If I had a dollar for every bottle of dye applied so liberally to diminishing pates in the opera theatre, I’d be a modestly wealthy punter. In which case I could actually afford the puny finger sandwiches on offer at interval, during Richard Strauss’ four-hour-plus opus, Der Rosenkavalier.

There’s nothing like a bit, or a lot, of girl-on-girl action, in your opera. Well, not exactly. It’s because the Knight of The Rose, to translate the title and identify the key player, has cause to double as a woman. So the role might as well be played by a woman. And it is. Count Octavian Rofrano, affectionately known as Quinquin, among many other names, just 17, is the scandalously young lover of the Feldmarschallin, Princess Marie Therese, of Werdenberg, Austria.

We enter the last’s boudoir, where the pair have spent a night of passion; the smell of lovemaking still on the sheets. Light breaks their reverie. But wait. Hark! What’s that racket outside? Could it be the Feldmarschall, returning from feldmarschalling, to spring their adultery? Maybe. So what is there to do but hide, lamely, behind the curtains, a la Polonius?

Okay, so now the absurd scene is set for this comedy, in three acts, devised by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose script, I have to say, is intermittently, rather than uniformly, brilliant, if wit is a criterion; he seems to succumb to what might be surmised as a characteristically Teutonic austerity and dryness at times.

Setting the scene musically, of course, is the incomparable Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, which seems to go from strength to strength. Under the baton of Andrew Litton, the celebrated New York conductor, they again shine, illuminating Strauss’ beautifully polished score, with its opulent waltzes, scintillating harmonies and object lessons in complex vocal arrangement. It opens in slightly odd fashion, however, with a strong, surging melody tempered by discordant elements.

Catherine Carby’s Count took some time to open up, vocally, but once up to operating temperature, the full, distinctive tonal patina of her instrument inveigled with its warmth and depth; hers is a characterful mezzo-soprano and one that contrasts and counterpoints the very different dimensions of Cheryl Barker’s Marschallin.

While Carby’s delivery is more measured and sure to win hearts, Barker’s overwhelms with its bristling, urgent, thrilling power and clarity. My only reservation would be that they didn’t take on the comic possibilities as fully or richly as, say, Manfred Hemm, as Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau, a coarse, vain, buffoonish bulldog of a man. As well as realising the cartoon-like dimensions of his role, theatrically, Hemm’s round, rich bass completely appeases one’s aural appetite.

Henry Choo, as an Italian singer, cuts quite a swathe with his luscious tenor, while Warwick Fyfe, as Herr von Faninal, father of she who is betrothed to the appalling Baron, left no doubt as to how or why he has so surefootedly established a reputation as one of our most respected baritones.

Looking up a contemporary in the Encyclopedia of Austrian Nobles (every home should have one), as Emma Pearson’s feisty Sophie (the Baron’s bride-to-be) did, to check the credentials of her true love, the Count, was, I suppose, the yesteryear equiv of Googling. Thank heavens she fell for Octavian, as the moments in which her and Carby’s voices weave together are bewitching and celestial. One can only but admire (nay, revere) Strauss at such times: there are no finer vocal arrangements in all of opera than some of those written into this score.

While the set for act two still looks grand and magnificent (bearing in mind this co-production was first performed at the New Theatre, Cardiff, March 1, 1990), act one’s bedchamber looked just a little the worse for wear, although this is certainly no affront to Carl Friedrich Oberle’s design; and the inclination to bang on the Princess’ door should be effected sonically only, as the flimsy ‘wall’ veritably flaps in the breeze.

Beyond such trifles, this remains a very attractive production, reinvigorated with a wonderful selection of singers, each with his or her own vocal and theatrical personalities. And mention ought be made, once again, of the mammoth (albeit invisible, inaudible) achievements of stage managers, under the direction of Bianca Esther and Crissie Higgins, who ensure our enchanted visual journey is uninterrupted by any lapse into banal reality.

In the years prior to the first modern outbreak of world war, von Hofmannsthal indulged a mocking of a vacuous, arbitrary aristocracy, endowed with a shimmering, vividly ‘cinematic’ setting, by Strauss. If only this healthy cynicism had managed to maintain its hold for a few decades, rather than just a few years, the 20th century might’ve been quite a different, rather more edifying experience. Full marks, too, to the tireless OA Worshop, which turns out such magical costumes, wigs and accoutrement.


Curtain Call rating: A

The details: Der Rosenkavalier plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, for seven more performances until October 30. Tickets on the OA website.

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