There are critics of David McVicar’s one-size-fits-all staging, last seen at English National Opera, but what is absolutely crucial to his conception – and what is missing in Schlesinger’s – is a sense of seediness amid the opulence. In order to understand the opera’s narrative, and the pivotal moment of its composition, luxury and privilege must appear to be teetering on the brink of destruction.
The curtain rises on the Marschallin’s gaudy bedroom – heavy on velvet and stucco – and Faninal’s palace in the second act is equally stifling, a muddle of extraneous clutter and saccharine colours. Act III works far better – some thought has been given to the evolving drama with a circular boudoir where Baron Ochs attempts his seduction of ‘Mariandel’ and meets his comeuppance.
Kirill Petrenko did little to settle this wider sense of overkill: the overture was brash (those lusty horns sounded wild and untamed) and his account remained slapdash throughout much of the first half.
A promising cast on paper proved patchy in practice. Sophie Koch is a popular Octavian, having performed the role at a number of notable European companies, and vocally she is impressive – her mezzo is shapely and robust – but she is rather too pretty and petite to look the part, and her flighty characterisation, at times disturbingly child-like, gave little sense of a highly-sexed young man.
Soile Isokoski, too, is familiar with her role as the Marschallin but, aside from bright and shapely vocals, she lacked real charisma. While her monologue was involving enough, her departure from the final trio did not carry as much weight as it should have done.
Call me patriotic, but I felt that the undoubted star of the show was British soprano Lucy Crowe as Sophie. Though it was her debut in this role at Scottish Opera back in 2006 that really threw the spotlight on Crowe, she has since associated herself with far lighter and earlier repertoire, but her performance here reiterated her Straussian credentials. She navigated the vocal line with effortless grace and flexibility, without ever resorting to shrill effect, and revealed strength as well as sweetness in the character – there’s a twinkle in her eye that suggests Sophie will become a bit of a handful.
As the alternative protagonist, Baron Ochs, Peter Rose provided some humour and sang with a bass that is not particularly resonant but persuasive nonetheless. Thomas Allen is luxuriously cast as Faninal and his performance was one of the highlights, and Wookyung Kim’s ardent aria as the Italian Singer deserves special mention.
- Laura Battle