Monday, June 02, 2008

An English Rosenkavalier

"Too many notes", the Emperor famously rebuked Mozart; and maybe an Emperor could have said "too many words" after the 1911 premiere of Der Rosenkavalier. Hofmannsthal's libretto is wordy, positively garrulous at times but Richard Strauss was so enamoured of it that he not only set every word of it, he even set some of the stage directions as well. After Salome and Elektra he realized that he could not go any further down the road of modernity, for the two earlier works had subjects that horrified his audiences, with music that shocked the ears of the world by pushing the frontiers of harmony over the top into atonality.
As animals are said to sense an impending catastrophe, some musicians in the years before World War I seemed to sense that the world was hurtling towards disaster and produced compositions that reflected this: Sibelius with his fourth Symphony, Stravinsky with The Rite of Spring, Schoenberg with his twelve-tone works and Strauss with his twin shockers. So the German poet and composer did an about-turn with a comedy, a massive Viennese-type comedy set in the eighteenth century, containing not only anachronistic, if enchanting waltzes, but also some quite shocking situations. The opening scene sees a girl dressed as a boy with a woman twice his age, making love after an orchestral prelude whose whooping horns fed everything to the imagination.

The score is a fascinating mixture: plenty of anarchic harmony but often the dissonances are tempered with celesta, harp and glockenspiel sounds that parallel the taste of crystallised fruit. There are touching moments, like the orchestral outburst when the boy mistakenly judges that his mistress's post-coital melancholy is a sign of dismissal, like the ravishing moment when the young Sophie (his new love to be) is presented with the silver rose and, above all, the final trio whose mounting climax is not only sexual but is one of the great moments of emotional power in all music, a scene in which the older woman realizes now ecstatically happy the young ones are and relinquishes her hold on her toy-boy. Hofmannstahl may have over-egged the verbals but he also provided situations rich in emotional, even philosophical subtleties. Strauss produced a masterpiece, immediately successful but enduring. Mind you, there are a few longueurs, including the first twenty minutes of Act Three when Strauss seems to be driving his music along on auto-pilot.

There were many moments of satisfaction in the performance on Saturday, May 24, the second of a new production by the English National Opera in the London Coliseum. John Tomlinson's portrayal of the lecherous, seedy aristocrat, Baron Ochs was fine, almost like a latter-day Falstaff, his acting telling, his voice in good shape, dispelling any thoughts that age was dimming its prowess - there were some beautiful notes at the top, even though the famous final bottom E at the close of Act Two was a bit anaemic.

But older opera-goers could not but notice that, as usual in this whopping great house, the female singers were often forcing their notes except when they were singing pure tones in head-voice. Above all the stave Janice Watson (Marschallin), Sarah Connolly (Octavian) and Sarah Tynan (Sopnhe) sang well; and all three acted convincingly. Andrew Shore deserves a special mention for he made the role of the nouveau-riche Faninal, a cameo, seem like a principal one.
There was a good deal of hammy horseplay in the ensembles just as there were over-the-top elements in the decor of Michael Vale and Tania McCullin: bloated curtains half-a-dozen chandeliers and naff silver armour for Octavian. Alogether this was a rather English Rosenkavalier, more boiled beef and carrots than Sachertorte. Mind you, the audience was enthusiastic.

The orchestral playing and direction under their young music director, Edward Gardner, settled down well after the opening half-hour when the balance seemed faulty, both in the pit, and with the stage. As a footnote: the custom of a young cavalier formalizing an engagement with the presentation of a silver rose had a sequel in the later opera Arabella which ends with another quaint form of proposal. Only here is a Slovakian custom, apparently, in which the girl presents her intend with ... a glass of water!

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