Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

Somehow, in all these years, I had never seen the English National Opera.  I changed that last night, going to a performance of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier (they kept the title in German, but performed in English) at the London Coliseum.

When I was growing up, the ENO – which performs only in English – was well-known for intelligent translations and ample academic essays in its libretto series, so although I never attended the ENO I did know it from having learned the story and background of many operas from ENO materials back when I was a child.  I do not quite know why I never attended a performance there, especially when I lived in London, but I vaguely remember that it may have dropped off in quality.  Honestly, I did not follow that company closely.

Whatever the reputation, I can judge that last night’s Rosenkavalier made a good overall impression.  Since the purpose of the ENO is to bring foreign opera to the people in an understandable manner, hence the exclusive use of English, the ENO generally does sensible stagings (or at least this is the reputation – as I said, I have not been following the company, so maybe this has changed).  The Rosenkavalier set was not lavish, as Otto Schenk’s Staatsoper production I saw a little over a year ago was, but was nevertheless very traditional.  Whereas Schenk spent time on minute details, David McVicar – the director here – inserted the details through action.  While this put an emphasis on acting – which the cast more than successfully fulfilled – it also made me lose my breath just watching, with far too much running-around.  McVicar clearly intended to play upon the comic aspects of this opera, but chose the farcical influence of Rossini’s Barber of Seville rather than of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  Although Strauss had both in mind, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s brilliant libretto contains comedy on all levels, the setting of Rosenkavalier should keep its staid exterior and never descend completely into farce.  Sometimes there can be too much motion on an opera stage.

But these are quibbles, as the production was intelligent.  Hofmannsthal’s words were conveyed in English, and although quite a correct translation – and generally to meter – something naturally got lost.  Perhaps this formed the reason that McVicar decided to make up for those Austrian dialectual nuances through inserting so much action on the stage.  But he also inserted more prominence for the mute roles, particularly Mohammed, whom he turned from a page boy into an adult, and had appear a little more often than usual.  The role of Mohammed is one of those little period details Hofmannsthal inserted, but indeed normally remains a detail and not quite so prominent.

This opera leaves open much room for directors to determine who, exactly, should be the main character and protagonist.  Often it is Ochs (indeed, the opera was called “Ochs von Lerchenau” while still in draft).  Otto Schenk’s Vienna production intelligently posited the Marschallin (who does not even appear in person in the second act and only arrives late in the third act).  McVicar chose – as the title suggested – Octavian, the Cavalier of the Rose.  Octavian pushed the plot forward, sometimes purposefully and sometimes accidentally (betraying his young age), relying on the older and wiser Marschallin to help him out of corners he had painted himself into.  It worked.

As Octavian, Sarah Connolly pulled off the acting part, and made a dashing, vibrant, and youthful figure.  Although pretty, and able to hit the right notes, her voice lacked depth.  She is singing a boy – a role assigned to a mezzo-soprano only because Strauss was following a period convention of the century he wished to invoke.  But even in that period, mezzos assigned to sing male roles had to provide a different character to their voice than when singing female roles.  Her voice came out too light and dainty, particularly for this headstrong part.

Amanda Roocroft sang a dignified aristocratic Marschallin.  The young soprano Sophie Bevan was excellent as her namesake Sophie, making her voice both dainty and full simultaneously.  Special mention should go to Adrian Thompson in the minor role of Valzacchi, who managed to make himself a highlight and creep forward to steal the stage at the right moments.  A disappointment was John Tomlinson as Ochs – sadly, Tomlinson seems to have passed his sell-by date.  When I saw the cast list, I assumed his presence would guarantee the production.  Although his acting ability has not diminished, his voice has.  He hit all of the lower-register notes without problems, but cracked every single note on the upper registers.  His instrument sounded worn and tired.

Edward Gardner conducted an on-the-whole idiomatic performance.  His orchestra followed him well, and proved capable of getting through the not-easy score, but was also not especially good, having a ragged tone that sounded like it had been re-amplified from a poor-quality 1950s live recording (but it was not amplified, so these really were the tones it produced).  I suppose I could compare it with a very good amateur or student orchestra (albeit not from a conservatory).

The ENO’s house, the London Coliseum, is a lush Edwardian building constructed in 1904 with a large stage and generally-good sight lines.  I am not sure about the acoustics overall from this one performance, sitting on the first-level balcony, a few rows back and under the ceiling from the second-level balcony (although there was a lot of room between levels, so the music could get in there).  I heard everything well enough, so assume that it was in order.  But I’d need to move elsewhere to get a better sense of the overall quality of the hall.

What shocked me, however, were the prices.  My seat was somewhat middle-ranked (maybe even lower than that), but was still far more expensive than even the most expensive seat at the Volksoper – Vienna’s second house (the ENO being London’s second house, this would seem to be the logical point for comparison).  This lower-middle ranked seat at the ENO was also more expensive than most seats at the Staatsoper.  Yet the ENO is not a private house but is state-owned and taxpayer-supported.  The ENO also, like the Volksoper, prides itself as the “people’s” house, trying to make opera more accessible than at the top house (in London, that being the Royal Opera at Covent Garden).  I am not sure how charging so much for tickets accomplishes this goal.  Furthermore, even a program cost 5 Pounds, about three times what a program at the Staatsoper costs – yet it contains far less material, and is mostly a book of advertisements.  I do not begrudge the ENO for seeking sponsors and advertisers, but it is a bit much to ask people to pay to receive advertisements.  There were a few informative essays, but again not what I would expect for that amount of money and nothing resembling the great booklets the ENO published back in the 1970s.

Still, I do not go to the ENO often, and indeed had not gone ever before.  I would go again.


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