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Perfectly Beautiful, this imperfect humanity. Review: ROH – Der Rosenkavalier

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I was lucky enough to attend the opening night of ROH’s Production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Renée Fleming (Die Marschallin), Alice Coote (Octavian) and Sophie Bevan (Sophie) in the soprano lead roles. The artistry of these three was stunning.

I was unfortunately stupid enough to misremember the timing of this performance, and as a result my OperaBuddy and I missed the very start of the overture, watching the entire first act via a monitor amidst the clatterings of Covent Garden’s Amphitheatre Bar Staff, preparing for the first interval as they were. The microphone we were dependent upon was evidently in the pit. This was no great disappointment as the orchestra were in truly divine form under the baton of Andris Nelsons, however much of the singing (mostly Fleming and Coote) appeared to be lost. Interestingly all three of the other attendees I spoke to commented that Fleming was in fact surprisingly underpowered in this first half, and took a good while to warm up into the role vocally. Perhaps even great opera singers still get nervous on opening night. Nonetheless their unexpected comments were reflected quite accurately by what we experienced on the monitor. From our distance, mediated by screens and speakers, the first act appeared visually charming. The emotional divebomb that the text takes from sexual play to the musings and anxieties of a self-consciously fading rose was definite, tender and beautiful.

The gorgeousness of this masterwork by Strauss is such that it increases and develops all the more as the opera goes along. The relationships in Act II, potentially tricky to portray convincingly, could not have been doubted for a moment. Sophie Bevan’s endearing naïvety and soaring voice were absolutely entrancing. Coote was compelling beyond belief in her portrayal of the adolescent Octavian. She succeeded in relating his sincerity throughout his emotional struggle and the goodness of his heart, which is ultimately the source of the youthful ideals and illusions that lead to him falling in love with Sophie whilst not quite managing to relinquish his feelings of loyalty and commitment to the Marschallin.

I was a little distracted by the strange set design choices in Act II. From the grand, romantic era chamber of Act I we jumped to cartoonish and clumsy neo-classical backgrounds decked with both anachronistic, modern/minimalist black sofas and large canons (in Herr von Faninal’s living room?) that wobbled conspicuously when cast members jumped or sat on them. Bad dancing for no apparent reason in the background also proved a strange distraction. Despite the conflicting period indicators, the music remained at the highest level throughout. Matthew Rose as Baron Ochs was master over his wonderful voice, deplorable and funny without becoming a caricature, a rare achievement for this difficult character.

In Act III the set again betrayed inconsistencies of vision with half-nude, can-can-esque prostitutes dawdling over early 20th Century style telephones, peculiar intermittent shifts to modern lighting (including at one point multicolour neon tubes) and a divergent reference to caged pole-dancing that bordered on the gratuitous. Had the portrayal of sexual excess been more thoughtfully incorporated into a distinctive and identifiable style it would have been more effective in its intended effect of communicating and denouncing the character and motivations of Baron Ochs.

Coote clearly revelled in the gender-bending genius of Strauss’s librettist von Hofmannsthal, starting this act as a woman dressed as a man dressed as a woman, seducing a man who has no idea that this woman is in fact a man in drag (did you follow that?). The production would however benefit from a stronger creative decision about whether it is to approach these passages as explicitly theatrical farce or with something more like (necessarily camp) seriousness.

The Marschallin, of course, breaks the Burlesque before it disintegrates, selfessly saves Sophie from a miserable marriage and graciously blesses the union of this charming younger version of herself with her own, still much-adored Octavian. This was the moment Fleming came into her mythical own, living the role in alls its fullness. Her Marschallin was humble, painfully elegant, true in her renunciation and yet still you could almost taste her agony and the depth of her love for this silly boy Octavian. All this mingled in the rare and unique colours of her musical performance.

The trio at the end of this act is one of the most moving and honest expressions of humanity I have had the honour to experience. Fleming, Coote and Bevan wove togetherall the wonderful and complex nuances, elations and anxieties of love and sexual desire. My heart broke when, in the Marschallin’s presence, Coote as Octavian sang the same pledges of love to Sophie as he had to the Marschallin herself in the first act. This passage transcends reality because the librettist, and Strauss through his other-worldly music, distill human experience and offer it in all its imperfection. The three sopranos realised this vision irreproachably, and I for one was overwhelmed by the confounding sensations of being simultaneously lifted out of the world whilst witnessing it in a strangely naked human form before me.

This opera is a truly special work of art, and the casting and musical performance, including Nelsons in the pit, was especially exceptional. Only clearer vision from the staging and lighting could have improved this production. It is entirely the honour and credit of the musical artists that the anachronisms and holes in that aspect of the presentation did not detract in any significant way from the beautiful humanity they created together.