Der Rosenkavalier, La Cage aux Folles and the RSC

James InverneFri 18th December 2009

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So, two raves and a moan from me to start things off. The moan first. Watching the Royal Opera House’s latest revival of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the other evening, I wanted to strangle Sophie Koch’s Octavian, then the staff director responsible. Lucy Crowe’s Sophie would earn only a sound telling-off. Opera singers today need to know how to act. There’s no reason why they should have a God-given talent for this, after all, as Domingo once said, their chief talent is based on a malformation of the vocal chords.

And Koch and Crowe did, to give them their due, try. They really tried. They tried much too hard and ended up pantomiming their roles as if in Cinderella at the Pier Theatre in Bournemouth. Crowe was all too-wide eyes and restless activity, but Koch was in a league of her own. Whoever told her that Octavian would hold a rapier with two hands? And she even did that old gag of striking a statue in frustration and then acting as though she had really, really hurt her hand. I’m not actually being fair to the two girls, because a good staff director would have taken them in hand and taught them the virtue of stillness, of choosing your moment, of economy of gesture and expression. Actually, much the same could be said of Kyrill Petrenko in the pit who wallowed without direction. It was like drifting away in a warm bath in which you’ve just slit your wrists.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that old John Schlesinger production and have always enjoyed it in the past. And Peter Rose’s Baron Ochs was pointed and rather brilliant, as was Soile Isokoski’s Marschallin – it was all in her eyes and in her voice, the rest added power to what was already there. The Royal Opera is flying high these days, but this was an unaccustomed fall.

To happier matters. I’m writing this on a train (ah, the joys of the internet) on my way home from a second visit to Terry Johnson’s revival of La Cage aux Folles. The reason for the repeat was the return to the cast of Douglas Hodge, warming up for the Broadway transfer. The staging, warm, open-hearted and funny, remains life-enhancing, but Hodge’s Albin is a masterpiece. As the gay transvestite who must pass himself off as straight to convince a homophobic politician in whose hands his family’s happiness lies, Hodge plots a meticulous course from broad, camp humour through boiling outrage to a real and deep delight in the joys of family and love. Drag queen Albin may be, but Hodge wears his sequins lightly – this is firmly a working-class diva, more Lily Savage than Dame Edna Everage. The chips on her shoulders, one feels, have been placed there by bitter experience. Drama queen she may be, but the emotional scars are real. In the show’s great coup de theatre, when Albin crowns “I am what I am” by running from the stalls into the street, Hodge does it slowly, relishing the statement. Once through the fire doors and among an unsuspecting public in his finery, he turns and faces his audience with defiance. This Albin is not fleeing. He is on the attack. There was more truth, it turns out, in one scene of Hodge’s performance than in an entire Rosenkavalier.

Finally and briefly, to a marvellous double-CD set I have been sent of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Featuring archive life performances from many decades of the RSC (the second issue in a series), there are some wonderful things here. Not least the great Falstaff-Prince Hal scene from the classic Peter Hall-directed Wars of the Roses. And both Roger Allam’s Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing and Simon Russell Beale’s career-making Thersites in Troilus and Cressida (the same production that brought both Ralph Fiennes and its director Sam Mendes to wider attention) brought back memories. Interestingly, the most recent instalments are less notable. But well worth hearing for theatre lovers.

James Inverne

James Inverne is former editor of Gramophone. He now runs a music management + PR company, Inverne Price Music Consultancy, writes a culture column for the Jewish Chronicle newspaper and his byline can still be found from time to time in other places about subjects that get him exercised.

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