Octavian and The Marschallin

Lucia Cervoni as Octavian and Rebecca Evans as The Marschallin Pictures: Bill Cooper

Der Rosenkavalier

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, or The Knight of the Rose, is not the kind of repertoire one automatically or currently connects with the magical, enterprising and successful Welsh National Opera.

Janáček, Poulenc, Britten (a stupendous Billy Budd, rivalled by Opera North’s a few seasons later), Madam Butterfly, Humperdinck – how could Hansel and Gretel not be a sure-fire hit? Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades – like Hansel, again directed by unmatchaed, groundbreaking Richard Jones – was one of the scariest productions in UK opera’s recent history, all main companies included

Welsh National also has a record of staging modern operas, or commissions. David Pountney’s championing of the Polish-Russian musician Moshe Samuilovich Vainberg (Mieczysław Weinberg), a fellow-composer much admired by Shostakovich, in an arresting opera (The Passenger) transferred from his International lakeside festival at Bregenz, Austria, proved both the work a classic and its composer/progenitor a genius.

There are seven Vainberg operas – Pountney has already staged two, The Passenger being shared with his old company, ENO (which also, like Opera North, and unlike Covent Garden or the Summer Opera companies, stages opera in English). The Portrait, put on in Liverpool, was taken from the Russian comic playwright Gogol. Vainberg’s last (1986), a four-acter, was based on Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. It too could be worth a look.

WNO’s constantly go-ahead Artistic Director, David Pountney was honoured in 2013 by being awarded the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit, Poland’s highest honour for service to the Arts in or connected with Poland (several of his productions transferred to Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, which mean’s ‘Big Theatre’. With its extensive cast facilities, it is, I believe, the largest complex in Europe. Pountney’s electrifying productions of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger and the Polish ex-patriot André Tchaikovsky’s The Merchant of Venice (for the Shakespeare Quatercentenary, also launched in Bregenz) explain why he as so rated and valued in Polish cultural circles.

The Marschallins

 Rebecca Evans  as The Marschallin and Margaret Baiton as The Old Marschallin

But Pountney has also pioneered others – writing the libretto himself as well as directing Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s unnerving The Doctor of Myddfai, based on an old mid-Wales legend but updated (like George Orwell’s 1984) to epitomise a modern dictatorship in which, as under Stalin, the population were starving and, thus weakened, infected with a horrendous, unidentified and incurable disease. It starred the impressively authoritarian bass Gwynne Howell, and as the noble healer a young, yet already superb, baritone, Paul Whelan (seen this summer at the ‘old’ Grange Festival’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria (Monteverdi’s penultimate opera), where, in sharp contrast, he sings the ultra-baddy, Antinous . Before Pountney took full charge, WNO staged John Metcalf’s Tornrak, a creepy Polar yarn easily on a par with Davies’ much better known The Lighthouse, and a shivering, unnerving opera which Pountney surely ought to revive soon.

WNO’s Der Rosenkavalier is easily worth six or seven stars. Why? Maybe not primarily because of Olivia Fuchs’s perfectly adequate, and intermittently superb, direction of the principals and chorus, although Niki Turner’s rather awe-inspiring, grandiloquent, plain, fractionally embossed, soaring cream-coloured bedroom, worthy of or one better than Mozart’s Countess Rosina’s, achieved two things ideally: a highly appropriate feeling of imperial splendour (the Marschallin, or Field Marshal’s wife – the glorious Rebecca Evans, who excelled in every respect here, and who twenty three years ago sang the young Sophie for the same company on this very same stage) - is after all named ‘Maria Theresa’ (Marie-Therèse), and has a real feel of regality about her; yet at the same time the set, despite its impressively lofty ceilings, felt warmly enclosing, a cosy box, adding an element of claustrophobia which abetted Fuchs’s well-chosen structural layout, and lent an extra frisson to the sex that dominates the start.

One or two I spoke to, including an Anglo- Dutch gentleman who, something of an expert, had seemingly seen about 30 Rosenkavaliers, thought the sexual aspect ridiculously overdone, overstated and visually exaggerated. Indeed, he opined it distracted – and detracted - seriously from Strauss’s score.

I couldn’t disagree more. Indeed, it’s all in the score (maybe that was his point: if it’s there already, no need to depict it gratuitously onstage): soaring brass in the prelude for the joint orgasms, woodwind for what has been classed the luxurious post-coital afterglow (we were actually treated to both), the thrusting horns which suggest the ‘virile swain’ in the midst of his climax. (Actually Sally Burgess, sprawled across white feathery pillows in Jonathan Miller’s ENO production, looks equally up for anything).

The idea of the grande dame – actually the Marschallin’s not very old, no older than Mozart’s Count and Countess Almaviva, but both the ‘boy’ Octavian and her stiff, stiffly doubtless policially correct and moustachioed, erect-shouldered, musket- and sabre-wielding oldish spouse (presumably arranged marriage: we never see him) makes her feel old.


Brindley Sherratt as Baron Ochs

So having it off in bed with a nominally seventeen year old lustily rampant boy makes pretty good sense. That is what Octavian purportedly is, in those days before recognised sexual activity made its way lower down to the teens, to the chagrin of terrified parents, censorious none-of-your-business adults, over-zealously interfering social workers and screaming red top newspapers, negating the freedoms of the swinging Sixties, He’s just a lad, with itchy balls but  a lot of love to give, whom she nicknames ‘Quinquin’: ‘little child’, equivalent to Dutch kindeken, or (rather amusingly) Picardie dialect ‘kinken’, or German Kindchen, the ‘Verkleinerungsform’ of ‘Kind’: it means not a child, but a little, or tiny, child. It’s merely her term of endearment. He’s the equivalent of the Greek meirakion (middle teen). However our warm-hearted, soon to be betrayed Marschallin certainly begins to sound like a cradle-snatcher.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal was Strauss’s uniquely gifted Viennese collaborator on six operas over 23 years, often with a Classical bent (Elektra; Ariadne auf Naxos’; Die Frau ohne Schatten or The Woman (wife) without a Shadow; The Egyptian Helen; and Arabella). As a playwright, he created or adapted other Classical pieces, such as Oedipus and the Sphinx, an unfinished Semiramis (the Babylonian female figure who is transfigured into a dove - rather as Daphne is turned into a laurel in the transfiguring conclusion to Strauss’s simply ravishing late opera of that name); and an influential treatment of the medieval poetic stagework Everyman), one forerunner of Goethe’s Faust.

Strauss’s librettist apparently stipulated the age of seventeen for Octavian, but as implied above, the Marschallin’s ‘little boy’ could as easily be sixteen or even late fifteen: the gonads are buzzing by then, and wantonness rules, even in a travesti.

This lubricious, steamy start was in fact one of Director Fuchs’s and Staff Director Caroline Chaney’s most splendid and relevant conceits. Our attention, unusually in this acutely observed Rosenkavalier, was not fixated on the rightly famous Act 3 trio (it was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Marschallin, Christa Ludwig as a beauteous but more like a 37 year old Octavian, plus Teresa Stich-Randall as the enchanting Sophie, on the stupendous Karajan recording, made with the Philharmonia in 1957, and which has not aged one iota), which evolves into the dying duet as Octavian - the knockout Canadian mezzo-soprano Lucia Cervoni, utterly fabulous: what a voice! (her chunky thighs only adding to the lad’s bedside appeal) and the tentative but already love-smitten Sophie.

Herr Faninal

Adrian Clarke as Herr von Faninal

Sophie (sung for WNO by the exquisitely pure voiced Louise Alder), is trapped between her loving father, a shy, tentative, newly-ennobled minor aristocrat Herr (Graf von) Faninal (sung by tenor Adrian Clarke, who here and elsewhere matches the serious and the comic skilfully – witness Maxwell Davies’s three-leads ‘dramatic sonata’ Mr. Emmet Takes a Walk, again to a brilliant, caustic, ironic, scatological libretto by Pountney, and staged at the St. Magnus Festival, Orkney before touring by a tip-top Dutch company, Muziektheater Transparant, conducted by Etienne Siebens, which begins darkly with Clarke’s (Emmet’s) suicide on the railway tracks, to disturbing, haunting echoes of Schumann, but then expands at a hundred miles an hour with tongue-in-cheek, potent and pertinent vignettes, as the newly matched couple look ahead to a joyous future together.

