The stars aligned optimally for this new production of Der Rosenkavalier. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Dutch National Opera opened its season with the opera that ushered it into the world. Its chief conductor, Marc Albrecht, once again presented his platinum Strauss credentials. Director Jan Philipp Gloger matched them with a sumptuous and stirring production.

Irmgard Vilsmaier (Marianne), Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Sophie) and Peter Rose (Baron Ochs) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Irmgard Vilsmaier (Marianne), Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Sophie) and Peter Rose (Baron Ochs)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

The fretful melancholy of the prelude set the tone for the evening. Strauss intended it to parody the Marschallin’s tryst with her young lover, Octavian. Mr Albrecht added a hint of self-disgust: the pace hunted, the horns haughty, the basses velvety but brooding. The Netherlands Philharmonic, playing with dreamlike ease, tugged at the heart with airborne woodwinds and shapely violin lines, stopping a hair’s breadth away from full extravagance. This introspective restraint created a tenseness throughout, rendering the emotional climaxes all the more powerful. It also distilled the plight of the Marschallin, a woman terrified of loss and ageing trying to master her emotions through self-reflection. Onstage, Mr Gloger sprinkled sardonic dust, starting with a post-coital sofa lying on its side. The result was a potent concoction of 21st century nostalgia: bittersweet and tastefully glazed, but with an angry kick of caffeine. It went down a treat, not least because of the fine cast.

Camilla Nylund was a glimmer-voiced Marschallin, coolly elegant but given to vexed implosions. Some of her high notes in the parlando passages sounded pressed, but her long phrases had facility and a white-hot glow. The lumpen, lecherous Baron Ochs is now second nature to bass Peter Rose. His precise text delivery and secure singing left nothing to wish for. His aggressive satyr met his match in Hanna-Elizabeth Müller, making a wonderful role debut as his feisty fiancée. Her Sophie had hormone-fuelled intensity and carrying power, her voice full in the lower two-thirds with a metallic glint at the top.

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Sophie) and Paula Murrihy (Octavian) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (Sophie) and Paula Murrihy (Octavian)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Paula Murrihy was a fantastic Octavian, her dark-blonde mezzo-soprano soaring effortlessly into the soprano range. Not only did she make an attractive aristo glamour boy, but was also comically gangly as Ochs’s quarry, the faux-modest maid Mariandl. All other roles were strongly cast, or at least matched character with vocal quality. Martin Gantner’s plangent baritone turned gruff in outrage, personifying Faninal, who toadies to his betters but bullies his daughter Sophie. As the conniver Annina, Kai Rüütel impressed with contralto-deep richness, while Scott Wilde was a pleasantly sonorous Inspector. Yosep Kang’s Singer picked up Strauss’ tenorial gauntlet with beautiful phrasing and resonant high notes, albeit with a discernible crinkle during register shifts.

Paula Murrihy (Octavian) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Paula Murrihy (Octavian)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

Translating the libretto for our times, and building on the legacy of Molière and Beaumarchais via Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Mr Gloger uses comedy to expose the brutality inherent in the social order. By crafting flesh-and-blood characters, and sketching in all roles, singing or silent, with great care, he also makes the big emotions ring true. Sophie and Octavian’s love duets feel immediate because they behave like real teenagers, compliant with ceremony when necessary, but also giggly and openly repulsed by the adults. Likewise, the Marschallin visibly struggles to maintain her poise and we feel her acute pain in the final scene of Act I, when she decides to let Octavian go. This was Ms Nylund’s finest moment, most of the music lying in the middle range, where her voice is at its most gleaming. Grappling with desperation, rain lashing down on the French windows behind her, she did not cry. Many in the audience, however, were reduced to putty.

Camilla Nylund (The Marschallin) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Camilla Nylund (The Marschallin)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

For the Marschallin’s mansion, Ben Baur designed a stunning interior in oak-panelled gloom, inspired by industrialist Alfred Krupp’s Villa Hügel in Essen. It serves as the lacquered foil for the engagement party marquee at the parvenu Faninal residence, a sugar-frosted marvel, complete with giant disco ball; very Hollywood, and completely irresistible (it got a round of applause). The imperial Vienna of the libretto gets a nod in the party theme and Octavian presents the silver rose to Sophie on behalf of Ochs with dazzling pageantry. The trappings of both old and new money disappear in Act III, when the main characters confront their true selves in a squalid hotel. Mr Gloger allays the lengthiness of the inn scene by having a string of seamy figures constantly entering and exiting. For the confounding of Ochs, he turns them into a colourful cabinet of apparitions. The final women’s trio was all the more devastating for being set in a dismally lit passageway. After hours of trade with money, status and sex for currency, the cheerless backdrop underlines the fact that only Sophie and Octavian possess the ultimate desirables: youth and love. Even the precious engagement rose loses its value in a final plot twist. Try seeing this without a hanky. I dare you.