CLASSICAL MUSIC / Miller picks a thorny rose: Rosenkavalier; Schumann & Friends

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT THE end of Act I, as the score of Der Rosenkavalier dictates, the Marschallin dismissed Octavian; then slowly, very slowly, as the curtain fell, she turned in profile, posed like a distended Erte mannequin, and lit a cigarette. It was a point made with a vengeance. We were not in 18th-century Vienna, and this new Jonathan Miller production at the Coliseum was not going to be seduced by the rococo fuss and Sachertorte sweetness that define the performing tradition of the piece.

On the contrary, this new Rosenkavalier is one of Dr Miller's period updates. He sets it in the early 20th century, around the time when Strauss and Hofmannsthal were working on the score, and stages it in cool, austerely open spaces (well designed by Peter J Davison, and beautifully lit by Jean Kalman) that offer no distraction from the actual performance. And the time-shift has a purpose.

Miller always updates with integrity, and his point here is that Rosenkavalier is largely about the erosion, by time, of emotional and social values. What better way to illustrate this than to set the opera in the last days of the Habsburg Empire, when the old order that propped up the likes of Baron Ochs was creaking at the joints, and a new bourgeois supremacy of Faninals and police commissioners stood poised to take over?

I don't think I've ever seen a Rosenkavalier whose values were scrutinised with such illuminating clarity as here. There are times when Miller strikes with scalpel sharpness to the very heart of the work. But in the process he discards material that, however inessential, makes for atmosphere; the result is a forensically intelligent English Rosenkavalier rather than an idiomatically engaging Viennese one. Whether you like the idea or not, this opera is a sweet and sentimental comedy. The score demands it. If you don't acknowledge that, you're left with two big comic scenes - the levee and the tavern - which are no fun. At ENO, the tavern scene is over-artful: we are shown the extras loitering backstage and munching sandwiches as they await the cue to play their tricks on Ochs. And at the final reckoning, when the score is waltzing crazily, what does Miller do but freeze the action into an aggressive tableau of come-uppance. The composer shrugs the moment off with laughter; the director buries it in retribution.

The tavern scene is always a problem, in that Hofmannsthal's dramatic invention at this point is significantly weaker than Strauss's music. You can understand why a director might go looking for alternative stagings. But at other times, Rosenkavalier's high sugar content is actually functional: for example, the mime at the end where the little black servant comes on to fetch the dropped hankie - a sickeningly cute moment that Miller replaces with more robust child-business. But the hankie is important. It belongs to Sophie. Little Mohammed belongs to the Marschallin. And what this tells you is that somewhere offstage Sophie and the Marschallin are now together, reconciled. A useful piece of information.

That said, Miller has a genius for drawing deep and detailed portraiture from singers, and the main performances here are hugely impressive. Anne Evans's Marschallin is more maternal than Strauss probably envisaged, and sometimes under the note. But she is wonderfully compassionate and sumptuously rich of tone as she leads into the Trio. John Tomlinson's Ochs is a marvel of original thinking, big in voice and gesture, but substantial rather than cartoon-like. This is an Ochs (in plus-fours, curiously resembling George V) who disturbs because he has more in common with Octavian than we might care to know: he's a different manifestation of the same free spirit. Rosemary Joshua's Sophie, an arriviste, John Singer Sargent debutante, is utterly enchanting. And Sally Burgess's Octavian is a masterpiece of actor-singing, beautifully observed and with a clear, open attack that mezzos rarely offer in the role. You watch her as a 17-year-old boy and wonder how she also manages to be the sultriest and sexiest of ENO Carmens. To call her versatile would be an understatement.

Taking into account reservations about the conducting (Yakov Kreizberg, slow and stodgy) and the translation (Alfred Kalisch, old and awkward), it makes for a patchy evening - but spectacularly so. Part-magnificent, part-frigid; either way, a fascinating piece of theatre that Strauss-lovers and Strauss- haters ought to see.

I've never loved Giuseppe Sinopoli as a conductor. His readings strike me, on the whole, as coldly uncommunicative, and although he lays a major claim to Mahler, I've resisted it. But on Thursday at the Festival Hall he conducted one of the most exhilarating Mahler 5s I've ever heard: a bit of a shock, coming as it did after an unremarkable performance of Mozart's double-piano concerto, K365, featuring the pale, doll-like precision of the Labeque sisters. As always with Sinopoli, this Mahler reading had a brittle angularity that was ungenerous. But it had brilliance, daring and intensity enough for any ears. The Philharmonia brass were in superb form - can there be a more commanding First Trumpet in the world than their John Wallace? And if the string tone was thin for the Adagietto (which came in at just under 10 minutes, for those who collect such data), the violas took the central ground with an uncommonly strong, solid and impacted sound. A pleasure to find one of London's battle-weary orchestras triumphant after last year's problems.

Meanwhile, back in London this week is the long-expatriate conductor Raymond Leppard, renewing his old links with the English Chamber Orchestra in a concert series of his own devising called Schumann and Friends. From the modest audience turn-out on Friday, Schumann doesn't seem to have too many friends these days - not, at least, as a symphonist - so this series is timely. There will be more to say about it later. But I want to say now how persuasive a case Leppard and the ECO make for the Schumann symphonies as something other than the stodgy-textured also- rans that music history regards them as. No 2 made (its Beethovenian turbulence aside) the sort of clean, fresh impact on the ear you might associate with period performance. And as such it stood as an impressive testimony to the principle the ECO and Leppard stand for: that a period performance is more properly a matter of interpretation than of how, and when, your instruments were made.

'Rosenkavalier' continues Tues & Sat (071-836 3161); 'Schumann & Friends' continues today, Mon & Tues (071-638 8891).

(Photograph omitted)