MUSIC / A gilded rose: Stephen Walsh reviews Rennie Wright's Der Rosenkavalier in Cardiff

It was Der Rosenkavalier that Goran Jarvefelt was staging for Welsh National Opera when he died in 1989. Now Rennie Wright (staff producer at the time) has taken the Carl Friedrich Oberle designs and devised an elaborate staging of his own, almost entirely recast, and with a new conductor, Carlo Rizzi.

The result is more or less a new production, although Oberle's brilliant first act - set in pure colour-supplement rococo - still identifies the Marschallin and her absent husband as parvenus; like Faninal, but with better design sense. The production panders to the caviar-and- champagne set, at least until the final scene, where, for some reason, Wright does a Fledermaus on Hofmannsthal's super-real masquerade and blows it away in a puff of memories: a disconcerting comment, perhaps, on this most escapist opera.

Whatever one's taste in such matters, it's a significant Rosenkavalier, marvellously conducted and played, cast with vocal strength even in minor roles, and sung in German (with surtitles fighting a losing battle against the garrulous libretto). Rizzi's control of the complex score is impressive. He secures some very fine instrumental playing, precise yet eloquent, and with no sign of his tendency to rush. His immaculate pacing and strict attention to detail and to stage-pit co-ordination are only rarely jeopardised by overplaying.

Rizzi's responsiveness brings out the best in an immaculate cast. The American soprano Susan Graham, who plays Octavian, is a major find. Tall and a fine mover, she avoids the hoydenishness mezzos often affect in this part, and she sings it with something close to mastery, with power throughout the range and a glowing top register which she uses in the service of line and (importantly in Strauss) texture. She contrasts admirably with Sheri Greenawald, also American; her Marschallin is vocally tight but unerringly musical, decisive yet vulnerable in presence, and dramatically very clever in the overnight change from girl to old woman. Rebecca Evans's Sophie is sharp, lively and accurate. This trio is a proper nexus of personalities, not just a soprano wallow.

The staging benefits from an Ochs who has youth, if not grace. Franz Hawlata is vigorous enough to believe in his own eligibility, without losing that essential Falstaffian fatuity. Nor does he compromise vocally; it is, after all, a singer's part, with the most famous vocal number. Peter Sidhom's Faninal has a musical stature (Sidhom has sung Scarpia on this stage), though his arriviste touch is elusive - he even handles the Marschallin without unction.

Minor parts are well prepared and sung, not excluding Peter Bronder's Tenor, a neat parody of himself as, perhaps, Almaviva. A tribute, all this, to good long-term planning? The work needs nothing less, and if it all gets a bit much at times, at least nobody trips over the carpet.

At Cardiff on Thursday and Saturday and in June, then touring (Details: 0222 394844)

(Photograph omitted)

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