Opera / Greatest love of all: Edward Seckerson reviews Jonathan Miller's Der Rosenkavalier at the Coliseum

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The Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier is a fairy-tale Vienna of long, long ago, a Vienna of glittering palaces and real live Princes, Princesses, Counts and Archdukes, a Vienna so remote as to exist only in our dreams. Or is it? For his new production at English National Opera, Jonathan Miller has fast-forwarded his operatic clock to around the time of composition - 1911. And behold, not a lot has changed. Think about it. The historical facts speak for themselves.

Viennese society was time-warped. Here was no fantasy, but social reality. The old order lingered on. The past was more glamorous than the future. For some.

Miller has taken his cue from Strauss's librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He was adamant: anyone thinking of their opera as merely the fanciful evocation of a bygone age should think again. The characters and situations were real enough in 1911; only the trappings had grown less outwardly magnificent. And so the curtain here rises on designs by Peter J Davison (sets) and Sue Blane (costumes) that portray grandiosity without the tinsel. Real people inhabit these rooms. The sun does not always shine into the Marschallin's boudoir. In fact it rains through most of Act One. And Herr von Faninal's ascent into the nobility (the lesser nobility, mind) is beautifully marked in Act Two by the suggestion that he has just moved house.

In a vast empty reception room, an enormously ostentatious 18th-century painting has just been unpacked. Through the windowed corridor (ideal for spectators and eavesdroppers), a row of tasteless golden-archer statues line the terrace beyond. New art for new aristocracy.

But it's amazing how much stronger the piece becomes when the characters and situations emerge from a period of more recent history, a period we feel we can almost reach out and touch. The inhabitants of this Rosenkavalier are somehow more recognisable to us. Partly, of course, because Miller is such a keen observer of human behaviour. His stagecraft is sound - truthful, detailed, unfussy, a million miles away from the thigh-slapping, pantomimic, cream-puff, mawkishly sentimental Rosenkavaliers that have too often been sent to try us.

And he has a cast which represents ENO at its international best. John Tomlinson's Baron Ochs is a joy, an overripe but credible creation, a boorish lech who walks as though he's only just dismounted. How zealously he exploits the vocal extremities of the writing: you can almost smell his bad breath in those rude notes below the stave. Then there is Sally Burgess's dashing, impetuous Octavian - almost too virile at the top of the voice but slipping effortlessly into her sub-Eliza Dolittle serving-wench, Mariandel - and a Sophie from Rosemary Joshua which radiantly delivers what ENO has been nurturing, winning every heart with everyone's favourite phrases in altissimo.

But the essence of the piece rests with the Marschallin, and for Anne Evans this is the perfect role at the perfect time - well within her voice, every phrase generously attended, a modest instrument used with great taste and resource. In a sense she symbolises a fading era. Time is the enemy she must befriend if she is to retain her dignity. You can believe that she gets up in the middle of the night to stop all the clocks (what a marvellous passage, this, with its chiming harp and creeping bass clarinet), but equally she is first and last a realist - and when, at the close of Act I, she dismisses Octavian, it's a brave gesture beautifully complemented with a memorable final image of her reaching for her long cigarette holder, lighting up, and inhaling deeply. It's been a hard day's night already. She is resigned.

All through this remarkable scene, Strauss's orchestra weaves its autumnal spell under the very capable, very stylish directorship of Yakov Kreizberg. He knows how to tease and caress a waltz, how to animate and clarify busy texturing beneath the score's shot-silk surface. But then, this whole evening is about so much more than appearances. I should still like to have heard more of the words, but the spirit was infinitely willing, the atmosphere intoxicating. Very classy.

Continues at the London Coliseum (071-836 3161)

(Photograph omitted)

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