Sorry not to have written about it before now. I've been complaining left, right and centre about Opera Australia's failure to market this Rosenkavalier, so it's probably poor form on my part not to have been plugging it madly here. (Though I did at least plug it there.) But I'd be preaching to the converted, wouldn't I? I don't need to tell you that Cheryl/Catherine/Emma/Strauss/pretty frocks is an unmissably gorgeous combination; we need to tell everyone else, apparently, because it's still not filling houses. Have a look at the seating plans on the Opera House website, if you fancy having your heart broken; closing night's quite fully booked, to be fair, but otherwise it's looking pretty sparse.
I could go on at length here about the (lack of) marketing — about the fact, for instance, that not one poster for it was up at the opera house until after opening night, or about the fact that there's a twenty year old photo of Joan Carden on the program — but I shall stop myself there. It just gets me upset, and it gets in the way; and the only reason it matters so much to me, after all, is that this show deserves so much better. So instead I'll try just to talk about why that is.
There's Cheryl Barker, obviously. I've already written about her. And unusually, for a Cheryl show, I haven't felt the need to keep on writing and writing after every show, to document every detail and change. I couldn't tell you exactly why. Pulling her to pieces, even in the most adoring way, just doesn't seem the right thing to do this time. In the Marschallin she has found a character as subtle as she is; so whereas the detail she brought to, say, Manon Lescaut was a thought-provoking luxury, for the Marschallin it's just natural and good and right — and far more beautiful when left alone by me, I think. I mean, I've never been able adequately to describe Cheryl, but describe her as the Marschallin? Can't be done.
Catherine Carby is a really quite wonderful Octavian. She sings and sings, with unflagging energy, refinement and beauty of tone. It's hard to make Octavian a three dimensional character — Strauss really doesn't give him a chance to show much depth — but Catherine does what she can. Her scenes with Sophie are particularly touching and she's a bit of a scream when Mariandel-ing. And she's impressed me more with each performance (although ovations have been loud and stompy from the start) so I'm glad I've waited till now to write about her. On Wednesday, the fourth performance, she outdid herself, and I think she knew it: she was in (slightly contagious) tears at the curtain call, and the crowd went wild.
And then there's our Sophie, Emma Pearson. There I was, on opening night, still recovering from my Act I tears, and along came Emma to set me off again, but this time from sheer delight. Vocally she's the Sophie of my dreams, more lyric than soubrette, as pretty and pearly in the lower part of her voice as in those to-die-for floated high notes. And as a character, she's just captivating. She's skittish and hilarious, but she has a backbone too, and a fundamental solemnity, which had me, for once, not shaking my head at Octavian's choice. Just as we could still see the young girl in Cheryl's Marschallin, so in Emma's irresistible Sophie we see hints of the lovable woman she'll become; the two really do come across as phases of the same existence, not polar opposites. She's also, incidentally, the spitting image of Natalie Dessay. It's kind of spooky.
With characteristic soprano bias, I tend to think of the three above as constituting Rosenkavalier's entire principal cast. Then I remember that there's Ochs. You couldn't have the opera without him, I suppose, and he does have his moments. My own preference is for an Ochs who's a bit scary: it is, after all, a hideous arrangement that he's made regarding Sophie, as comically as it's treated. Manfred Hemm isn't at all scary. He is quite funny though, and he has low notes where it counts and an idiomatic command of the language (and Austrian accent) which help him keep even the longest stretches of recit reasonably entertaining. He's funniest in his interactions with Faninal; the business with Sophie is a bit too pantomimey for me, and I think he could stand to look a lot more surprised when things go haywire at the Inn.
Unchallenged star of the supporting cast is Warwick Fyfe, whose Faninal is blusteringly hilarious, and all the more hilarious because he sings with such serious Germanic heft. Henry Choo also deserves kudos for contending with "Di rigori armato", which is a hell of an aria to just walk in and sing cold. Jacqui Dark and Andrew Brunsdon camp it up something chronic as Annina and Valzacchi, Teresa La Rocca is a rather funny (though not 'specially German sounding) Marianne Leitmetzerin and there's a host of featured chorus members darting about in Acts I and III . And of course I am always happy to see and hear Stephen Bennett in absolutely anything. Here he is his usual commanding self as both the Marschallin's attorney and the police commissioner. Not much concerted chorus work here, but what there is is nicely done.
And while the Opera Theatre pit conditions are probably about as unconducive to good Strauss as it gets, Andrew Litton actually does quite a marvellous job with the orchestra. It's nice and loud but not blaringly so — even from the front row, the balance isn't impossible, so from sensible seats I'm sure it's even better — and he conjures up a higher degree of decadence and pretty-Straussy-wonderfulness than I might have thought possible from the Pit of Despair. You still wouldn't want to do Elektra there, but this confined Rosenkav is certainly not doing Strauss an outright disservice.
I'm writing this moments before hopping on public transport to see performance number five. I could, if I weren't so hopeless, have written almost exactly the same thing after opening night. This show is consistent in its gorgeousness. It's also consistent in what I consider its only drawback: a really rather dull production. Grand sets, gorgeous frocks, but dramatic insight is left to the whim of the singers, as far as I can tell, and there's some very disappointing staging of key moments — the Presentation of the Rose in particular is a serious anticlimax. But this is Der Rosenkavalier, and therefore it is beautiful, and dull in this case is far preferable to obstructive. In the end what it comes down to is this: Cheryl Barker, Catherine Carby and Emma Pearson, singing some of the most insanely lovely music ever written for their respective voice types, in an opera whose charm and occasional transcendence I think ultimately do outweigh its longueurs.
More to the point — you've got that trio. Sung by those women. That's all you need. It's as good as it gets.