The production's no great shakes so let's start by revelling in the music. Richard Strauss's Viennese excess sounded fabulous, and no one contributed more to its glory than Welsh National Opera's new music director, Tomáš Hanus, in his first full outing for the company. The young Czech conductor wove a rich tapestry of confections from the extravagant score in a reading of delicate tenutos, sensitive tempo choices and impeccable orchestral playing. On more than one occasion a passing orchestral detail made me gasp.
WNO's cast, taken as a whole, is as strong as we've seen in the recent glut of UK Rosenkavaliers. The Canadian Lucia Cervoni sang the great trouser role of Octavian with tonal beauty and an impressive palette of mezzo colours, and she allied these to an irresistible physical performance, both funny and endearing, as the loved-up teenage aristo.
British singers Louise Alder and Rebecca Evans both excelled as the loves in Octavian's life, representing the vernal and the autumnal respectively. Alder, recently crowned young singer of the year at the International Opera Awards, was a dream of a Sophie: a gawky, impressionable girl at first, then ever more gracious as her confidence grew. The young soprano's voice has an expressive purity that augurs well for her forthcoming appearance at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. As for Evans, WNO owed its loyal Welsh diva a Marschallin and she didn't disappoint. Hers was a creamily floated role debut that had it all: dignity, wisdom, courage and regret.
Small wonder, then, that Hanus and the three women delivered a final trio of searing, aching beauty. While it lasted you'd swear it was the greatest music ever written. I could barely contain myself. Thank God for Kleenex.
'One expressionistic idea collides with another'
The great bass Brindley Sherratt was on splendid form as the boorish Baron Ochs, an enormous role of impossible prolixity that he'll reprise next summer when Glyndebourne revives Richard Jones's production. That will give him far greater scope for comic definition than appeared in this thin visual effort by Olivia Fuchs. The German-born director appeared flummoxed by his character and gave him little to work with beyond sticking his shirt out of his fly. The ‘baron baiting' scene in the third act was a mess.
Fuchs is a perpetual mystery. When she she keeps things simple her work can be hugely insightful, as in last year's Iris for Opera Holland Park; but she's no good at concepts. You can picture the eureka moment when she yelled "Sands of time!" at her study wall, as though the heartlessness of anno domini wasn't already explicitly veined through Strauss's opera. So we get, yes, piles of sand pouring through the ceiling of the Marschallin's bedchamber (she's growing old, you see) and that old chestnut the elderly self (Margaret Baiton) wandering spectrally through her scenes.
One expressionistic idea collides untidily with another as Baron Ochs's world collapses about him; and when the Marschallin makes her dramatic (and notionally moving) entrance into the final scene, I half expected Evans's head to pop up like Winnie in Happy Days from the upstage dune of sand.
Fuchs's direction of stage relationships was perfectly sound, however, and it allowed most of the opera's secondary characters to shine. In particular Adrian Clarke as Faninal, Sophie's father, emerged as a more interesting and complex figure than is often the case.
If you know Der Rosenkavalier, Fuchs closes her production on a sight gag that you'll see coming a mile off. If you don't know it, it'll barely register.
Der Rosenkavalier continues in repertory at the Wales Millennium Centre throughout June. It also plays for one performance only at the Birmingham Hippodrome on 1 July.