Sophie’s well-meaning but lacklustre dad, all too keen to please and placate those ‘upper’ circles to which he has only just been elevated, and thus disastrously subservient to the wizened, ill-smelling, blue-blooded nob (one of Strauss’s best comic characters), who emerges as the hapless teen girlie’s grim, boorish and patently unsuitably decrepit main suitor.

For the other personality to preoccupy us is him: the obnoxious, lecherous, illiterate, oafish country cousin of the Marschallin, Baron Ochs von Lerchenau (literally ‘Ox in the Lark Meadow’ – it is in fact a small lake north of Strauss’s Munich - with which Hofmannsthal catches perfectly his loutish, obtuse, offensive, dim-witted, bull-in-a-china-shop personality. (‘Shoulders like a baby chick!’ ‘A strong-headed, unridden filly. You’ll make me happy (martially, domestically) whether you like it or not.’) And soon he embarks on his famous boasting mock-waltz, ‘Mit mir, mit mir’: ‘With me everything will be rosy, without me, everything a misery.’ His last line to Octavian as he sets off on ‘business affairs’ is more a hoot than ominous: ‘I’ve got nothing against you making eyes at your cousin, now or hereafter - but don’t you dare lay a finger on her.’ Of course, this is the start of Octavian and Sophie’s attachment, which the smug and swaggering Ochs has unwittingly set in motion.

Brindley Sherratt is at his sensational acting best: arguably, with grimaces, footling bluster, clumsiness, appalling lusting advances (the funniest being his pursuit of Octavian, dressed as a maid like Mozart’s Act 2 Cherubino, calling herself Mariandel until finally unmasked, to the Baron’s hilarious shock and chagrin, as a chap – in this deliciously prurient production Cervoni, who plays the boy-girl duality as few others I have seen, and is, as one other well-informed (and visibly chuffed) spectator opined, ‘the most attractive Octavian I have ever seen’ (she certainly was), should probably have downed his/her trousers – cementing Ochs’s final humiliation (‘Aargh! Oh mein Gott - she’s a man!’).


 Lucia Cervoni as Octavian

Sherratt, whom I well remember when he first moved (like the equally gifted Christopher Purves) across to opera from choral ensembles – in Sherratt’s case, from the BBC Singers; while Purves came from the legendary mixed-media group Harvey and the Wallbangers -  did not appear an especially accomplished thespian.

But all that has changed, with a vengeance. Sherratt acts virtually everyone else off stage; coupled with his famous basso profundo: no wonder he is a noble Arkel (Pelléas in Zurich/Frankfurt), a dignified Sarastro (Vienna), a loathsome Claggart (Billy Budd, but in Madrid, not for WNO), or the Royal Opera House’s poignantly nostalgic loving husband Prince Gremin (Eugene Onegin). Sherratt will be this coming season’s Fafner at Covent Garden. Just imagine it: like The Hobbit’s Smaug, fire-breathing and booming.

But the joy of Ochs’s attempted rutting is that it establishes a perfect contrast with the – albeit temporary - purity of Octavian and the Marschallin’s love-making. To each of the copulating pair, bed is a kind of Nirvana. Yet amid this shame-free, unfettered, joyously free-spirited cuckolding, she (Evans) is breaking him (Cervoni) in for another, as yet unknown amour (Alder), whom he hasn’t even met yet. Their daily coition and postprandial lingering is, in the long and even medium term, doomed.

Of course Octavian, touchingly naïve and clinging, doesn’t know that; but Marie Therèse, wise beyond her years, and commendably, if self-defensively, realistic, does perceive that inevitability all too well. We are witnessing the decrescendo of their relationship: the fading, receding and petering out (a good phrase) of their already well-established and once seemingly eternal, relationship.  

