Robert Carsen’s new production for The Rosenkavalier, premièred at the Royal Opera House last week, transfers the plot from 18th century to early 20th century Vienna. Consequently, the Marschallin and Octavian make love in a bedroom with walls covered by red brocade and paintings showing Franz Joseph as the Emperor of the day. Strict pomp and circumstance frame the first act convincingly focused on the forebodings of a married woman who knows only too well that her younger lover will leave her sooner rather than later.
In Act II, a severe modernist grand hall in black, grey and sepia provides the background for Octavian’s presentation to young Sophie of the silver rose on behalf of Baron Ochs, the coarse, older bridegroom imposed upon her by her father. In an allusion to the latter’s occupation as an arms dealer for the Imperial Army, two enormous pieces of artillery are occasionally moved to centre stage. In such inauspicious surroundings, the presentation of the rose is staged in typical Viennese manner, namely as a waltz danced by young couples.
The irresistible waltzes anachronistically composed by Strauss for his most famous opera are frequently mentioned as support for the argument to update the dramatic action to the troubled times closer to us. In this case, the goings and comings of young officers, about to exchange ballrooms for the trenches of WWI, add a dark political side to this production.
Carsen’s nihilistic premonitions are further accentuated in the third act, where the room of a tavern of dubious reputation chosen by Baron Ochs to seduce a chambermaid who is no other than Octavian, is replaced by the main saloon of a bordello. It is at this point that the production sinks into sheer vulgarity. Rather than as a shy country girl, Octavian dresses à la Marlene Dietrich and even tries to incite Ochs to perform a blow-job. Whores and transvestites come and go in an adult romp panto. It becomes then very difficult to reinsert the action into the dramatic tracks leading to the sublime trio where the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie finally confront the inevitable conclusion of their ménage a trois. At the very end, the sight of a drunken page of the Marschallin and soldiers advancing defiantly towards the front stage aims at reinforcing a political message pathetically out of place in a work where love, hope and loss are exposed thorough a delicate balance of humour, tenderness and vulnerability.
The director’s misguided political deconstruction of the Rosenkavalier conspires against his own intelligent approach to his polemical but nevertheless intelligent direction. During the trio, the elegant and refined Marschallin, sung with warmth and a creamy voice by Renée Fleming, abruptly exchanges her resignation for bitterness. And she leaves the stage despondent, after having to confront the sight of Octavian and Sophie frolicking in a big bordello bed reminiscent of her own palatial one.
Fleming´s immaculate singing lines lack sometimes the strength of projection and poise achieved by Alice Coote, a magnificent Octavian, except for a couple of foggy notes in the lower register. Sophie Bevan’s articulation in German is problematic in some difficult passages such as the staccato of her confrontation with Ochs and with her father, but her legato singing during the presentation of the rose is masterfully controlled and sublimely expanded. Matthew Rose performs a vocally clear, well- projected Ochs. Above all he manages to be funny without being grotesque.
Under the baton of Andris Nelsons, the house orchestra flows with an incomparable mixture of differentiation, intensity and chromatic variety. At all times Nelsons pushes his orchestra across all the interpretative details required by the score with breathtaking dynamics and variation of tempi. The shortcomings in the production are, up to a point, compensated for by the magnificent sets designed by Paul Steinberg. Robert Carsen himself is assisted by Peter van Praet’s richly poetic lighting effects. Pity about the bordello!
Read The Rosenkavalier review here.