Richard Strauss’ romantic comedy Der Rosenkavalier, has been an audience favourite since its first performance in 1911, and Thursday evening was no exception, with the good-sized audience engaged throughout. Melbourne Opera’s fabulous opening night demonstrated just how entertaining, funny, poignant and enjoyable four hours (including two intervals) in the theatre can be.
Richard Strauss is a master of orchestration, generally using a whole stage full of strings, and multiple wind and brass players to create a soundscape of ultra-romantic lyricism and dramatic contrasts. With the Athenaeum pit completely full, the number of string players was about half what Strauss intended. But they must have worked hard, as with a complete line-up of wind, brass, percussion and harp, the orchestral sound was mostly very pleasing indeed. Conductor David Kram shaped the music superbly, the orchestra working with him in an extremely well-disciplined performance, to create a sense of drama and direction in the music, never wallowing in the romanticism.
What is at the heart of this opera? Is it the Marschallin’s search for meaning in life as her elderly husband is no longer of interest to her? Is it Octavian, the young Count whom the Marschallin takes Mrs Robinson-style as her lover, but who later falls properly in love with the beautiful young Sophie? Is it about Sophie who is being married off to the Marschallin’s country cousin Baron Ochs, but falls truly in love with Octavian, the appointed rose-bearer, and in so doing finds her feistiness? Or is it about Baron Ochs (Ox in German), whose lecherous behaviour, lack of social graces and apparent narcissism are an abomination?
Ochs is on stage for most of the opera, and Strauss and librettist Hofmannsthal had three other possible titles, all focusing on Ochs as the central character.
While some of the opera’s best-known music is about romance and has nothing at all to do with Ochs, there’s no doubt that he is at the centre of the action and comedy, and director Tama Matheson has respected the musical highlights, but also made Ochs into a recognisable repugnant and self-centred libidinous individual, complete with bad hair, a big signature and a fake tan.
Daniel Sumegi uses his wonderful bass voice, commanding stature and superb acting skills to create much more than a caricature from the role of Baron Ochs. He is on stage, singing, acting and reacting effectively for hours!
As the Marschallin, soprano Lee Abrahmsen is superb in the role. She sings the long Richard Strauss phrases with a clear, spinning vibrancy. Her acting too is excellent – she is thoroughly believable when she takes Octavian as her lover in Act One, and again when she reappears later in Act Three realising that Sophie has won Octavian’s heart.
Soprano Danielle Calder in the trouser role of Octavian looks and sounds wonderful. Her acting as the amorous youth is convincing, and her acting as a youth acting as a maid is delightfully entertaining.
Sophie the young girl to be wed to Baron Ochs is sung by Anna Voshege, who also sings superbly and acts with flair. In that magical moment when Octavian presents the rose to Sophie, and they fall in love, there’s no doubt about the emotion, from the orchestra, or from the singers/actors. Sophie’s father Faninal is sung authoritatively by Simon Meadows, whose acting is also effective, with Andrea Creighton as her governess also looking and sounding good.
Tenor John Pickering and mezzo soprano Caroline Vercoe are a great pair of dodgy Italian conspirators, Annina and Valzacchi, who are paid by Octavian to put a scheme into practice to bring Ochs undone. Their comic timing is wonderful and their clear voices and diction are a delight. Equally, Roger Howell as the Commissioner of Policein his small but significant role acts and sings with impact.
There are many smaller solo and small group roles, all contributing well to the overall impact of this production, as does the Melbourne Opera chorus, who are kept quite busy creating wonderful settings for all the action.
The relative intimacy of the beautiful Athenaeum Theatre was a delight for this production. The set, though simple, looked sumptuous, and was well-lit, the costumes were appropriately stylish and excellent direction made sense out of the sometimes-crazed plot.
Performed in a new and sometimes very clever English translation by Geoffrey Harris (which even managed to include “colluded”), there were no surtitles to assist, so good diction was very important, and mostly delivered. Calder and Voshege in their higher registers are occasionally a little more difficult to understand when they are singing across the stage.
There are many highlights in this excellent production, none more so musically than the superb trio where the three main characters reflect on their conflicting emotions. The beauty of these three voices is exquisite, and the orchestral lines are perfectly shaped to support and entwine them. There are some laugh out loud moments too, and more than a few cringes at the behaviour of Baron Ochs.
It is well worth spending those hours in the theatre, supporting Melbourne Opera’s ambitious programs which are creating many fabulous opportunities for singers, and giving audiences access to another avenue to enjoy opera.
Margaret Arnold reviewed Melbourne Opera’s performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the Athenaeum Theatre on August 9, 2018. (Also being staged on August 11 – matinêe – 15, 17).