Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera

A good year for the roses. Helen Wallace reviews ENO's production of Strauss's Viennese comedy

‘The opening scene is delightful: it’ll set itself to music like oil and melted butter.’ As the curtain rises on David McVicar’s opulent production of Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss’s words acquire a fresh resonance. With Edward Gardner conjuring lavish sensuality in the pit and the set radiating an ember-glow in Paule Constable’s inspired lighting, all we needed was a pair of melting voices to complete the scene. And that’s what we nearly got, with mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly’s utterly convincing, elegantly-sung Octavian and soprano Amanda Roocroft’s softer, more vulnerable Marschallin. Initially, Roocroft sounded underpowered and the orchestra threatened to overwhelm her, but by the climax of the opening act she had hit her stride, and brought an exquisite poignancy to her meditation. We can believe in her inner storm of regret, pride and pragmatism, and Gardner’s strings produced a sobbing softness in her final notes which was pure magic.

While Roocroft proved a better match for Connolly’s Octavian than Janice Watson had in this production’s last outing, one missed real contrast between their voice colours. Connolly’s clean, soaring mezzo lacks some of the darker, richer hues that would underpin their duets and, in Act 3, the trio with Sophie Bevan’s superb Sophie, a part she was born to play.

Sophie’s meeting with Octavian in Act 2 was suitably spine-tingling, and lingered in the memory despite bass John Tomlinson’s domineering presence. His relish for one of his favourite roles, Baron Ochs, is more or less irresistible, and he rules the stage whenever his rotund form steps on to it, bloated with lascivious bombast. He shows his teeth when he discovers Octavian with Sophie, and reveals a more sinister side. In fact this Baron Ochs and his retinue are so repellent, some of the comedy of their escapade in the nouveau riche Faninal’s palace is lost, and, try as he might, baritone Andrew Shore is too sympathetic as the petty-minded Faninal.

The fact that ENO can boast such a generally strong British cast is testament to the quality of training in the UK, a precious resource currently under threat. With a host of vividly realised minor parts (special mention must go to tenor Adrian Thompson’s grotesque Valzacchi) nothing could detract from this beautifully shaped performance, bathed in its golden light, with Gardner commanding an intensity of commitment in the pit lasting through to the last horn and trumpet solos. Little wonder he and the band received the loudest cheers.

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine