London Coliseum, London WC2
A dawn of flutes and oboes breaks over a rococo fantasy of a bedroom, the gilded bed an island in a sea of parquet. David McVicar's production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier is a triumph of traditionalism. Yet, as the chandeliers and frothy-cuffed courtiers become more familiar, we perceive the cracks and stains in the scene that speak of order under threat. Strauss's opera may be foremost a social comedy but it
is also a human tragedy - a balance this production handles rather beautifully.
First seen at English National Opera in 2008 (and before that at the Scottish Opera), McVicar's Rosenkavalier is no longer quite the youth it once was. The transfer to the Coliseum has stretched its already lanky visual proportions and this widest of London stages can often dwarf the chamber intimacy of the drama. The direction of all but the busiest of crowd scenes lacks clarity, gestures struggling to justify the scale demanded by stage and staging.
Yet there is a simplicity to the giant set (disguised in only the flimsiest of masks for the Faninal home of Act II and the Act III inn) that allows Strauss's and the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's psychology to live as it cannot when smothered under the richness of John Schlesinger's visuals for the Royal Opera.
The shift of focus between the opera's working title - Ochs von Lerchenau - and Der Rosenkavalier is one from the immutable, Falstaffian figure of the Baron to the character-under-construction that is young Octavian, the rose-bearer. Time is passing, despite the Marschallin's best attempts to stop the clocks, and it is time's tiny gradations that interest the authors.
As the orchestra exploded into the ecstasy of the introduction, it became clear that the ENO's music director, Ed Gardner, had lost little of the impetuosity that guided his 2008 interpretation. There are still great surges of brass that threaten the lighter voices and Amanda Roocroft's Marschallin in particular might have been grateful for rather less vigour. But the pay-off comes in the warmth of the string ensemble, a foil to the ambiguous sheen of the woodwind's silver rose theme.
While musically Gardner insists on a story of two young lovers, McVicar invites us to consider the quiet tragedy of the older woman (the heir of Mozart's Countess). It's a tension that is determinedly unresolved - McVicar's Octavian hesitates right until the end - and one that animates the unusually persuasive psychology of this production.
Vocally, this is as fine a cast as London will ever see. John Tomlinson (does England have a finer singing actor?) returns as the good-natured buffoon Baron Ochs, his careful comedic shading rivalled by Andrew Shore as the parvenu Herr von Faninal. The quality of Jaewoo Kim's Singer sets the tone for further vocal heavyweights, including Madeleine Shaw as a tantalisingly fine Annina.
With an upper register that only seems to grow in power and beauty of tone, Sarah Connolly's Octavian remains an instinctive piece of casting. Tender and petulant, growing visibly into tentative manhood (with a detour into cross-dressing that delighted the first-night audience), hers is a performance that climaxes naturally into the Act II trio, carrying the drama both vocally and in her supremely natural characterisation.
While Amanda Roocroft (making her role debut) is a fragile, much less mature Marschallin than many, Sophie Bevan's Sophie is surprisingly rich - a performance that tantalisingly suggests the lyric roles to come for this excellent young soprano.
There may be more headline-grabbing works to come at the ENO this season but among the first-time opera directors and provocative stagings it would be a shame to overlook this quiet gem of a production. Der Rosenkavalier is a timely reminder that the ENO can do serious singing every bit as well as showmanship.