By daring to make Act I at the outset so concupiscent and explicit, Fuchs makes perfect way for the second part of Act I, where Evans’ Marschallin predicts to a reluctant Octavian that he will shortly leave her for a girl more his own age. It makes him weep, or in Cervoni’s case, lub, and cleave to her bosom like a small child to its mother. In the opera and this staging all this was uniquely beautifully and poignantly enacted: and it holds the key to the whole of Rosenkavalier, which is about relinquishing, resignation and – for all the historic indecencies - decent, noble acceptance.

Hofmannsthal’s delicate treatment of the tale of this silver rose bearing petit beau says it all. Strauss and his librettist discussed options and variants endlessly, altering things over and again, by letter (in those halcyon days when you had four posts a day, and letters were often delivered the same afternoon they were despatched. Later, they might have used telephone, like Britten and Myfanwy Piper (who ran up vast phone bills discussing The Turn of the Screw, and later Death in Venice); subsequently there was fax; and now, of course, email.

Octavia and Sophia

 Louise Alder as Sophie von Faninal and Lucia Cervoni as Octavian

From the outset Strauss – having seared his audiences with the grizzly Salome and even bloodier Elektra - wanted from Hofmannsthal a romantic comedy set in the Renaissance, or at least in the 18th century, and he got it. Grove Opera records that Hofmannstahl, egged on by the composer, stumbled across and pilfered from Les amours du chevalier de Faublas (1787) by the splendidly rhymed Louvet de Couvrai (1760-97), a contemporary of Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s Beaumarchais (1732-99) – while also drawing tips from Lully’s collaborator Moliêre (1622-73). All this gave him his starting point

But Couvrai, one of only a handful of Girondistes (Danton’s former allies but subsequent foes), who escaped the guillotine during the reign of terror, followed up his extravaganza in 1790 with La fin des amours, which is of course exactly what Rosenkavalier is all about: the abandoning, the cruel yet (as the Marschallin - or Marchioness – warns both him and us), inevitable dousing of old love, and embarkation on the new. Henceforth Octavian will do his coupling elsewhere, and hopefully with the touchingly innocent though undeniably nubile Sophie (one assumes even younger than him) make babies.

It was impossible to fault Cervoni’s Octavian: she has a wondrously warm timbre, drawing that inevitable epithet ‘velvety’. Hers is a voice I would gladly listen to (doting on her music while ogling her physical form) for hours. As singer and actress (should I say ‘actor?) at the Hippodrome she was simply, breathtakingly yummy and wonderful. Why so?

You have to maintain this boy-girl ambiguity in Rosenkavalier as surely you do in The Marriage of Figaro (which Strauss mightily admired, and to which he alludes in this score); or in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, where the frisson derives not only from the fact that Viola, who is of course a girl disguised as a boy, hence by natural attraction falls for Count Orsino, while Countess Olivia (the Marschallin) in turn falls for the boy ‘Cesario’ (who is in fact a girl), the whole cross-dressing charade being amplified by the fact that in 1601-2 (at the Whitehall Palace and/or The Middle Temple), Viola would have been played by a boy, or at least a beardless youth. Much the same is true of Imogen in Cymbeline (Vanessa Redgrave in my memory), where the two brothers take to her as a fellow boy without realising she’s actually their sister.

In Twelfth Night, as in Rosenkavalier, confusion reigns. It’s all a bit like Blackadder (the Elizabethan version) where Rowan Atkinson finds himself falling for a boy called ‘Bob’, and submits but is horrified, unware that the sumptuous Bob is in fact a girl in disguise.

I have failed yet to mention some of the other treats of this frankly scintillating, hugely alluring WNO production. While our interest centres on the beautiful three-way relationship (true, Louise Alder’s appealingly voiced Sophie only appears later and is allotted, till the close, a somewhat lesser role), and on Baron Ochs’s ludicrous ministrations, there was a hilarious, hapless and halfwit depiction of Ochs’s bastard son Leopold (George Newton-Fitzgerald), who is his father’s gopher or aide-de-camp.


