Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera House, London

Not yet the end of the affair

Sir Charles Mackerras - that pre-eminent music stylist - pitches into the now-infamous prelude to Der Rosenkavalier with almost indecent haste. Behind closed curtains, Marie Therese (the Marschallin) and her "boy", Octavian, are making love. Or, in this case, are simply hard at it. Strauss's whooping horns have rarely climaxed leaving so little to the imagination.

Mackerras's conducting is one of several very good reasons for making your way to this fine revival of the late John Schlesinger's sound, if not especially revealing, 1984 production. William Dudley's sets and Maria Bjornson's costumes still look plushly, oppressively authentic at a distance, even though Herr von Faninal's palace in Act II looks a little as if Cinderella has come early this year. We know the man has no taste (Faninal, that is) but this is, surely, stretching the point.

Mackerras's sense of pace and pulse is consistently invigorating. There are those who pore over this score as if the 18th century is wearing thin in real time, those for whom venerable is not vital. Mackerras will have none of that. His narrative drive is keen and eventful, fizzing with incidental detail. He reminds us that this is, indeed, a "Viennese masquerade", as the Marschallin puts it, luxuriant but animated too. No point in waltz music if you can't dance to it. And the Royal Opera Orchestra certainly dances.

Felicity Lott's Marschallin has become very much her signature role. She has found a way to access its heartache without sentimentality. There is real humour in her performance. You feel this woman's desire to dash protocol, to wear the advancing years lightly. "The Field Marshal can be very quick," she says, and the shrug tells you exactly what she means. You sense that she has already played out the dress rehearsal of losing Octavian to a younger woman. When she so gratefully floats the words "silver rose" at the end of Act I, Lott leaves you in no doubt at all as to their significance. The presentation of that rose will seal the end of the affair.

The bearer, Octavian, is marvellously realised by Angelika Kirchschlager. You understand how this lustful "puppy" has brought the first flush of youth back to the Marschallin's cheeks. Kirchschlager's body language - both as the young gentleman and as his impromptu alter ego, the chambermaid "Mariandel" - is rangy and a touch awkward, and well complemented by a voice that has all the requisite virility but beauty, too. As Sophie, the object of his new-found affections, Simone Nold makes her Royal Opera debut. That love-at-first-sight moment - the glorious but nerve-racking ascent into the stratosphere of the "presentation" scene - is intense enough to compromise intonation in the best of singers. Nold more than compensates later by bringing out the feistier side of Sophie's nature.

And that's important, if she is to stand up to the oafish Baron Ochs. The Vienna-born Kurt Rydl plainly brings long-acquired local knowledge to his portrayal - not as funny as some, perhaps, but every bit as obnoxious. His strutting manner and big booming bass are no substitute for real class, but only he doesn't know it. You can smell his beery breath on every bottom D.

The gallery of minor characters includes sharply drawn vignettes from such seasoned performers as Elizabeth Gale in the role of Sophie's duenna, Marianne. The revival director, Andrew Sinclair, does a good job of keeping them all in their place. Which, in the case of the great final trio, can only be downstage centre, side by side, eyes front. Three women, one purpose, rapt audience.

To 30 April (020-7304 4000)

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