Glyndebourne’s annual away day from Lewes to the heaving metropolis is always a highlight of the Proms season, but this year’s visit was more hotly anticipated than usual. Its production of Der Rosenkavalier attracted vociferous media attention – mostly for the wrong reasons and by people who hadn’t actually seen it. I was keen to see how Richard Jones’ typically perverse production transferred to the Royal Albert Hall. Jones wasn’t on hand himself, so Sarah Fahie directed this semi-staging, which also saw two key cast changes enforced by illness, staying faithful to its concept and spirit.

Tara Erraught (Octavian) and Kate Royal (The Marschallin) © Chris Christodoulou
Tara Erraught (Octavian) and Kate Royal (The Marschallin)
© Chris Christodoulou

As a description, ‘semi-staging’ doesn’t really do justice to what Glyndebourne presented. This was a fully costumed performance on a raised platform above the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with much of the production’s décor and props in situ. We weren’t spared Jones’ trademark lurid flock wallpaper designs, thanks to the garish LED panels at the back of the stage; if only these had been employed to display the surtitles instead. Entrances, exits and swift costume changes for Octavian/ Mariandel were effectively managed.

I’m not convinced that Jones actually likes this opera. The comedy is played very broadly – and often hits the mark – especially the bawdy humour of the tavern scene, which can seem interminable in some productions. Ochs receives the slightest of flesh wounds from Octavian in Act II courtesy of the silver rose being plunged into his posterior. But Rosenkavalier has to be about the conflicted emotions of Octavian, caught between the Marschallin and Sophie. Jones, by indicating in Act I that the Marschallin is clearly bored with her young lover and is ready to move on (to the pageboy, Mohammed), drains the final scene of much emotional investment. Jones’ stage pictures can be in conflict with what Strauss’ music is telling us, making it difficult to believe in the characters. There were two exceptions: when an emotionally fragile Marschallin reflects on the passing of time in Act I, prostrate on the elongated couch (at Glyndebourne, a silent Freud took notes); and right at the end, when Octavian begins to wander off after the retreating Marschallin, Sophie – emotionally insecure – clearly thinks she’s lost him already.

Franz Hawlata (Baron Ochs) © Chris Christodoulou
Franz Hawlata (Baron Ochs)
© Chris Christodoulou

The London Philharmonic provided most of the thrills and spills of the evening. Robin Ticciati set them off like a bull in a china shop, whooping horns cornering at speed in the opening scene. Occasionally, the orchestra overwhelmed the singers – a hazard with a raised platform but no pit – but things settled into a radiant account of Strauss’ score. The witty contrabassoon commentaries particularly impressed, often poking fun at Ochs, as did the tuba and trombone interjections. Ticciati was particularly attentive to the chamber-like scoring for scenes such as the Marschallin’s Act I monologue, caressing string lines delicately.

Glyndebourne fielded a uniformly strong cast, the excellent Faninal of Michael Kraus standing out among the many smaller roles. Helene Schneiderman and Christopher Gillett, as scheming Annina and Valzacchi, were strongly characterised, as was Miranda Keys’ imperious Marianne. Lars Woldt was a wonderful Ochs down in Sussex; a Billy Bunter-ish oaf, strongly sung. News of his indisposition had been met with an inward groan, but his replacement – Franz Hawlata, who has sung the role to acclaim around the world – was even finer. Gravelly low notes scraped the bottom of the stave, often to comic effect, and his pomposity and indignation were expertly portrayed. The evening’s other substitute was just as strong. Although Louise Alder is at the other end of her career to Hawlata, she made a confident fist of Sophie here (having understudied the role at Glyndebourne). Nerves of steel ensured that her intonation was secure and her silvery top notes bloomed gloriously.

Tara Erraught (Octavian) and Louise Alder (Sophie) © Chris Christodoulou
Tara Erraught (Octavian) and Louise Alder (Sophie)
© Chris Christodoulou

Tara Erraught sang a confident Octavian, her warm, supple mezzo entwining Alder’s soprano lines in a magnificently sung Presentation of the Rose. Erraught was at her strongest in the scenes as the bumpkin maid ‘Mariandel’, displaying a gift for comedy and facial gestures which carried vividly across the stalls. I am cooler about Kate Royal’s Marschallin, but whether this is to do with her singing or the character created by Jones here is difficult to decipher. Her voice is a size too small for the role, wanting some of the plushly upholstered, creamy soprano to do the music justice, but she was also required to play it in an emotionally detached way which held little appeal. Royal has often sung with sensitivity to her roles and I’d be interested to see her Marschallin in a more sympathetic production.

The semi-staging, slickly directed by Fahie, certainly translated well from Glyndebourne and made for an entertaining, often boisterously funny, evening at the Proms.  

****1