“How can it happen? How can it be God’s will? For I am still the same.” Many of us can identify with the Marschallin’s bewilderment at the ageing process in Richard Strauss’ many-layered comic opera Der Rosenkavalier, but we can also learn from her elegant acceptance. “Love and let go,” she counsels. That sophistication and grace is devastating when the Marschallin is sung by a soprano of the quality and presence of Miah Persson: seldom have I seen so many tears of recognition shed among an audience as I did last night at Garsington Opera.

Miah Persson (Marschallin)
© Johan Persson

This company has come roaring back after the Covid closure, supercharged no doubt by their newly-agreed 125-year lease at Mark Getty’s Wormsley Estate. They rightly judge that what an audience needs now is spectacle, opulence and indulgence, and Bruno Ravella’s new production has all those attributes, combining bucketloads of glamour with outstanding singing from a beautifully chosen cast. 

Recognising that the intricate 19th-century Viennese social snobberies lampooned in the opera are just as timeless as the theme of ageing, Ravella has shifted the action to the 1950s, where a dwindling aristocracy has to attempt to make accommodation with new-money industrialists and their vulgar attempts at respectability. Designer Gary McCann excels here, devising a set that can transform from the understated elegance of the Marschallin’s apartments to overdone bling, using the rose of the title as a central theme, with great plaster swags decorating the walls and ceilings – inspired perhaps by engravings of the original 1911 Dresden set by Alfred Roller.

Miah Persson (Marschallin) and Hanna Hipp (Octavian)
© Johan Persson

The time shift also offers a splendid excuse to make Persson appear like Grace Kelly in a series of glamorous New Look outfits and shimmering gowns. She looks and sounds gorgeous. No wonder her young lover Octavian is heartbroken when she tells him that inevitably he will soon fall for another, younger woman. It is one of the many achievements of Hanna Hipp’s terrific portrayal of Octavian – Strauss’ reimagining of Mozart’s Cherubino – that we believe his tears of protest; there’s a genuine frailty underneath the boyish swagger. And musically this is a perfect partnership, the warmth and colour of Hipp’s mezzo a delicious complement to Persson’s silvery soprano.

Into this quiet intimacy charges the appallingly fat, tweedy and vulgar Baron Ochs, who announces he is to marry Sophie, daughter of wealthy parvenu merchant Faninal, though he has never met her. He makes passes at anyone in a skirt, including Octavian, who has disguised himself as a maid to avoid detection as the Marschallin’s lover. Bass Derrick Ballard has a ball in this part, scandalising everyone with his outrageous behaviour (and outrageous suits), plunging to the depths with élan, both morally and vocally, including a spectacular, seemingly endless bottom D as he makes one his many chaotic exits.

Hanna Hipp (Mariandel/Octavian) and Derrick Ballard (Baron Ochs)
© Johan Persson

Soprano Madison Leonard sings Sophie with a delightfully bright, ethereal upper register, instilling all the optimism of youth in a charming portrayal. The central scene, when Octavian presents her with the silver rose to mark her never-to-take-place marriage, is beautifully done. Their disbelief at the sudden intense love that they feel for each other is so tangible you could almost reach out and touch it.

Swirling all around this burgeoning romance are a bravura cast of lawyers, milliners, major-domos, policemen, flower-sellers and gossip peddlars – difficult to direct at the best of times, but even more so with Covid restrictions. Fixed teams within the chorus and dancers were “bubbled” together to ensure they could be in close contact on stage, but rehearsals seem to have been particularly challenging. Regulations said cast members could be between one and two metres apart providing it was for less than 15 minutes over one working day. Two people could be one metre apart for less than one minute over one working day. It’s a great tribute to this cast that none of these tough conditions are apparent in the show… until you realise that throughout a long evening of magical romance no one ever approaches, touches or kisses the object of their intense desire.

Madison Leonard (Sophie) and Hanna Hipp (Octavian)
© Johan Persson

Strauss can never be accused of brevity, and Act 3 can seem to take an eternity to resolve. Ravella peoples the extended prelude with a carefully choreographed cast of hired wives and children set up to spook Ochs, who has been tricked into an assignation with Octavian’s “maid”. It is supposed to take place in a wayside inn, but this being the 1950s, we find ourselves in a seedy, cheap hotel room, a grim box set-within-a-set. In what should be a coup de théâtre, the back wall eventually falls away to reveal the Marschallin in another stunning gown, but last night there was a sickening crack as the wall fell. A shaken-looking Persson understandably trod very warily over the scenery as she made her entrance but quickly found her composure to give her blessing to Octavian and Sophie’s new-found love in the glorious trio.

The Philharmonia Orchestra – outstanding throughout – give the first UK performance of new reduced score by Eberhard Kloke, which allows greater audibility for the singers while retaining the many sumptuous moments in Strauss’ original. It’s conducted by the admirable Jordan de Souza with intelligent fluency and sensitivity, nowhere more so than in the closing transcendent duet between Octavian and Sophie, “Ist ein Traum”. 

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