A fair shot at a moving target

DER ROSENKAVALIER

Melbourne Opera

Athenaeum Theatre

Saturday August 11

                                              Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss

Continuing a newly-established practice of taking on difficult tasks, Melbourne Opera balanced its Wagner aspirations with this flamboyant masterpiece that celebrates an ancien regime unconsciously teetering on  the brink of destruction.  The complete turn-about from Strauss’s days as a significant contemporary voice, Der Rosenkavalier is a repertoire staple, popular well beyond its merits and, amid its inbuilt gems, a hard farce to stage without resorting to crudity or awkwardness.

And it comes with several historical incubi, chief among them the filmed performance of 1961 with Karajan conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and State Opera Chorus with a once-in-a-lifetime cast of Schwarzkopf, Jurinac, Rothenberger, Edelmann and Erich Kunz in Paul Czinner’s faultlessly fitted production.  We’ve seen several live Melbourne performances – only a few – and nothing on the Viennese scale.  But, naturally, you adjust your expectations.

MO’s director for this enterprise, Tama Matheson, has taken it as his mission to bring Ochs back to the centre of the action.  Yes, you can see how that may need doing in times when the Marschallin and Octavian have attracted all the attention as far as advertising is concerned, as well as a concentration by enthusiasts on the Presentation and the final trio chunks.   Matheson is quite right to pull the pretentious oaf back under the limelight: Ochs sets up the whole mess and his presence in each of the three acts is a constant infusion of vitality, if not the humour that creators Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to obtain  .  .  .  well, it sort of does but only if you’re prepared to go along a few miles with the dramatic situation.

Daniel Sumegi has little trouble in making Ochs the production’s central focus.  His production is hard to fault for clarity, elasticity and breadth of volume, making him more than a match for David Kram’s over-encouraged pit.  As the character is meant to, Sumegi dominated every ensemble point in which he was involved and he has enough experience to know not to bray, although it was a near thing in the Act 1 duet with the Marschallin’s lawyer over the levee’s ferment.

For the most part, this Ochs stayed the right side of unbridled crudity; any deviations struck me as due to the bass’s direction rather than the singer’s own choice.  But, while you could take pleasure in the self-obsession of Ochs’ Act 1, and the vulgarity of his wooing and wounding in Act 2,  the best came in the later stages of the final act where the hurly-burly was done and the character has to be coerced into a graceless withdrawal.  This showed fine fidelity to the libretto’s intentions, without allowing for any diminution in misplaced self-assurance.

For all that, the use of Ochs as a substitute for the Marschallin’s blackamoor in the last skittering bars impressed as a step too far in promoting the character’s primacy, simply because the music runs counter to director Matheson’s staged action at this point.

Lee Abrahmsen sang a fully assured Marschallin, her opening act a fine balance of indulgence and self-awareness at the Da geht er hin soliloquy, which was all the more welcome for its avoidance of over-intensity.  This soprano, like Sumegi, cut through an ensemble with assurance and – wonder of wonders – kept herself on an even keel in the Hab mir’s gelobt trio rather than dynamically towering over the other singers.

Yet in this last act, where the Marschallin’s entry stills all that chaos, the sense of presence and domination didn’t come across, possibly because Abrahmsen appeared to view the whole scene as an affront to middle-class sensibilities, as though she was looking at people behaving badly and finding it all beneath her.   But I think that Marie Therese is much more warm-hearted and accepting than this, tolerant of others’ foibles because she knows she’s imperfect herself and, if she smiles, it’s in self-recognition as well as amusement.

As Octavian, Danielle Calder worked to achieve a creditable success rate, her anticipated youthful enthusiasm exercised to fine effect in the opening scene, although even a convincing actor finds it hard to avoid suggestions of silliness in the Marschallin’s bedroom activity.  It might have been Kram’s baton in over-active play but it struck me that the Mir ist die Ehre address could have been given with more deliberation; it’s a great moment and should be relished by all concerned.