George Newton-Fitzgerald as Leopold, Lucia Cervoni as Octavian) and Peter van Hulle as Valzacchi with members of the WNO Chorus

Matthew Hargreaves, for long a rising opera star with a nice feel for comedy (Clonter Opera, for instance, and in Pergolesi’s zany La Serva Padrona at Broomhill Opera, if my memory serves me aright) revealed his resonant low baritone voice has hugely developed as a compliant Chief of Police.  Swansea’s Angharad Morgan supplied a rather charming Madame Leitmetzerin, Sophie’s vigilant companion (i.e. watchful chaperone, like Juliet’s Nurse); and Laurence Cole an entertaining rustic Boots. The male quartet, which Strauss deploys up front twice in the opera, were gold standard, and a highlight of the evening.

The only two duff bits I detected included the Act 3 section with the children, who surround, terrify and mock the inept and bungling Ochs, depriving him of all authority and credibility. He emerges as a mere punctured windbag – all the funnier as Brindley Sherratt has got his pompous self-satisfiedness to absolute perfection. But while the children’s voices, including four or five able boys, sounded splendid (what writing!), their direction looked abysmal. It didn’t seem as if they had been rehearsed and drilled at all, nor even much motivated. With children above all, that is unforgiveable. How much did they learn from the thrill of being selected for a fully-fledged opera? Not much.

The other was the page boy, Mohammed. If you’re going to have it played by a grown-up (perhaps to avoid hauling youngsters out of school), you could certainly do no better than the aptly named Kayed Mohamed-Mason, who made a jolly good job of mopping up the mess made by others and being generally scrupulous in his attention to duty.

But the final moment, when the impish Mohammed darts in to pluck up the handkerchief the infatuated Sophie has dropped as she heads off with her ravishing, and indeed opulent, new man (she has the sense to tumble for an aristocrat), was totally lost. Mohammed is a scurrying scallywag, like Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera, and he has to scamper, or he doesn’t reflect the skedaddling music. This rather looked like a definite, perhaps courageous effort by Fuchs to try something else, to come up with something different. OK, she did. But for all Mohamed-Mason’s noble efforts, it felt like a damp rag. Not a clever way to finish the comedy.

It was nice to see Octavian, not (as usual) Evans’ Marschallin, made top dog in the ensuing curtain calls. Words fail me to describe how radiant, how heavenly Cervoni proved in this pretty taxing role (Brigitte Fassbender, to make it even more mind-boggling herself LGBT inclined, was a famous gender-bending Octavian), and how handsomely she enhanced this scintillating WNO staging. Everything fell into place: her joyous, rampant lust, so executed you could be convinced she had a strap-on penis; her (his) Cherubino-like disguise (and for similar reasons); his refusal to believe the relationship with Evans’ (more diminutive) other half of the Marquis is on its last legs; and the transfiguring way in which, despatched by Ochs as his lackey bearing that silvery rose, he realises, Cervoni beautifully phased and edging forward ever so tentatively, and cautiously stage by stage, that he is falling for the sweet, parent-obedient, pure, religious-minded young Sophie. Cervoni paces it all to perfection, showing a miraculous insight into and grasp of the numerous whispered orchestral undercurrents underscoring this magical text: the very undertow of the music itself, all of which amounts (like Figaro) to a psychological wonder..

Cervoni was recently seen in Canada in Philippe Boesmans’ Julie, based on Strindberg’s stage play Miss Julie, and premiered at Brussels’ opera house La Monnaie/De Munt in this prolific and gifted composer’s native Belgium (both England’s William Alwyn and the now 93-year-old glorious gay American composer, and famously frank diarist, Ned Rorem, have based operas on the same play); and in her Danish debut sang Suzuki in Madam Butterfly at Den Jyske Opera, in Aarhus She’s been performing lead roles since at least 2008, so has at least a ten year career (and more) behind her: in no way did that stop her Octavian from being scrumptiously young and, well, up for it.

