Comedy is truly great when it imparts an utterly serious message. Comic opera is truly great when the music is so transcendent that you are beyond either tears or laughter. Glyndebourne’s Der Rosenkavalier achieves both those things, engaging you on so many levels as to leave your head in a spin and your heart on a high.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (The Marschallin) © Robert Workman | Glyndebourne Festival 2018
Rachel Willis-Sørensen (The Marschallin)
© Robert Workman | Glyndebourne Festival 2018

I didn’t see Richard Jones’ production when it opened in 2014 and attracted its fair share of flak, so I can’t speak for the details of what’s been changed in this revival. What I can say is that this performance, directed by the original movement director Sarah Fahie, thoroughly enthralled me. I loved the costumes with their overtones of playing cards and their madcap Tim Burton-esque feel, I enjoyed the many visual gags and the straightforward but effective stage layout. The stage movement and character acting were superb, with immense care taken over details, of which I’ll give two examples. As Elisabeth Sutphen’s Sophie awaits the silver rose ceremony, she is standing at a dingily-lit part of the stage and her flouncy dress looks, quite frankly, a bit drab. When she steps into centre stage to meet Octavian, the light catches the glitter in the dress, a broad smile suffuses her face and she is suddenly transformed into a beautiful girl. When she and Octavian turn to each other, at the coup de foudre moment – which the audience knows is coming – the couple rise onto tiptoe and sway, a movement in which the crowd on stage join in: the moment is magical. When Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s Marschallin famously complains to her hairdresser that “Hippolyte, you have turned me into an old woman”, the wig she has been given is a shade which, depending on the light, could be Marilyn Monroe platinum blonde or old-woman grey.

Kate Lindsey (Octavian), Elisabeth Sutphen (Sophie) © Robert Workman | Glyndebourne Festival 2018
Kate Lindsey (Octavian), Elisabeth Sutphen (Sophie)
© Robert Workman | Glyndebourne Festival 2018

Willis-Sørensen gave three performances of the role at Covent Garden eighteen months ago, which received relatively little attention since Renée Fleming was in the “A” Cast, but which impressed those who saw her. Taking the limelight here in her Glyndebourne debut, she was sensational. What stood out was her pin-sharp diction allied to great dynamic control: the ability to stress the important phrases and rise cleanly above the orchestra, or to project a perfectly held pianissimo, always making the words count. She followed Strauss’ lilt beautifully, and made us believe in the mood shifts between light-hearted, wistful or authoritative. She also had bags of stage presence, even in the most ridiculously over-the-top costumes, helped by being very tall. I’ll be lucky to see a better Marschallin.

Kate Lindsey is something of a trouser role specialist, and she acted out of her skin as Octavian, most notably in the girl-playing-boy-playing-girl passages, as well as giving us the best of her peaches-and-cream voice. Brindley Sherratt obviously relished playing the sleazeball Baron Ochs, complete with truly ghastly Trump-esque wig, his comic acting was helped, no doubt, by the vocal demands of the role being so far within his comfort zone. Michael Kraus was in notably fine voice as Faninal. Sutphen, also making her Glyndebourne debut, gave us an intelligent and pretty-voiced Sophie, but her voice was one size too small for the house and Robin Ticciati did not cut her much slack; her voice was often submerged in the orchestral wash. Still, the Act 3 trio was one of those moments of operatic bliss that transcend the stage goings-on and lift one onto another plane.

Elizabeth Sutphen, Brindley Sherratt, Michael Kraus, Gabriele Rossmanith © Robert Workman | Glyndebourne Festival 2018
Elizabeth Sutphen, Brindley Sherratt, Michael Kraus, Gabriele Rossmanith
© Robert Workman | Glyndebourne Festival 2018

In the past, Rosenkavalier’s mix of bedroom farce, comedy of manners and bittersweet musings about aging has always seemed awkward to me. This production has changed that, revealing the opera to be working on many levels. You can draw a line between the disguised Octavian’s experience of Ochs’ sexual mistreatment and his overwhelming impulse to protect Sophie from suffering the same; you can enjoy the Molière style satirical portrayal of both the bourgeois von Faninals and the oafish gentry; equally strong is the portrayal of the conflicts in the Marschallin’s life, between selfishness and selflessness, confidence and fear of aging, between her private self and her public persona. There are times when, like Baron Ochs in Act 3, Strauss should accept that something is finished long before he does: especially in Act 1, when he’s composed a brilliant passage which says everything that needs to be said, he can’t resist running over the material a few more times. But in this Glyndebourne production, the sheer quality of the singing and acting carries one through.

As Faninal says, "that's the way of the young". But also of the old, the rich, the poor, the dodgy innkeeper and the Italian spivs. A rare treat.