Opera: How to grow old gracefully



STRAUSS'S MARSCHALLIN in Der Rosenkavalier is supposed to be aged 32, but the part is usually taken by a singer rather further into her years. In fact, there is an accepted progress from the ingenue role of Sophie to the senior part, normally reserved for an established diva.

The Scottish Opera's Marschallin, Joan Rodgers, is, of course, an established diva. However, with her slight and pretty figure she looks like a young girl, and the voice is essentially lyric. Given the customary suspension of disbelief, she would pass excellently as Sophie, with, say, Anne Evans as the Marschallin. Casting Rodgers as the older woman put a strain on the Sophie (here, the brightly focused Lisa Milne), who had to seem younger and prettier, and on the whole balance of the action, for the opera is chiefly about a woman who sees her youth slipping away.

This strain was worsened initially by a conductor, Richard Armstrong, who held the rhythms too tightly corseted. He relaxed a little as things progressed. The effect was to give a special poignancy to the end of Act 1, in which Rodgers wistfully recalled her teenage years; the soft warmth of the voice, the bewitching smile that hovered always near her lips, the quiet self-possession, gave the lightest of touches to this moment of pathos, a bit shallow but nevertheless heartfelt. As the grand patrician, she was less credible, and you worried that she might lose control of the stageful of dubious characters in Act 3.

Indeed, it was a bit of a surprise when this young, pretty thing was able to command the boy Octavian out of the room at the close of Act 1. For this Octavian (Stella Doufexis) was a tall, gallant, fiery character with flashing eyes and a voice that was vibrant and comprehensive. It was a totally convincing portrayal of the impulsive young male.

If Rodgers shed a new light on the Marschallin, then Peter Rose gave a new meaning to Baron Ochs. A heavyweight baritone, he was able to give force and power to what is usually a boorish pantaloon; you felt for him when he longed for the unsophisticated country life in a Vienna of tricks and conspiracies.

It was impressive how closely these fine principals had worked with the producer, David McVicar. Any producer can get the chorus to group well, but to get soloists to turn their heads away at just the moment when the harmony clouds, or to slow in mid-gesture when Strauss suddenly imposes a piano, takes real authority. McVicar had designed his own set, an elegant room with heavy drapes and candles, and Tanya McCallin provided sumptuously colour-coded costumes.

There were some precious vignettes: Joanna Campion was a snakey Annina, Phyllis Cannan a ludicrously shocked Marianne, and Harry Ward, in the non-singing part of Ochs' bastard Leopold, was a deliciously greasy sloven. There was plenty to admire in this production; even the audience at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, showed some real enthusiasm for once.