At the turning point of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier, all the clocks stop. Octavian has arrived at the house of the teenage bride-to-be Sophie von Faninal as bearer of the silver rose — the symbol of a love that is simultaneously as artificial and as eternal as any human creation can be. Sophie smells real roses; yes, says Octavian, there is a drop of Persian fragrance amid the silver petals. ‘Like a heavenly, not an earthly rose’, sings Sophie: and her voice soars higher and purer than anything we’ve heard so far, suspended in stillness while Strauss’s orchestra shimmers around her.
The thing is, in Bruno Ravella’s new staging for Garsington Opera we already know the rose’s secret. Back in Act One, Octavian’s noble lover the Marschallin (Miah Persson) has had a quick dab of the perfume for herself — triggering an extended meditation on her own vanished girlhood. The Marschallin’s monologue is often presented as the semi-tragic musing of some Sondheim-ish faded diva (Richard Jones, at Glyndebourne, put her on a therapist’s couch). Ravella’s little gesture makes it feel wholly unaffected. His Marschallin has already had her moment of blissful transcendence: a passing street singer pours out what Strauss and Hofmannsthal intended as a parody of a bel canto lovesong, but which, in this brief instant, visibly moves her. Persson wasn’t even singing at this point. Rapture, regret and amused self-knowledge crossed her face like the shadows of clouds on the Chiltern hillside beyond the theatre.
True, these were tiny moments in a four-hour drama. But Der Rosenkavalier is all about unspoken connections, and instants that contain eternities. Ravella’s knack for reimagining these details before delicately joining them up lifted a fairly straightforward production into something that sang.