Paula Suozzi’s revival of Robert Carsen’s 2017 production, which moved the setting from the cusp of revolution in the 18th century to the brink of World War I in 1911, the year in which it premiered, remains eerily evocative with its tale straddling three generations, the imminent collapse of the old order, the uncertainty of what is to come, and the maturity to accept both.
The Marschallin (Lise Davidsen) is having an affair with the young count Octavian (Samantha Hankey) whilst her country cousin, Baron Ochs (Gunther Groissböck) is engaged to Sophie (Erin Morley), the young daughter of a nouveau-riche arms dealer, Faninal (Brian Mulligan). When Ochs meets Octavian, hastily disguised as a chambermaid to avoid discovery, he makes advances towards ‘her’ and the Marschallin is appalled at the thought of him marrying an innocent young girl whilst an Italian Singer (René Barbera) reflects on the true meaning of love.
On behalf of Ochs, Octavian presents Sophie with the customary silver engagement rose, and the two fall instantly in love. Sophie has never met the Baron before and is shocked by his behaviour and emboldened by her newfound love, refuses to marry him. An argument erupts and in the resulting confusion, Octavian wounds Ochs.
Determined to teach the Baron a lesson, Octavian disguises himself again as a chambermaid and arranges to meet him for a private rendezvous at a house of ill-repute. With the support of Valzacchi (Thomas Bernstein) and his niece Annina (Katharine Goeldner) coordinating the sting, various fates befall the Baron until a police commissioner (Scott Conner) arrives to investigate. Will the Marschallin’s appearance and suggestion that this was all a farce be accepted? Will Ochs learn his lesson and admit defeat? Will Octavian and Sophie be united at last in love? Will any dignity remain?
There is much, much more to this than Strauss’ accomplished Viennese waltz’s which echo the great age of Empire that is soon to have its day; the accompanying German libretto from Hugo von Hofmannstal is cleverly written from High German to the vernacular to reflect the status of each character although the intermittent surtitles made this more of a challenge.
Other difficulties followed: there were various technical issues with the live transmission that saw a key fifteen-minute period of Act II lost followed by sporadic sound issues in Act III as we switched to real-time in lieu of the normal buffer transmission designed to deal with such challenges. Frustrating is one word that springs to mind, but it should not detract too much from what was overall a splendid production with impressive staging from Paul Steinberg and fantastic costumes from Brigitte Reiffenstruel combined with Carsenb and Peter Van Praet’s lighting design and superb choreography from Philippe Giraudeau.
Mezzo-soprano Hankey looked every part the young lover with mannerisms that made it clear that this was very much a boy and injected the necessary energy into the drama alongside smooth singing. Morley was a bright presence whose youthful innocence occasionally revealed she knew a little more about life than she was letting on. Together they certainly carried the night musically.
Davidsen is by definition statuesque which lends itself perfectly to the authoritative figure of the Marschallin and her singing provided the strong order to the unfolding chaos around her. Dramatically she was less so, too often expressionless for my liking, which is a shame because we need to see the chemistry between her and Octavian as well as her sense of loss and acceptance for the new order when he opts for Sophie. Equally Groissböck played his role with some reticence when we really needed him to be more downright nasty to match his register.
Ebenstein and Goeldner added the right balance of intrigue and comedy and were clearly enjoying themselves whilst Barbera delivered confidently and was deservedly appreciated for it. Mulligan stood out with a strong vocal performance capturing the contradictions of Faninal in a composed yet comic manner.
Conductor Simone Young, making a much welcome return, led the Met Orchestra through romance and ecstasy, the waltz’s and then the darker dancing rhythms of the third act, effectively sandwiching the pompous chaos of Ochs and friends in Act II. Importantly she managed the hugely difficult challenge of keeping both singers and orchestra aligned with some of opera’s most virtuosic pieces.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 15th April 2023
North West End UK Rating: ★★★