Setting Der Rosenkavalier in 1911, rather than the usual 1800’s is an interesting move by Director Robert Carsen in this new production. This opens up the opera to the themes of pan-European change with the established imperial powers and old wealth under pressure from hungry power-seekers, just as wealthy but not hung up on traditions. A portent?

Opening with a post coital cigarette Octavian (Alice Coote) steps out between some massive bedroom doors, opening later into the sumptuous bedroom of the old guard, and his lover: the Marchallin (Rennée Fleming). A vast room of rich reds, military portraits, hidden doors and legions of footmen, symbols of the aristocracy. Into this comes the Marchallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs (Matthew Rose) a base military man, who while discussing his marriage, starts to flirt with Octavian, now disguised as a maid, Mariandel. Ochs is there to request advice about the delivery of the traditional silver rose. Noting the flirting, the Marchallin suggests Octavian.

Rose is very comfortable in his role, with the comic asides and flirting, convincingly disarming the viewer, thus when the darker elements of his character come to the fore in Act II, as he tries to woe Sophie Faninal (Sophie Bevan) they are doubly unpleasant. Act II takes us to the heart of the new world. A cold black and white room, ugly WW1 canons centre stage, the only colour the terracotta of an ancient Greek battle frieze around the walls. The imagery is clear, the effect softened by Octavian and Sophie’s joyful duet, though marred by the waltzing dancers and their footwear squeaking on the flooring.

The brothel set for Act III where Ochs downfall is played out is sleazy opulent, with a few special effects thrown in as the paintings flicker, exposing exotic dancers, frightening the wits out of Ochs. There was a chance early on that the cast could have been overwhelmed by the Paul Steinberg designed sets. The comedy is certainly reigned back, but as the opera progresses the sets, become background and the power of the singers and the music establish themselves.

Conductor Andris Nelsons keeps the music and orchestra on a sure footing. Coote demonstrates some dexterity coaxing both the humour and heartbreak of her role, while Fleming is pretty much in control of her character from the off: a woman of intelligence and passion but great sadness caught movingly during her monologue in Act I. Sophie Bevan is suitably assertive in her rejection of Ochs and is a sturdy foil for Coote as their love (obsession?) blooms. All, music and singers, coming together beautifully in the trio at the end of Act III.

Performances 20 and 22 December. 8 (3pm) 11,14,17 and 24 January 2017

Photograph courtesy of Catherine Ashmore and the Royal Opera House.
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