Tomlinson, John


RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Edward Gardner, David McVicar, Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Shore, Madeleine Shaw, Adrian Thompson, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Jaewoo Kim, Mark Richardson | The Coliseum, 24 February 2012

If the previous night’s production at the Coliseum of the Richard Jones directed The Tales of Hoffmann was an example of throwing everything at a production to less than optimal effect, David McVicar’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the following night was a lesson in the virtue of understatement. Understatement is not a quality you often associate with either Richard Strauss or indeed David McVicar, and the use of the term is indeed relative. This revival of the English National Opera’s 2008 production is by no means minimalist, the stage lushly decorated in authentic-looking period design and costumes, but it makes the most effective use of that set design across all three acts with thoughtful arrangements and little fuss.

This is undoubtedly the best way to approach Strauss’s most extravagant and lushly detailed work. Every single word and gesture is already expressed, enhanced and accompanied by carefully considered notes and instruments to add layers of meaning and significance, and what they don’t need is for the stage direction to ignore them or work against them. That approach might be valid for introducing or bringing out notes of irony in relation to the subject in another opera, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s playful farce set amongst the nobility of mid-eighteenth century Vienna is already loaded with ironic intention and musical references to Strauss waltzes and to Mozart’s comic operas of lecherous nobles. It doesn’t need any other layers to confuse matters or disrupt the delicate balance in a manner that tips it over into being far too clever by half.

Rosenkavalier

Surprisingly for this director, McVicar even chose to figuratively draw a veil (or stage curtain) over any on-stage visualisation of Strauss’s famous musical expression of the opening bedroom romp between the Marshallin and her young lover Octavian, preferring to let the stage bask in the golden afterglow of the morning after. Without any further stage devices other than the subtle shifts of golden light, Act 1 serves up the gorgeous luxuriousness of Strauss’s expression of those moments, the subsequent encounter with Baron Ochs and the Levée without any unwelcome distraction, intrusion or interpretation. Simply creating an appropriate environment for the detail of the score and the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to work its own magic is sufficient, and that is brilliantly achieved here.

That makes it sound easy, but there is actually a lot of consideration put into actually understanding what the opera is about. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in a review of a recent Baden-Baden production, the opera is more than just a satire of 18th century Viennese society or a fond tribute to the Mozartian class comedy, but, setting it in an idealised past, it’s very much concerned with the passing of time, with the ways of the old making way for the way of the new. That’s not only expressed directly in the libretto, particularly in Marschallin’s reflections at the end of Act 1, or in the tradition of the Rosenkavalier itself for arranging marriages of convenience, but it’s reflected in the very fabric of the music, each of the long three acts taking place in real time where every second and every nuance of every moment, every expression of every character, individually and sometimes together, is crystallised in the most exquisitely detailed musical arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel excessive and over-elaborate, over-generous in its emotional expression to almost Puccini-like levels, leaving little for the listener to interpret for themselves, and leaving them merely as observers, but, my goodness, what brilliance to simply sit back and luxuriate in!

It’s a willingness on the part of director McVicar and conductor Edward Gardner to refrain from adding any personal touches or interpretations and simply take the cues from the score and the libretto, that serves the ENO’s production so well here. That’s not a matter of stepping back however and not being involved, but rather directing their efforts to where it is best employed, and that is in service of the performers on the stage. The drama moves along here so fluidly, with all its enjoyable little moments of visual humour and personal interaction, that it’s clear just how much consideration has been placed in giving the opera its best possible presentation, never getting bogged down in the cleverness of the detail, but with an eye to the bigger picture. Never in my experience of this work have those three acts of Der Rosenkavalier felt so perfectly a whole, with not a note out of place, not a gesture unwarranted, not a single moment that wasn’t simply thoughtful, delightful and entertaining.

Rosenkavalier

A very great deal of the success of the work, no matter how thoughtful the attention given to the other elements of the production, lies in the casting, and the ENO’s current line-up delivered performances of astonishing quality. Individually, it would be hard to improve on a cast that includes Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sophie Bevan, but collectively they also work well together, giving appropriate weight and balance to the characters. A high-profile soprano in the role of Marschallin can tip the balance too much towards sentimental reflection, but while Amanda Roocroft is undoubtedly one of the top English sopranos she never let her character’s dilemma over-dominate proceedings. Marschallin’s self-sacrifice to the happiness of the young couple at the end was consequently deeply moving, particularly in the light of the perfection of how the production handled Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s setting of the scene.

The overbearing nature of Baron Ochs can also lead to this character dominating the show - the opera was indeed originally conceived with Ochs to the forefront and even went under the title of Ochs auf Lerchenau while it was being written - and that is certainly a possibility with as fine a singer as John Tomlinson in the role. Not only was the diction of his bass clear, musical and beautifully resonant, but his playing of the role of Ochs made the old goat genuinely sympathetic, without contradicting the less pleasant aspects of his character. He played Ochs not as a buffoon but as a throwback to the “old ways” of the privilege of nobility, formerly secure of his position, dishonourably regretting the reduction of his influence, but ultimately accepting of it as being in the nature of the passing of time and the way of youth to usurp the place of their elders.

