Sir David McVicar was still establishing his reputation when he helmed this Opera North production back in 2002: revisiting it 14 years later, in this revival by ElainTyler-Hall, it’s easy to recognise the beginnings of a signature style – a certain camp flamboyance (entirely justified by the 18th-century setting), a preoccupation with the role played by artifice in human relationships (ditto), an attention to dramatic detail and effective placement of his singer-actors. All very welcome; but even more welcome is McVicar’s willingness to work with, rather than against, the flow and character of a score. Even in his more confrontational phases, such as his Salome for Covent Garden, his stage pictures have a congruence with the music that is as respectful as it is nowadays uncommon. He is living proof that being inventive and innovative need not involve trashing the joint.

Fflur Wyn (Sophie) and Helen Sherman (Octavian) © Robert Workman
Fflur Wyn (Sophie) and Helen Sherman (Octavian)
© Robert Workman

Unsurprisingly, he shows a natural affinity for Strauss’ most popular opera, a sour-sweet tale of a glamorous older woman losing her younger lover to an even younger and more attractive prospect. But anyone who understands the work knows that that is only the surface. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal wanted us to take an intense interest in the underlying themes, the disobliging brutality of the class system and the desire of the nascent bourgeoisie to integrate with, and ultimately supplant, the ruling classes. Both concepts were even more relevant to the world of 1911, when Der Rosenkavalier was premiered, than they were to that of the 1760s, when it is actually set.

So it is appropriate – if not especially original – for McVicar to set the action within locations of distressed grandeur, with the same three walls sufficing for the Marschallin’s boudoir, von Faninal’s hall and the room at the inn hired by Baron Ochs. Grand they may be, but our attention is drawn to a large patch of damp beneath one window, a crack in the plaster above another: this is a doomed order, the aristocratic Marschallin and Octavian and the haut-bourgeois Faninals frolicking and politicking in the brief sunshine of a world that would soon be transformed by industrialisation, just as Strauss’ world would be overturned by the First World War.

Ylva Kihlberg (The Marschallin) and Helen Sherman (Octavian) © Robert Workman
Ylva Kihlberg (The Marschallin) and Helen Sherman (Octavian)
© Robert Workman

The principal roles are powerfully acted: Ylva Kihlberg's Marschallin and Helen Sherman's Octavian are a handsome pair of lovers, discovered in convincingly sensual post-coital bliss and the opening altercation between them is persuasively put over. A shame then, that the singing is variable. Kihlberg’s articulation is occasionally poor and Sherman sometimes lacks projection (most notably during the Act III trio). The outstanding vocal performance comes from Fflur Wyn as Sophie, the faux-naif little rich girl who becomes the inadvertent agent of change. She has the purity of tone and the consistent vocal support to stand out in the trio, allied to a fascinating characterisation that left us guessing as to how innocent she really is.

The boorish Baron Ochs is the drama’s facilitator, as well as being the largest role. Conceived as a buffo role, along the lines of Osmin and Don Pasquale, his portrayal usually benefits from a degree of menace to go with the supercilious arrogance of a man who knows himself born to rule. Henry Waddington, grotesquely peruked and sidling about with the idle swagger of a member of the Jockey Club (or its Viennese equivalent) makes him a figure of unscrupulous force and self-entitlement, a grimly complacent smile playing about his lips as he contemplates the advantageous marriage he is about to make. It’s an accomplished and engaging performance and better sung than it often is, although Waddington couldn’t quite nail down the sustained low note that concludes Act II. He was ably supported by Mark Borghagen in the silent, pantomimic role of the Baron’s illegitimate son. Fine supporting performances come from Helen Evora's balletic Annina and William Dazeley, a fine if over-fussy Faninal.

Helen Évora (Annina), Henry Waddington (Baron Ochs) and Mark Burghagen (Leopold) © Robert Workman
Helen Évora (Annina), Henry Waddington (Baron Ochs) and Mark Burghagen (Leopold)
© Robert Workman

This was the Orchestra of Opera North’s first venture into the pit under the direction of its new chief Alexander Markovic and, on this evidence, band and conductor are still getting to know each other. The famous opening, a literal description of the impetuous but inexperienced Octavian bringing the Marschallin to orgasm, was unsteady (performance anxiety, perhaps?) and the reading as a whole lacked the necessary suavity. Some moments seemed rushed, others over-studied. Markovic has yet to establish his signature sound: as an interpretation, it’s still a work in progress.

But the auguries are good and many of these shortcomings might be attributed to first night nerves. Once orchestra, conductor and singers have relaxed a little, this should grow into a very worthwhile revival.  

***11