Otto Schenk's production of Der Rosenkavalier is now four decades old but it still looks quite fresh, its opulence unfaded. If "traditional" is your thing, it may be the best around, and though the sets are ultra busy and detailed to the point where it can distract from the human intimacy that is key to this drama, it somehow manages to avoid the chocolate box kitschery of many other long-standing "traditional" productions. One thing it does very well is show the contrast in society between the three acts – the Marschallin's sumptuous fresco-replete bed chambers in Act I, Faninal's fussy nouveau riche stadt-palais in Act II, and the grimy guest house of Act III. Also effective is that doors and windows always open out onto visible antechambers bustling with servants, adding a sense of depth – Hofmannsthal and Strauss' intention was to render (or at least suggest) a whole world with infinite social complexities and details, just as Wagner had done with his comedy Die Meistersinger.

Der Rosenkavalier; stage direction: Jürgen Rose and Otto Schenk © Wilfried Hösl
Der Rosenkavalier; stage direction: Jürgen Rose and Otto Schenk
© Wilfried Hösl

Not everything is ideal, however. The guest-house setting of Act III is horribly (and therefore delightfully) seamy, with curtained-off beds and everything dank and dark. Although this reflects Hofmannsthal's intentions quite closely, and serves as a delicious backdrop for Ochs' bungling attempts to seduce Mariandel, it brings sharply into relief quite how unlikely it is that the Marschallin would turn up there (always a problem), and makes her feel even more like a deus ex machina than normal. Unfortunately also, the same dim lighting that provided atmosphere earlier in Act III was kept extremely low during the final trio and I could barely make out any expressions in the gloom. Some sections seemed a bit generalised and lacked direction with regards to stage business, particularly the crowd scenes, and one felt that more rehearsal time might have firmed things up. Thankfully, most of the principals have done this opera countless times before, often with each other, and were here clearly required to draw on this wealth of experience to paper over the cracks.

Renée Fleming is probably the most sought-after Marschallin of her generation and this is a role that still fits her like a glove, both vocally and temperamentally. She is now 53, and though there is no question that she can still sing every note of this part, the peerless control and breathtaking radiance of the sound that that earned her the nickname "The Beautiful Voice" is sadly now much diminished. Her textual acuity in this role has always been extraordinarily detailed and heartfelt, and here she attempted to compensate for the loss of lustre by focusing even more attention on the text than usual. While this approach meant that every last word was fully comprehensible, occasionally it felt a little like each word was being underlined, and it never quite displaced my desire for a riper vocal line, of the sort which particularly in Strauss operas surely contains half of the meaning. Acting-wise, this was not the most poised or regal Marschallin that I have seen from Fleming, but there were certain details in the characterisation that rang heartbreakingly true. Particularly moving were the memory of her childhood and own engagement recalled by the scent of the silver rose, and also her refusal to indulge Octavian's sadness by hesitating and then refraining from stroking his head, where only an hour before she had performed the same action almost as a reflex. Most painful and poignant was the slight twist of the head during her final soaring phrase in Act I ("Die Silberne Rose"), which seemed to contain all of her wistfulness and sadness; these tiny yet immensely potent subtleties were pure poetry and brought a tear to the eye.

Camilla Tilling disappointed as Sophie, with a slightly tense, edgy tone, and a tendency to veer sharpwards in all her high-arching lines. This unfortunately severely marred the Act II "Presentation of the Rose" duet, and she never quite recovered. Sophie Koch was much stronger as Octavian, vocally quite splendid, rich-toned, with a gleaming top that set her vocally above all her peers. Her concern for the text is often of secondary importance to the sound she makes, but she acts the part very well, elegant but youthful, nicely capturing both Octavian's boyish impetuousness and more sensitive side.

Franz Hawlata has probably sung the role of Ochs more than any current singer, and one really sees that it is in his blood – despite this role's enormous intricacy he sings it almost as if he's improvising, hamming up the Viennese accent and clearly relishing the physical comedy. The Act III farce was a particular treat, not as overdone as it often is, and beautifully choreographed to Strauss' almost onomatopoeic score. His is not the most opulent bass voice, but he sounded very good throughout, always focused and secure, and seemed untaxed by the extreme tessitura of the part.

Constantin Trinks gave solid direction from the pit, never overpowering the singers and generally letting things flow along well. If I were to be really picky, I did hanker after a greater sense of line and forward momentum at times, and things never felt relaxed enough to really fully indulge in the glistening beauties of this score. Occasionally there were some misalignments of tempo between pit and stage, again presumably due to lack of adequate rehearsal time, but this was a more than serviceable reading of what is an extraordinarily complex score.

****1