Richard Jones’ well-cast take on Richard Strauss has masterly touches galore.

Glyndebourne, UK
May 24, 2014

Following the opening night reviews earlier in the week there is a sense of life imitating art. In Act Two of Der Rosenkavalier, Baron Ochs appraises the physical potential of Sophie his bride-to-be and she declares it feels like being at a horse auction. Much has been said about the way some male critics felt entitled to comment on the physical shape of Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, and for me they behaved no better than the Baron himself.

If there was an audience prize that could be awarded at Glyndebourne then last night it went to Erraught. Appreciation for her performance was overwhelming and this was richly deserved. In his published response to the backlash against the critics’ comments, Guy Dammann, Chair of the Critics’ Circle’s Music Section, said that critics were not dispensing misogyny, just defending the life enhancing beauty of the art form. Maybe he should have asked the Glyndebourne audience who clearly disagreed with him.

A Richard Jones production will frequently challenge audience expectations. He loves making visual jokes on stage but they are always for a purpose: to confirm the intellectual and emotional heart of the opera. When at his best he is a wonderful storyteller and like an expert conductor can provide new insights to a familiar opera. At his worst, such as the over use of conga line choruses, you begin to feel he has nothing new to say. However, there were some clever moments in this production such as substituting the bedroom scene in Act One with the Marschallin showering Aphrodite-like in a shell bath and an adolescent Octavian ogling her beauty. Her confessional monologue in Act One paid homage to the Vienna of Freud and psychoanalysis. Here was a woman in the privileged ranks of a changing society, her life defined by aristocratic status, yet longing for eternal youth and sexual emancipation. There was also a hint of things to come when we realise through a simple caress that her teenage pageboy Mohammed could step into Octavian’s shoes as her next lover. It was with these directorial touches that Jones breaks free of traditional interpretation and highlights the human core of the opera.

As a director he also favours a visual quirkiness and is ably supported by the set designs of Paul Steinberg and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand. I sometimes found the stage action restricted by Steinberg’s angular walls which created shallow performing spaces. However, in Act Two a corporate reception hall dedicated to the Faninal family business revealed the aspirations of the upwardly mobile classes with its art deco splendour. The visual impact of the garish wallpaper in Act Three was fine for the burlesque comedy at the start of the act but clashed with the sentiments of the final moving trio. This may have been deliberate, but for me it simply got in the way.

Glyndebourne’s new music director Robin Ticciati demonstrated what an inspired choice his appointment was. After some alleged first night hiccups what we heard was assured conducting in sympathy with his singers and a richness of tone from every part of the orchestra. The main female voices were a pleasure to listen to and along with the orchestral playing were the main musical strengths of the evening. Tara Erraught gave an energetic comic performance when disguised as a maid and as Octavian excelled with confident and beautiful singing capturing every nuance of the score. Kate Roval’s Marschallin was magnificent. A quiet stillness and the depth of emotion to her voice contributed to a remarkable stage presence and musical impact. It was also pleasing to listen to Teodora Gheorghiu’s Sophie who captivated the audience right from the start. She handled the growing maturity of her character with impressive musical skill. She is a singer to watch.

The Baron Ochs of Lars Woldt encompassed the broad comedy of character, but also managed a more nuanced performance. He may have lacked the rich bass tones we normally expect with this role, but his more subtle performance came over as well rounded and believable. He was perfect for this production.

As a director Jones has a reputation for working hard with singers in minor roles (as does Glyndebourne as a company) and this certainly showed with some real gems in the cast. Worthy of mention was the assured performance by Michael Kraus as Herr von Faninal and Australian soprano Miranda Keys as Marianne Leitmetzerin. Keys is a good comic actor with perfect timing, but she is also understudying the part of the Marschallin and I would love to see her in that role at some time in the future. She has a beautifully expressive voice with a fine tone and is hopefully set for bigger roles in major houses.

This 80th season of opera at Glyndebourne was dedicated to George Christie who died recently this year. His willingness to allow directors to try new approaches avoided Glyndebourne becoming an opera museum and made productions such as this Rosenkavalier possible. Perhaps his generosity of spirit informs opera better than the small mindedness of some of the critics.