BBC iPlayer. The production photos from the ROH website.