Even more than in its 2012 ENO revival, David McVicar's self-designed production of Richard Strauss's comedy reeks of transition. And so it should. After all, the opera's cougar heroine, the Marschallin, has to bid farewell to her youth in every sense when teenage toyboy Octavian finds love elsewhere.
McVicar's mansion set is scuzzy and fading into terminal disrepair in sympathy with the end of her happiness, but that doesn't stop the preposterous Baron Ochs (a barnstormingly brilliant Henry Waddington) from filling it with his dodgy morals. He's a greaseball of boorish trumpery who's intent on marrying the virginal Sophie and needs a knightly gentleman to present her with the traditional silver rose.
Yet there's spring as well as autumn in Der Rosenkavalier, and the production would be stronger if it let the occasional shaft of sunlight in. Good triumphs over evil, after all, as Ochs and his lowlife henchmen are satisfyingly cowed while Octavian and Sophie fall in love.
McVicar's dour scenic expressionism, then, is all about the Marschallin. Her orgasmic joy in the overture gives way to a mature, dignified sadness, her final act of selflessness set to music of an incomparably golden melancholy.
All the great Marschallins have presence, authority and a sublime Straussian voice. Alas, for Opera North Ylva Kihlberg delivers the first two qualities in spades but disappoints where it matters most. Her vocal resources lack warmth and are projected in a tight vibrato that does not always carry above the orchestra, even in the modestly-sized Grand Theatre. It's a miscasting that unbalances an otherwise first-rate revival.
Henry Waddington: 'a prodigious performance'
Mezzo Helen Sherman, a distinguished Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, points up the continuum between the two operas by donning trousers once again and presenting a gauche, plausible Octavian. The difference, of course, is that whereas the Mozartian adolescent's desire to bed an aristocrat goes unrewarded, Strauss puts him between the sheets with her from the get-go.
Sherman's voice blends magically with that of Fflur Wyn, a radiant, vocally limpid and emotionally truthful Sophie, while her disguise as the maid Mariandel stays just the right side of raucous.
Lest anyone think that opera can't be funny (I was veering that way myself after last week's Barber of Seville), McVicar's attuning of comic detail to orchestral pinpricks affords endless delights. The facial reaction work of Victoria Sharp as Sophie's duenna is just one such, while Waddington's post-Falstaffian Ochs is brilliantly conceived with a camp swagger, a roving eye and delicious comic timing. Yet there's not a twinkle to be seen in his demeanour; just the dead-eyed leer of an entitled molester. It's a prodigious performance.
McVicar's much-travelled production (it originated at Scottish Opera) hasn't been seen at Opera North since 2002, but Elaine Tyler-Hall has done an impeccable job of reviving his intricate staging so that even the smallest characters make their mark—and there are plenty of them, from Aled Hall's unprincipled Valzacchi to a stylishly silent Durassie Kiangangu as the Marschallin's besotted servant.
Most importantly of all, the company's new music director delivers an elegant and intelligently shaped account of the score. A peremptory overture aside, Aleksander Markovic in his first appearance since succeeding Richard Farnes never puts a foot wrong. His reading is both idiomatic and refreshingly individual, as when he lets raw portamento slides roughen the swoops of the famous waltz.
Whenever I shed a tear at the end of Der Rosenkavalier I know the conductor's got it right. On this one I ran out of hankies.
Der Rosenkavalier runs in repertory at Leeds Grand Theatre until 28 October, then tours to Newcastle, Salford and Nottingham until 19 November.