English National opera's first première of 2012 is a revival of David McVicar's 2008 production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, in splendid rococo period setting. They pulled out all the stops in casting: the four lead roles were all sung and acted wonderfully by English singers at the very top of their game. There were some big stars even in the smaller roles: having just seen Gwyn Hughes-Jones as Cavaradossi in Tosca, it was a surprise to see him filling in the tiny cameo role of the Italian opera singer with plenty of brio.

Sir John Tomlinson as Ochs and Sarah Connolly as Octavian © Clive Barda
Sir John Tomlinson as Ochs and Sarah Connolly as Octavian
© Clive Barda

The four roles give a lesson in contrasting singing styles. John Tomlinson turned in a rumbustious performance as the oafish Baron Ochs. It was a rather Falstaff-like treatment: a big, loud, cheery, man whose delusive self-importance and arrogance start by being embarrassing and loathsome but end up rather pathetic. And Tomlinson's voice is a marvel, with bottomless depth and richness of timbre. As the other grown-up in the piece, Amanda Roocroft turned in an equally compelling performance as the Feldmarschallin, compelling both as the proud, controlling aristocrat and as the beautiful woman sadly conscious of the sands of time. Roocroft's voice was warmer and tenderer than I have heard it before, and her command of the stage immaculate. Sophie Bevan's light and airy soprano provided a perfect contrast as the young Sophie: a clear voice to represent youthful innocence. Sarah Connolly impressed in the title role, producing a glorious sound while staying astonishingly credible in one of the more difficult acting tasks in opera: a female singer interpreting the extreme mood swings of a seventeen year old boy.

Der Rosenkavalier was a conscious effort on the part of Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl to produce a Marriage of Figaro for their time. The setting and characters are straight out of Beaumarchais (although shifted from Paris to Vienna) and many plot elements are the same - fake identity, cross-dressing, lovers hiding when caught in the wrong bedroom and so on. They certainly succeed in producing many moments of high comedy, some deliciously nostalgic waltzes and meltingly emotional music. Strauss's orchestration is masterful: it's interesting to read that this was the thing he did last and considered it the easy part - for anyone else, the creation of orchestral colour of this variety and quality would be a major labour.

But one does sense that they take themselves rather too seriously. A number like Voi che sapete in Figaro is a moment of delicate bittersweet reverie before we are thrown back into the helter-skelter of the action. In Der Rosenkavalier, we get extended scenes depicting the Feldmarschallin's sadness or Sophie's hopes and fears: the comic timing simply isn't as pacy as the French farce style demands. The total opera ran to well over four hours, and I would have been happy to lose 15 minutes from each of acts I and III, especially from the end of act III after the marvellous climactic trio between Feldmarschallin, Octavian and Sophie.

But setting aside these reservations about the work as a whole, it's hard to fault this production. Strauss's music was conducted with excellence by Edward Gardner, getting the most out of Strauss's bag of orchestral tricks - brass and string glissandi, contrabassoon and clarinet quotes, classical pastiches and many others. Sets and costumes were easy on the eye and effective. Alfred Kalisch's translation makes a good fist of rendering Hofmannstahl's clever use of different speaking styles and accents. But what impressed me most was the overall quality of acting, with every one of the cast totally believable in their roles. There was plenty of sublime comedy, notably from Tomlinson and Connolly, interspersed with moments of true dramatic pathos, notably from Sophie at the points where she realises first that her noble husband-to-be is a dreadful oaf and then that her beloved Octavian has been the Feldmarschallin's lover.

If you're already a fan of Der Rosenkavalier, this production rates as unmissable - one of the best you're likely to see. If, like me, you have your reservations, it's still a wonderful evening's opera, worth seeing for Tomlinson's performance alone and for a wealth of glorious music and singing.