For those of us who believe (and don’t we all) that Octavian should end up with his true love – as opposed to his “fairy tale” romance – and live out his days with the Feldmarschallin, Maria Thérèse, David McVicar’s richly detailed 2008 staging of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier offers more hope than most. A moment of visible indecision from Octavian almost has him following his princess through the door rather than finishing the sweet but rather vapid duet with his newly intended, Sophie. And doesn’t that music – so lamely innocent after the glories of the great trio – show us what Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl really felt, too?
This marvellous revival, cast at International strength and brilliantly conducted by Edward Gardner, is full of the kind of human observation that reminds one just how finely crafted this piece is. It takes actors of the calibre of Sarah Connolly and Amanda Roocroft to suspend our disbelief and win our hearts in that crucial first act. They can and did, through their truthfulness, convince us that the Marschallin and her illicit cavalier were flesh and blood and that the social conventions of a dying era – chillingly conveyed in the decaying facades of McVicar’s set – were, as the Marschallin herself put it, “fading like mists and dreams”.
With Roocroft’s Marschallin one truly felt that she had been “conditioned” to be old before her time and that Connolly’s superbly rangy and virile Octavian was the only person in the universe who refused to see it that way. Connolly is now peerless in the role and Roocroft, new to hers, gives us the woman beyond the aristocrat duly breaking our hearts in the final moments of the first act where, alone once more, she clings to the pillow where the smell of her departed lover still remains.
This is all a wonderful basis for the rest of a terrific evening just as Gardner’s breathlessly “rude” prelude sets up the busy scherzando character of a score – brilliantly played by the ENO orchestra – where inner machinations belie surface sheen. John Tomlinson once again brings Baron Ochs’ farmyard manners to Vienna’s salons oblivious to the offence he gives and there’s a rapturous Sophie from our fastest rising star Sophie Bevan.
But just as we know that the Marschallin’s page Mohammad is in this production complicit in her extra-marital affair so, too, do we know that he will find good purpose for Sophie’s dropped handkerchief in the closing moments of the opera.