But Calder did the Mariandel persona quite straight, without cheap laughs as she avoided the Baron’s gropes, and managing the chase-round-the-brothel games with restraint.  Mind you, enough was going on here – onstage and in the Athenaeum’s Juliet balconies – to cover any vocal awkwardness and the exchanges after the Baron’s discomfiture and exit with both of the character’s love interests enjoyed rapid treatment compared to some previous experiences I’ve endured with this uncomfortably self-regarding dialogue.

Anna Voshege sang Sophie, the ingenue who grows up quickly across the opera’s small time-span.  Admittedly, her diction persisted in being unclear  but complaining that you can’t understand the words during an opera sung in English suggests to me a lack of preparation.

You can’t come to occasions like this and expect to be able to decipher everything; you have to do your homework.  People sit through Rigoletto or Götterdämmerung and don’t have an inkling about the meaning of what they’re hearing.  No: if you’re going to the opera, you can’t expect the experience to be as facile as watching Jersey Boys or Kinky Boots.

Voshege milked Act 2 for all it was worth; and so she should because she’s on stage and an active participant for most of its length.  She managed to get through the initial In dieser feierlichen Stunde right up to Denn das ist ja so schon with plenty of vivacity, even in the more sober strophes of her self-revelation.  Later, the duet  beginning Ich kenn Ihn schon recht wohl proved to be one of the more deftly contrived stretches of the entire production, thanks to the conviction and display of personality from each singer.

Among the rest of the cast, Simon Meadows made a determined Faninal, even if he looked improbably young for the role.  Andrea Creighton took to the limelight with gusto during her excited commentary on the approach of the Rose-bearer; just the other side of over-the-top, but why not?   John Pickering and Caroline Vercoe wove themselves into each act with distinction; this Valzacchi and Annina weathered every change of direction and profited from each one with just enough intrusiveness.  Matthew Thomas gave excellent pedantry as the Marschallin’s attorney on loan to the Baron.  Henry Choo made a fair essay at the Italian Singer’s two stanzas but might have been better advised not to attempt a Pavarotti impersonation, simply because that brought to mind the pure glory of the Italian tenor’s delineation of this all-too-brief role.

Lucy Wilkins ensured that the cast were suitably dressed, even if the costuming confused with its alternation between the original time-setting of the 1740s and something resembling the early decades of the last century.   Christina Logan-Bell made sure that the sets allowed space for plenty of mobile population in the outer acts, although the nightmares that beset Ochs near the end were clumsily executed, to the point where you weren’t sure where to look or which group was representing what.

The chief talking point of the production itself was the physical presentation of Ochs as a Trump caricature.  This proved enjoyable up to a point but I think most of us at this matinee performance were more entertained by the finale when Sumegi took off the wig to reveal total baldness – not because of any implied political commentary but because the character abruptly moved to a more satisfying and attractive level, devoid of clumsy satire and more in line with what Hofmannsthal wanted –  a Bavarian bully and bore getting his comeuppance.

Much of the chorus work worked well enough in Act 3 although this was the stretch of music-making that raised questions.  The ferment is pretty fierce as Strauss piles up his action but, even before this, the brass showed signs of fatigue and the pit’s responsiveness before the opera’s sinking-back to placidity in its last pages seemed under-rehearsed, if not downright scrappy.  Still, this is a difficult work to handle, particularly in a theatre of small proportions and a good deal of the first two-thirds of the score came off quite creditably.

A final note on this point.   Perhaps the production might have been better suited to the company’s other venues, like the Palais in St. Kilda or the Regent across the road.

For sure, Melbourne Opera can be reasonably content with its work on Strauss’s sugary confection but the experience was something of an uphill battle where it seemed to me that nobody except Sumegi was completely comfortable in coping with the work’s musical demands.

There are two final performances on Wednesday August 15 and Friday November 17, both nights starting at 7:30 pm.