Rosenkavalier is a wonderful opera. It has some of the most superb music ever written for women’s voices and it has a central theme that strikes chords for everyone who has any interest in the way that love and sexual attraction survive the passage of time and the effect of aging on the way we see our place in the world. And it manages to combine these serious strands with broad comedy. This marvellous production by Olivia Fuchs for Welsh National Opera offers new insights into these themes.
It is Vienna in 1911. The Marschallin has a young lover, Octavian. As the curtain rises, we find them exhausted in bed together after a night of passion – vividly portrayed by the orchestra in the overture. Their morning idyll is interrupted by the arrival of the Marschallin’s aristocratic but uncouth cousin from the country, Baron Ochs. Ochs is in Vienna to marry Sophie von Faninal, a rich young heiress from a merchant family. Octavian is chosen to present to Sophie the silver rose symbolising Och’s love. He falls in love with her on the spot and, when Ochs arrives and behaves boorishly, Octavian objects. In the final act Octavian contrives to lure Ochs into an assignation with a servant girl who is not what she seems. This leads to his humiliation and the end of his hopes of marrying money. As the opera ends, the Marschallin retires with exemplary grace to leave her young admirer with his new love.
In this production, director Olivia Fuchs focuses on the passing of time and the Marschallin’s growing sadness as she realises that old age is creeping up on her and the love affair with Octavian must soon end. Two simple but highly effective devices are employed to underscore this theme – a silent figure observing the action who represents the Marschallin in old age – and falling sand which, as if from an hour glass, gradually piles up on the stage. The effect is to emphasise the relentless march of time and enhances the poignancy of the ending of the love affair.
The four key singers are superb. Rebecca Evans as the Marschallin is excellent. She sings with consummate style throughout but she delivers her musical soliloquy at the end of Act 1 with a beauty of tone and a depth of feeling that I found overwhelming. Lucia Servoni is a very convincing Octavian whether in lascivious mode with the Marschallin or in angry mode confronting the Baron. Her duet with the superb Louise Alder immediately after the presentation of the rose was outstanding, almost overtaking the famous final trio in its beauty. Alder, already established as a rising star, is a splendid Sophie, self-effacing and spiky by turns. Brindley Sherratt makes sure the baron is not just the rustic buffoon stereotype that we are sometimes offered and his rich bass voice is always well produced and projected.
Conductor Tomas Hanus was sure-footed in tempi and sympathetic to the singers. The WNO orchestra was on top form and there was a strength and cohesiveness to the whole evening. The final twist, where the servant Mohammed, who has grown old and grey-haired, enters to serve tea to the silent elderly Marschallin is a delightful touch and underlines how well the whole production has been thought through to ensure its dramatic and musical impact.