Classical Reviews: Coarser, more cavalier

Der Rosenkavalier English National Opera, London

It's been almost three years since Jonathan Miller first served up his Der Rosenkavalier at English National Opera, stripping it to its bare essentials, humanising the fairy-tale, and generally holding back on the whipped cream. While the Marschallin stopped her clocks in the dead of night, his raced on. Vienna, city of our dreams, became Vienna, city of fashion circa 1911. Here was no fantasy, but social reality. The old orders lingered on. Miller took his cue from Strauss's librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who insisted that the opera was more than a fanciful evocation of a bygone age, that Viennese society was, in fact, time-warped. To the extent that the Marschallin would still receive the riff-raff in her boudoir over breakfast? A levee in 1911? Questionable, Dr Miller. But let it pass.

The "ennobling" of Herr von Faninal (by dint of his daughter Sophie's "arranged" marriage) remains one of the production's most telling inventions. On the rise of the curtain for Act 2, Peter J Davison's set tells us that, in anticipation of his new-found status, the family have moved house. The palatial reception room is empty but for an ostentatious painting standing unhung by its packing cases. Through the windowed corridor, a row of vulgar golden-archer statues dominate the garden terrace. New age art for new age aristocracy. The undiscerning in pursuit of the unspeakable. This whole act is marvellously staged, busy but finely focused in its detail. When Octavian presents the silver rose to Sophie and their eyes finally meet, it really does feel as if a new chapter has begun and young love is once again about to renew itself. Rosemary Joshua (the production's original Sophie, here deputising for an indisposed Donna Brown) catches everyone's breath with those heartstopping phrases in altissimo (has the frozen moment of love at first sight ever been more ravishingly captured in music?), and in Susan Parry we have an Octavian more credible as a dashing young gentleman than any I have seen in the theatre. The problems, as ever, begin with his/ her transformation into the chambermaid Mariandel.

If only we could foreshorten this interminable nonsense at the beginning of Act 3. It could be funnier (or more mildly amusing) than it is, but in the absence of Miller from this revival (David Ritch was in charge here), the pantomimic elements of the show appear to have coarsened somewhat from being a parody of German humour at its bottom-pinching worst to something horribly reminiscent of the real thing. Would it not be funnier in Act 1 if Mariandel actually tried to make that outsize bed? So much about this production is truthful. There has to be a way of extending that to the comedy.

John Tomlinson, for the most part, does a splendid portrayal of the boorish Ochs. He walks like he's only just dismounted - horse or female, it makes no odds to him; and you can almost smell his bad breath in those rude low notes below the stave. He always had his match, of course, in his cousin the Marschallin, and we have ours in Yvonne Kenny's gracious performance - one of the best things I've ever seen her do. One might wish for a little more old-world bloom on the voice, but her artistry almost supplies it. You really feel she's at a crossroads in life, still wanting to play but carrying the years with dignity. At the close of Act 1 she tells us all we need to know of regret in a single soaring phrase on the words "with a silver rose". And she carries that feeling right through to the final trio, by which time (and thanks, too, to David Atherton's attentive, beautifully paced conducting) there is a palpable sense in the house of hearts having been well and truly tugged.

Performances: 1, 5, 8, 12, 15, 19, 22 Feb, 1 Mar. Booking: 0171-632 8300

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