This new production of Der Rosenkavalier from the Welsh National Opera, the first for over fifteen years, brought together some fabulous music making and considerable food for thought in its balance of sixpenny farce and heart-aching romance. Making a vital contribution was Musical Director Tomáš Hanus (making his operatic debut with the company) who drew marvellously supportive playing from his orchestral forces and assured singing from a strong cast – all the more impressive for this hugely successful opening performance.

Louise Alder (Sophie Von Faninal) and Lucia Cervoni (Octavian)
© Bill Cooper

Strauss sets the opera in mid-18th century Vienna and, like other directors, German-born Olivia Fuchs chose to update the action to 1911 – the year of its première. While other productions may wish to emphasise imperial decline or the corrosive influence of time on human relationships, Fuchs' focused on the inevitability of ageing in visual clues that became obsessive. For this, actor Margaret Baiton (a former WNO chorus member) lurked on the periphery as the Marschallin’s older self like a ghostly presence, mirror in hand and musing silently on a past that is irrevocable.

Peter Van Hulle (Valzacci), Brindley Sherratt (Baron Ochs) and Madeleine Shaw (Annina)
© Bill Cooper

Running alongside this conceit was a sands of time image where layers of sand progressively encroached on the set – reminding us (as if it were necessary) that society was about to dismember itself, with the outbreak of World War One just a few years away. Fuchs' concept put me in mind of Tennyson’s words “the old order changeth”. 

Lighting designer Ian Jones brought some discreetly telling effects – notably the panelled walls of the bedroom transforming from a warm gold to a desolate grey during the Marschallin’s “stop the clocks” soliloquy. Later, destructive images foreshadowing the war added further to the sense of impending doom. Niki Turner’s sets moved from the simple grandeur of a palatial bedroom with single chandelier to a distorted, brutalised design evocative of post-war collapse.

Madeleine Shaw (Annina)
© Bill Cooper

Above all, it is the singing that made this production compelling: Rebecca Evans, making her debut in the role of the Feldmarschallin, was dignified, clear-voiced and credible as an aristo. Canadian mezzo Lucia Cervoni (dressed in Act II as a knight in shining armour) impressed as her impulsive young lover Octavian, and Louise Alder, as the innocent Sophie to whom Octavian is eventually betrothed, brought vitality and sparkling tones. Their combined singing for the closing trio truly showed off their collective talent, with ensemble and intonation second to none. With Brindley Sherratt as the overbearing and lecherous Baren Ochs (whose green frock coat and check trousers brought to mind Toad of Toad Hall), this new production scores a real winner. He inhabited the role with ease (shirt dangling from his fly in Act II), taking this demanding role in his stride, and certainly being vocally luxuriant – particularly in his lowest register.

If this production was time-obsessed, its four-hour span seemed to diminish under the superb playing of the WNO orchestra that revelled in Strauss’s lavish scoring and took delight in its numerous chamber sonorities. Tomáš Hanus and WNO have made Der Rosenkavalier essential viewing.