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Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House review – ‘not as romantic as usual’

Alice Coote and Renee Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Alice Coote and Renee Fleming in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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For many opera fans an orgy of nostalgia for a mythical old Vienna, Richard Strauss’ romantic comedy returns to Covent Garden in a new staging by Robert Carsen. Here updated to the time of Der Rosenkavalier’s premiere (1911), just before the First World War, it’s not as romantic or nostalgic as usual. While Carsen lays a dogged stress on the period’s growing militarism, his insistence on labelling Faninal an arms dealer with a house full of cannon tendentiously pushes the text too far – it merely tells us that he supplies the army with something, which for all we know might be pyjamas.

Elsewhere the sheer vastness of the set dwarfs the characters, who look like dolls in a doll’s house in Act 1, and in the wildly overpopulated upmarket brothel of Act 3, which replaces librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s private room at an inn. Some of the intimacy of the piece goes missing, and with it its special magic.

The first of two casts might have got closer to the heart of the matter in a less showy staging. Whether or not (as rumour has it) this will be Renee Fleming’s final appearances at the venue, her Marschallin looks and sounds nearly as good as when she last sang the role here sixteen years ago. Alice Coote sounds a lot less comfortable as Octavian, her tone too often raw. Sophie Bevan, meanwhile, proves a matchless Sophie.

As Baron Ochs, Matthew Rose offers a scrupulously sung, amply voiced interpretation yet seems reluctant to portray the dark side of the opera’s brutish comic villain. Jochen Schmeckenbecher makes an enthusiastic Faninal and as the Italian Singer Giorgio Berrugi gives notice of a fine tenor. Conductor Andris Nelsons sounds entirely in his element in Strauss’ lavish score and the orchestra plays well for him.

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Robert Carsen’s overemphatic production inhibits the emotional impact of both cast and conductor