Der Rosenkavalier, Glyndebourne, East Sussex, UK – review

Is it all a dream? The question posed in the final scene of Der Rosenkavalier is one most of us can relate to. A young man and woman have fallen for each other and believe they are destined “ever hand in hand to be/For all eternity”. Reality hardly comes into it. What Richard Jones is saying, in his season-opening production at Glyndebourne, is that the same question applies to the entire scenario dreamed up by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal in their 1910 “comedy for music”. Jones wants us to examine their operatic charade dispassionately – with the psychoanalytical eye of a Freud, who makes a cameo appearance – and to see it as a dream-like distortion not just of Vienna’s 18th-century past, but also of everything we know about reality.

For the Christie family, who own Glyndebourne, the past fortnight has been anything but a dream. The death of Sir George Christie, the company’s patriarch, cast a heavy cloud over Saturday’s opening night, but the show went on. Glyndebourne’s flags, flying at half-mast, were a quiet reminder of reality outside the theatre.

Der Rosenkavalier had not been seen on the Sussex Downs for 30 years, and Christie – whose instincts were more radical than conservative – would doubtless have approved of this new, gently subversive take on an old favourite. Like Saturday’s audience, he would also have been goggle-eyed by the spectacle dreamt up by Jones and his designers, Paul Steinberg and Nicky Gillibrand.

It starts, startlingly, with the Marschallin’s full-frontal nudity in the shower, secretly ogled by a Cherubino-like servant (very Freudian), and continues with a sequence of outsize wallpaper displays – everything from fleur de lis to Arts and Crafts and classic 1960s garishness. There’s not a single Rosenkavalier cliché: no bed in the first scene, no swords in Act Two (Ochs is pranged by the stem of the silver rose), no Gemütlichkeit (cosiness) in Act Three, not a shred of sympathy for the Marschallin’s notion of “time standing still”.

As in any dream, the action is anchored by traces of reassuring “normality”, from 18th-century wigs and hooped dresses to the obsequious gestures of the nouveau-riche Faninal. Everything else is distorted – the exaggerated length of the chaise longue in the Marschallin’s boudoir, the sheer size of Faninal’s retinue, the tastelessness of the Act Three assignation room, the Kafkaesque nightmare of Ochs’s “trial”. The performance is so deftly and entertainingly executed that not even the stuffiest traditionalist could object.

Nevertheless, Jones misses the point. Do we really need to be told Der Rosenkavalier is a sham? By puncturing the opera’s fantasy-world, he neuters its sentiment. The Marschallin, its emotional fulcrum, becomes a mannequin – a similar sort of automaton to the chorus, whose movements are clearly inspired by (or copied from?) Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.

Kate Royal, an unusually slim, young Marie-Thérèse, copes bravely and convincingly with the production’s unconventional demands, even if her brittle soprano sounds in need of warming up. Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat, better suited to playing Mariandel in Acts 1 and 3 than the romantic rose-cavalier of Act 2 – albeit gloriously sung. Teodora Gheorghiu’s Sophie blends well in the final trio and Lars Woldt is Ochs – an overgrown schoolboy – to the manner born. Robin Ticciati conducts briskly, lovingly, and the London Philharmonic is on top form. But this is a Rosenkavalier for eye and mind, not the heart.

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