While on powerful mezzo (or contralto) soubrettes, she was also Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo; Britten’s Mrs. Grose; and a seasoned, low-reaching (hence sensual) Carmen. She’s a regular in The Magic Flute (a fabulous Third Lady, i.e. the lowest of the three); and a natural choice for Hansel and Cherubino. Of special interest to her – and to me – is that Lucia Cervoni took the role of Donna Isabella in Zdeněk Fibich’s powerful, dramatic opera The Bride of Messina (after Schiller), a work by this prolific Czech opera composer (a younger contemporary of Dvořák) that screams out to join the mainstream repertoire here; and which has now been recorded by her, no less.

If you’d like to hear Cervoni, in the Theater Magdeburg staging of rare repertoire (she has a special association with that house), The Bride of Messina is on CPO 777 9182, with Cervoni gorgeously blazoned across the CD cover. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. (There’s a very acceptable Supraphon recording, 11-1492-2-612, too.)

As they ‘exchange eyes’ (Shakespeare’s Prospero, of Ferdinand and Miranda) and this new attraction develops, exactly what the Marschallin had predicted comes about. And because Octavian knows that, Cervoni’s last three remaining exchanges with his former lover, as this doomed yet crucially formative relationship sputters out – Octavian almost entirely keeps his eyes averted, as if he cannot face the betrayal the Marschallin has sanctioned, perhaps so as neither to hurt his former love nor be hurt – become incredibly poignant.

Guilt, fading memories of hours of conversation and what seemed like years in bed, the tragic yet necessary process of boy becoming man, rather like a chorister losing his treble voice and ending up a tenor or baritone: all this parades itself before him. And you not only feel this, you know this, but you know it, because of Cervoni’s incredibly empathetic performance, and on account of the fabulous chemistry, now only remembered, between Cervoni and Evans.

It is for the Marschallin, the older, to bow out; and the way she takes her public final exit, a final, lingering kiss avoided (they are in public), and gives her blessing to the young couple, is one of the saddest, most moving and piquant moments in all world opera. Here, above all, Octavian uses her name: ‘Marie Therèse’, three times in a row, as one echoing token of their love, not broken, but now shelved. ‘I vowed to myself to cherish him in the right way’, grieves Evans, but with magisterial self-control: ‘that I would even love his love for another woman; but I confess, I didn’t think it would happen quite so soon.’

 Hofmannsthal’s Marchioness is the epitome of how someone in her thirties or forties can become the wise older woman. ‘Da steht der Bub…’ – ‘There stands the boy, and here (i.e. apart, resigned but frankly bereft) stand I’. Her penultimate, unnoticed exit and lasting benediction sounds like a spiritual acceptance of Sophie’s future: ‘In Gottes Namen’: In God’s name’. And lovelorn but stoical, she peels off.

Yes this is the way life is, and life has to be. As Evans sighs, ‘ja, ja’, as movingly as Schwarzkopf, it somehow says all: it is her final, irrevocable signing off. Or as Clarke’s Faninal, who considerately escorts her in on his arm to see the newly betrotheds, and now himself a little wiser, puts it, ‘That’s how they are, the young folk! (‘Sind halt aso, die jungen Leut’): an example of the stylised, slightly out of the ordinary dialect that Hofmannsthal artfully sprinkles throughout the opera’s three acts. But this – as Strauss knows – is as conclusive and terminal a dénouement as one could possibly ask for.

What a librettist! And what a composer! When the American soldiers came in December 1945 to investigate the house – and possibly drug-dealing son – of the 61 year old composer Anton Webern, who had stepped outside his home near Salzburg after curfew to smoke a cigar, one nervous, edgy, itchy-fingered GI shot and killed him. When they went to arrest Strauss (who was rumoured to have had Nazi affiliations) at his home in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in southern Bavaria abreast of the Austrian border north of Innsbruck, he declared, ‘I am Richard Strauss, the composer of Der Rosenkavalier’.

Actually he added, not so convincingly, ‘and Salome’. They didn’t shoot him, which was just as well, as in the twilight of his life (he died at 85) he gave us Metamorphosen, his heartbroken war lament for tragically destroyed Germany, and possibly his most moving music since Rosenkavalier, and those immortal Four Last Songs. Some legacy.

Roderic Dunnett


Index page Hippodrome Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre