wed 24/07/2024

Der Rosenkavalier, CBSO, Nelsons, Symphony Hall Birmingham | reviews, news & interviews

Der Rosenkavalier, CBSO, Nelsons, Symphony Hall Birmingham

Der Rosenkavalier, CBSO, Nelsons, Symphony Hall Birmingham

The end stupendously crowns the masterwork in this fluctuating concert performance

Alice Coote as Octavian and Soile Isokoski as the Marschallin in the Bavarian State Opera productionBavarian State Opera

A trio of Rosenkavaliers: what more could one want as we near Richard Strauss’s 150th birthday? Well, more of the less often performed operas, for a start.

But as this is the Straussian cornucopia, it’s not going to tire those of us who love it beyond reason, and Andris Nelsons’ concert performance with his devoted City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra eventually delivered as much in its rather peculiar way as the Barbican excerpts earlier this month and Richard Jones’ gobsmackingly original, disciplined take at Glyndebourne.

So it was time again to forget the wigs, and at first it looked as if any whiff of stagecraft might go to pot as well, with Soile Isokoski’s Marschallin clasping her hands self-protectively before her in what should be the post-coital reflection and relaxation after the princess’s night of love with 17 year old Count Octavian (fresh and vivid memories of Anne Schwanewilms and Sarah Connolly so sensuous and entwined on the concert platform didn’t help). But here, too, was Alice Coote, the mezzo I’ve most wanted to see as Octavian, trying her best to interact, and once we got to the all-action second act, there was a new love to react to in the shape of the ever richer soprano of Sophie Bevan and a heightened sense of comedy from Franz Hawlata as the exuberantly sexist pig Baron Ochs, a bass so relaxed on the concert platform that he seemed to bewilder Nelsons with his podium interaction.

Andris Nelsons by Marco BorggreveAs a concert version, it really hadn’t been thought through – considering how Justin Way liberated the platform in his Proms Wagner, or how Jurowski worked with Daniel Slater on the semi-staging of Peter Grimes, also seen in Birmingham, this seemed sloppy. If I were Nelsons (pictured above by Marco Borggreve), I’d have insisted on every singer discarding scores and stands, as only Isokoski, Coote and Hawlata did (Bevan knows her role too, from ENO performances, but maybe needed the prop for singing in German rather than English). Some singers, like Bonaventura Bottone as Valzacchi, didn’t seem to have learnt their parts thoroughly, and after the splendid male quartet of the LSO/Elder performance, the footmen with their tricky exclamations weren't uniformly good.

Then how did it work as music? Liberation from the pit brought forth ripe, orgasmic-whooping horns at the start, and the amount of lacy detail throughout, especially from the woodwind and above all the consummate clarinet team, was staggering: this is a rococo score in every way. It was good to have the Elektraish uproar of the Ochs household chasing the Faninal maids in Act Two and the continuation of the Act Three tarantella as pantomime without the stage business – though the latter scene is one of Jones’s finest suits as Glyndebourne.

Sophie Bevan by Marco BorggreveNelsons’ largesse with tempi didn’t always work for me in Act One, and sometimes stretched the singers a breath too far: the Marschallin’s monologues should be reflective but not sad and weighty, and with Isokoski sometimes over-weighting the chest voice, they verged too much on tragedy. All this, and the waltzes, were a long way from that "certain Viennese sentimentality" Strauss wanted at key points.

Isokoski is a lovely singer, with poise and sympathy to spare, but only for me really hit her stride commanding the situation and untangling the love-mess in Act Three. The real first-act frisson came from the Italian tenor of Ji-Min Park, gliding in to his aria's difficult range with ease and charm.

From Act Two onwards, though, the performance fired on all cylinders. You can take the Presentation of the Rose as slow as you like, like Bernstein, and so long as the singers are up to it, the magic will work. As it did here, with Bevan’s ripe sound (the soprano pictured above by Marco Borggreve) making hers at times a more voluptuous upper voice than Isokoski’s,even if its slimming to float was not as ecstatic as Lucy Crowe’s for Elder. The second duet, usually cast in the shade, was as luminously other-worldly as I’ve heard it, and with Hawlata (pictured below) waxing ever more boisterous, the shape of the act from its rumbustious climax down to the famous waltz scene went like a dream.

Franz HawlataIt usually feels strange when our Knight of the Rose takes the last bow, and rarely gets the biggest applause, but mine was certainly that for Alice Coote’s Octavian: full-toned and ardent, effortlessly brilliant at the top of the voice, when needed, but also magically soft from the tenderest exclamation of “Marie-Theres’!” in the breakfast scene right to the final pianissimo. She seemed to be enjoying every minute, too, and kept her femininity with two floaty wraps over a black trouser suit.

Nelsons might have opened up the cuts in concert, but that would have meant experienced singers learning more music, and we did get more of Ochs’s Falstaffian soliloquy before the waltz than at Glyndebourne. But finally we were there at the last hurdle. “It is at the end that a composer can achieve his finest effects”, wrote Strauss of the path to the great Trio and beyond; and Nelsons did that too, with an infinitely velvety cushion of sound for three great voices. Did I shed tears? I had trouble keeping the sobs from bursting into song. The ovation was mostly standing and absolutely ecstatic. That’s the magic of Rosenkavalier, and it doesn’t come more supernaturally bittersweet than this.

Liberation from the pit brought forth ripe, orgasmic-whooping horns at the start, and the amount of lacy detail throughout was staggering


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Could you please tell me what "slimming to float" means in your article? I have never heard this term before and cannot find any reference to it! An interesting and informative piece.

All  my own invention, Jeannie, and perhaps a tad elliptical. I meant that the tone is narrowed, slimmed, call it what you will, so that the high line floats. Done on fullest voice it wouldn't have the same ethereal effect, though I expect Sophie Bevan could do it that way, too.

Absolutely no reference, then, to the singer's physical size or shape. Not sexist to say that Ms Bevan's is perfect. So is Tara Erraught's. But let's not go there any more.

The only thing I'd add to your report, David, is to point out that, while the CBSO luxuriated in oceans of space, the poor team of world-class singers had to perform on a postage stamp at the front of the stage, all the while having to navigate around the sundry chairs and music stands.

I agree, David, but would more space have helped Ms Bevan, who stood rooted behind her music stand for most of her performance?

This was an incredibly fine Rosenkavalier with each of the main principals in top form and through their intimate knowledge of their roles were able to convey their characters to perfection not just through their vocal performances but through their skilled acting - body language, facial expression etc. Ms Bevan's lively Sophie was not inhibited by her score and music stand which she abandoned several times and for a concert performance I did not feel any of the principals were inhibited. I also found Isokoski terribly moving, especially the end of act one where she had the hall hanging onto every sound and gesture. Ochs rarely fails and Hawlata was in total control vocally and histrionically and had the audience in fits with his sublime interpretation. I've 60 years experience of Rosenkavalier performances and this was definitely one of the best.

Fair enough if you want to provide your own 'review' in splendid isolation. But 'to perfection' would have meant perfect co-ordination with the orchestra, and this is where the performance fell down from time to time for me.

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