There's a small handful of operas I'd happily sit through every night, and Der Rosenkavalier is one of them. Not that Richard Strauss's Viennese whirl is an obvious candidate for play/repeat. It's long, louche and wordy, the comedy's laid on like buttercream, and you could cut half an hour from its soft centre without anyone noticing.
Yet was there ever such magic? Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, pull the heart every which way in their exploration of human instincts tangled in the complexities of love. It's hardly cutting-edge—you'll struggle to spot a serf amid the princesses, counts and barons—but the fairy-tale extravagance is really a backdrop for some emotional truths, both base and elevated, with which we can all identify.
Der Rosenkavalier takes four hours of music to spin the interlocking relationships between adulterous cougar the Marschallin, her 17-year-old lover Octavian, her priapic cad of a cousin Baron Ochs, and the blushing 15-year-old Sophie whom the latter intends to wed. Along the opera's winding way we encounter sublime arias, riotous ensembles and a waltz that caps anything by Strauss's namesakes.
The orchestration is voluptuous and intricate, and once a messy opening flourish from the ROH horn section was behind him Andris Nelsons brought the score sensuously to life. He even made the baiting of Ochs (an overstretched rerun of Falstaff's humiliation in Verdi's opera) hang together more plausibly that usual.
'Paul Steinberg's triple-whammy of sumptuous sets'
It helps that Matthew Rose sings the Baron. The British bass carries all before him these days, and his puffed-up Prussian, rubicund and ridiculous, is a joy in his ill-fated quest to pouch poor Sophie. He's a military man in Robert Carsen's production, and there's a sinister edge to the macho platoon that hangs on his every Trumpish word; yet Rose embodies the buffoon with conviction, not caricature, and he sings the opera's most exacting role with throwaway ease.
Carsen updates the opera from the mid-18th century to the early 20th, probably for reasons of style rather than substance (soufflé wigs and crinolines can overegg the confection), for while the pre-Great War references point to a darker world beyond the drama, the allusions are perfunctory. Take Faninal, Sophie's father: he's depicted as a parvenu who's made his fortune selling arms, but that back-story has no impact on his portrayal (by the excellent Jochen Schmeckenbecher) as a ruthless social climber because it's already there in the text.
No, Carsen's great strength is his stagecraft. He uses the floor space within designer Paul Steinberg's triple-whammy of sumptuous sets so artfully that words, music and proxemics coalesce into a single expression. In Strauss's divine final scene between Octavian (Alice Coote), Sophie (Sophie Bevan) and the Marschallin (the great Renée Fleming in her farewell to the UK stage) he uses subtle but restless movement to unlock a desperate beauty in the acts of loving and of surrendering love. It's just a shame his three divas don't blend as well vocally as they do visually. All are great artists in prime form but for some reason their voices, each a glory, don't complement one another as they should. They're like three pure liquids that cloy when mixed.
Still, incidental felicities abound. The Caruso-like tenor who serenades the Marschallin in act one (Georgio Berrugi, first rate) proffers a signed copy of his latest record; the third-act Innkeeper (Alasdair Elliott, ditto) is presented as a cross-dressing brothel madam. Occasionally things go too far, such as the unlikely team of surgeons who attend to Och's scratched leg, or the garish flooring that hurts the eyes throughout act two, but for the most part this is Strauss to savour. Carsen has added a silver rose to the Royal Opera's repertoire.
Der Rosenkavalier runs in repertory at the Royal Opera House until 24 January.