The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and their Boston-bound conductor Andris Nelsons have a happy history of presenting opera in concert performance, and Sunday’s Der Rosenkavalier was nothing short of superb. Glorious singing and informed characterisations infused with wickedly witty humour and passionate sensitivity, made for one of the most entertaining Strauss performances I have seen.

Soile Isokoski © Intermusica
Soile Isokoski
© Intermusica

Beneath the sumptuous orchestral scoring and masterly vocal writing, Der Rosenkavalier is easily Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s most enduring comic masterpiece. Effectively a comedy of manners awash with genuine romantic sentiment, the plot hangs on the problematic relationships surrounding the four principal characters ranging from the neurotic, aristocratic and adulterous Marschallin, to her cousin, the self-important and obnoxious Baron Ochs, her teenage lover, the boisterous and fickle Octavian, and the pure, sensitive Sophie.

As Hofmannsthal’s poised but melancholy Marschallin, whose misplaced romantic fantasies are untidily hidden behind the bed – it’s all well and good giving her glorious tune to sing, but when it’s time to face the music she is engaging in an emotional relationship with a teenage boy about a third of her age – Finnish superstar Soile Isokoski was the image of respect commanding regal deportment. Always elegant in her Marschallin’s anxiety, annoyance or happiness, Isokoski sang with a clear, focused tone that ultimately failed to secure her Octavian, but won over every man and woman in the concert hall instead. In action, Isokoski was extremely economical and all unnecessary pacing about was eliminated, while useful visual gestures were restrained to the point of being nothing less or more than noble.

The 17-year old Count Octavian was magnificently portrayed by Alice Coote. A gifted actress, Coote filled the hall with full blooded, boisterous comedy and perfect diction as well as remarkable sensitivity. Her familiar rich, warm tone and sheer vocal force displayed some of her best singing across the board from hilarious caricature in her ‘Mariandel’, to poignant sensitivity in duets with the Marschallin or Sophie, and amusing confrontational scenes with the Baron. Sophie Bevan’s young, inexperienced but soon to be enlightened Sophie von Faninal was restricted to a purely ‘vocal performance’ in that she was working from the copy which, even in a concert performance could have achieved more dramatically, but the singing was excellent and Bevan, who gets the highest role of the opera, was phenomenally clear in passages of extended quick-fire diction or soaring melody – I would love to see her act the part on stage.

Despite this extraordinary trio of ladies, the star of the show was Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs who, aside from singing excellently with a seemingly flawless technique and delicious bass, created a Baron of outstanding depth and humour; every line and phrase was coloured with understanding. More buffoon than genuinely wicked, Hawlata’s comic timing was perfect, and in facial expressions, gross fumbling of Mariandel (Octavian) and Sophie, pseudo-deference to the Marschallin or curtly dismissive attitudes to people below him, Hawlata's Baron was both repugnant and utterly amusing.

Strauss’ score whips up the traditional Viennese sensibility into a swirling ironic waltz of comedic frenzy and parades a host of glittering orchestral textures throughout the opera that the CBSO and Nelsons met with first rate skill. From petals to thorns, the rose of the orchestra were the wind and brass, (the French horns especially), the force of whose rhythmic conviction was the perfect partner to the strings rich surging tone and assured technical facility in Strauss’ frequently punishingly high tessitura. Nelsons guided orchestra and singers in a performance of such attention to detail that the level of eye contact with the soloists bordered on intimacy – you simply don’t get that with conductors in the orchestra pit.

Admittedly, this being an opera, there was a lot of ‘physical’ drama lost, and it is a pity that some non-speaking/singing actors were not engaged to fulfil minor roles that would have made more sense of the surtitles (which were often extremely badly timed), like the Marschallin’s hairdresser or the servant Mohammed, fetching and carrying things or, of course, his shining moment in retrieving Sophie’s fallen handkerchief at the opera’s end. The cast of supporting characters from Faninal to the Italian Tenor were wonderful, but special mention must be made to Bonaventura Bottone and Pamela Helen Stephen whose Valzacchi and Annina were especially entertaining.

At its conclusion audience exploded immediately into rapturous applause and a standing ovation.