When a much-loved singer knows her time is up and says farewell to a stage where she’s triumphed over the years, you want it to be an occasion. And so it should have been with the expensive new production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier that marked Renée Fleming’s farewell to Covent Garden. If nothing else, the choice of repertoire was poignantly appropriate: this is an opera, after all, about a glamorous but ageing woman acknowledging the passage of time and graciously stepping aside for the young to have their day. It couldn’t be more right; or so you’d think.
But sadly, it’s a disappointment. Fleming plays the ageing Marschallin with some sense of the elegance and style for which she has been a byword as the most famous American diva of her time. But the voice is now tiny, without bloom or shine. And it gets lost in a show that offers little beyond massive sets with small performances that fail to fill the space.
Conducted well enough by Andris Nelsons, the cast looks good on paper but doesn’t work in practice. Alice Coote’s Octavian is unromantic and ungainly. Matthew Rose has neither the comic timing nor the Falstaffian pathos to save Baron Ochs from being a bore. And while Sophie Bevan makes a better job of her namesake Sophie, even she has problems being charming in the context of a production so conspicuously charmless.
Staged by the usually effective Robert Carsen, it’s unfunny and heavy-handed, overplaying the last act as an opulent Belle Époque brothel instead of the specified country inn. Worse still, it labours the point we all know – that Rosenkavalier depicts an old-world order on the point of extinction – by wheeling armaments onstage and bringing down the final curtain on a battle scene. A grand miscalculation.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without choirs, and some of Britain’s best filed into St John’s, Smith Square last month for its annual choral festival – ranging from the austere sound of the young and rather earnest Gesualdo Six (who were technically superb but without enough self-confidence as yet to deal with the exposure of six-voiced textures) to the theatrical panache of the larger and more experienced Ex Cathedra, down from Birmingham.
Ex Cathedra rank among my favourite choirs, strong in technique but warm in colour and expression. So it bothers me to hear that, along with every other arts organisation in Birmingham, it faces serious funding cuts: its £80k annual grant from the city has been slashed to £15k. It’s a common story. And it prompts the question, on this threshold of a new year, of how serious music-making in this country can survive.
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