Der Rosenkavalier is a pain in the backside. It has more than its fair share of first-class operatic music and provides a superb vehicle for the opulence and escapism that any evening out on the town can offer. Alas, it's also an over-inflated work, stretched by its investigation of the limits of tonality at the same time as indulging its pathological need to set up the moments of great beauty and pathos. At either extreme, to get at the beauty you need to resist the bore.
The trio of Act 3 it has both beauty and pathos in one of the great operatic set pieces. The cast of the Royal Opera's revival are beautifully balanced in ensemble, making this a ravishing, irresistible moment in the work. The music flows off the stage and into the stalls in much the same way as their fourth-wall-breaking manoeuvre from the stage-within-the-stage does. To my mind these three are glove-perfect fits in the roles. Soile Isokoski is porcelain-beautiful in production and decorous use of her sound. Sophie Koch produces a supple, almost-virile tone. Lucy Crowe is possibly the central gemstone with freshness, sparkle and an unselfconscious élan in her high threads of sound. I felt that her stagecraft was a little constrained but wasn't watching fairly soon after hearing her start to sing.
However, refined singing apart, for me the great joy of the evening was Peter Rose's Ochs. I have been waiting for the chance to see this characterisation ever since missing a well thought-of Scottish Opera production 12 years ago and I was beyond satisfied. This Ochs is not quite the slobbering thug that secures our distaste of him well before the close. Instead we can luxuriate in a finely-sung performance of exemplary German and a comic timing - nay, simply timing - that made the others look rather mannered.
The set-piece pillar-and-post of Act 2 presentation and Act 3 trio apart, Rosenkavalier has a fine opening Act which rather showed the cramped functionallity of Kiril Petrenko's approach. There was precious little space for the music to breathe a hush as the Marschallin reflects on the futility of sonnambulant clock-tampering. I also missed the surface sadness (the one 'wet' eye) as Octavian's imagination convinces him that his rejection is imminent - it sounded too close to the sexual raging of the overture. Otherwise this was a secure rendition from the pit.
The production may be old but I enjoyed its careful variations on a limited palette. This is a production that appreciates the importance of the periphery: the blocking, the modulation of the innocuous to the seminal, just as the raging, chaotic wash of noumenal atonality sometimes spurts through into the action and changes the outwardly serene course of the phenomenal drama. This performance was not that cosmic, fin-de-siècle interpretation that renders psychotropic drugs redundant and makes you weep openly on the train home, but it was enchanting nonetheless.
UPDATE (10 December 2009):
Reviews collected at Culture Critic