The fact that Roocroft and Tomlinson impressed so greatly without over-dominating the proceedings is not only testament to the fine handling of the stage direction, but to having equally fine and impressive singers in the roles of Octavian and Sophie. Sophie Bevan was a spirited Sophie, her youthful innocence and purity matched by the depth of her feelings expressed so beautifully in her words to Octavian and in their delivery. Fitting in with the overall approach to the work, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian was a model of how to make an impact and have presence through understatement, or at least without overstatement. There’s a balance to be maintained between the comic and the serious elements in Octavian’s make-up, between his youthful enthusiasm and growing maturity, his sensitive delicacy and his hotheadedness, and as performed by Sarah Connolly, you could see that character develop in real-time over the course of the opera. She was in fine voice.

Certainly one of the best all-round performances I’ve ever seen of Der Rosenkavalier, the ENO production was also one of those all too rare occasions when the full potential of a great opera was fully realised and its impact could be felt throughout the house.

ParsifalRichard Wagner - Parsifal

English National Opera, London | Mark Wigglesworth, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iain Paterson, John Tomlinson, Tom Fox, Stuart Skelton, Jane Dutton, Andrew Greenan | The Coliseum, London - February 19th, 2011

Wagner’s final opera, written and first produced in 1882, a year before his death, takes around four hours to relate a story that could be easily summarised in a couple of lines. It’s about a group of knights, protectors of the Holy Grail, who hope one day to recover the equally holy spear that pierced Christ’s side while on the cross. It has been prophesised that only a pure innocent holy fool will be able to achieve this, wresting it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor and thereby bring about redemption for Amfortas, the leader of the knights who suffers from an eternal wound that the spear has inflicted upon him. The person who comes along to fulfil this prophecy is Parsifal.

It seems like a very simple storyline and not one that would fill four hours of an opera, one would think – or at least one would think that were they not familiar with Richard Wagner. The key word in the above description is ‘suffering’, and, no, I’m not describing what an audience listening to four hours of Wagner has to undergo. On the contrary, Parsifal is filled end to end with some of the most exquisitely beautiful, thoughtful and indescribably sublime music that the composer, or indeed any composer, has ever written. The opera, rather, was inspired by Wagner’s attempt, late in his life, to come to terms with the idea of suffering, endless suffering, life as sufferance, and question what humanity gains through endurance of such torment.

Parsifal

There’s evidently a heavily Christian undercurrent to Parsifal then (although Wagner was in fact largely inspired by Buddhist teaching on the matter), with many of the characters undergoing Christ-like trials and torments to ultimately achieve purification for humanity, rediscover innocence, peace and an end to suffering, and through this the inspiration to continue to wage a holy war against infidels and those whose blood is less than pure. That makes the concept that Parsifal explores rather more complicated, not to say, in the light of the composer’s notorious anti-Semitic sentiments, even somewhat sinister.

The huge undertaking of the various concepts, and the Christian ideals that are explored in Parsifal however can be seen not even as an undercurrent, but in the very overt subject matter of the Holy Grail itself and the powerful symbolism of this image – according to Wagner “The most profound symbol that could ever have been invented as the content of the physical-spiritual kernel of any religion”. One need only think of how the term is applied in a modern context as the be all and end all, the ultimate aim, aspiration and desire of every human being – something that they are prepared to sacrifice everything for and endure so much suffering to attain.That’s why Parsifal takes four hours to express its ideas, since this is something that has to be worked for, won through long suffering, endurance and purity of purpose. Almost all of the characters in the opera are single-minded in their pursuit of this aim, and it is not too difficult to fathom their motivations, but there are some, Amfortas, and particularly Kundry, who have conflicting behaviours and rather more complex personalities, and it is ultimately through them, as much as through Parsifal, that true enlightenment is reached. All of the characters however are given infinitely more depth through Wagner’s sensuously contemplative score that lifts the piece out of any earthly existence and out into a realm “beyond time and space”.

Parsifal

Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s superb 1999 stage production, revived here for its final performances at the English National Opera, brilliantly works on multiple levels, creating a place that seems to exist in an otherworldly domain, while at the same time being resolutely physical and austere in its expression of the nature of the characters and their struggles. In stark contrast to Mike Figgis’ first attempt at opera direction with Lucrezia Borgia, seen on stage at the Coliseum the previous night, Lehnhoff – renowned for his productions of Wagner’s music dramas – demonstrates a deep understanding of Parsifal and, in what can be a very static opera, makes full use of the stage to express it. The restlessness of the characters and their relation to one another is played out in their movements and proximity to one another, lighting and colouration used for emphasis and to highlight the tones expressed by the music. And not only is full use of the stage made in this respect, but, like the score, it even takes it beyond the confines of the physical dimensions of the Raimund Bauer’s set designs. That sounds like hyperbole, but the staging and Wagner’s remarkable orchestration is so persuasive that it really does take the audience into another dimension.

The playing of the orchestra of the English National Opera, conducted by Mark Wigglesworth, could not be faulted, nor could individual performances by a uniformly strong cast or the powerful presence of the chorus. It would be unfair to single out any one singer when every element works together in such a fashion, but John Tomlinson as Gurnemanz proved to be an impressive narrator to anchor the opera with his wonderful bass tone and clear English diction. There are only a few performances of this opera left at the Coliseum, and although it has been recorded for posterity and is available on Blu-ray disc, it is still well worth making the effort to see it in a live performance before it disappears from the stage forever.