A boy’s own story
Teenage love and longing as performed by a 40-year-old woman? It all makes perfect sense in Scottish Opera’s latest opus, Der Rosenkavalier, as Carol Main discovers.
She’s in her early 30s, a married aristocrat, and he’s a fairly posh 17-year-old. They are in love, and as the curtain opens to a sumptuous bedroom scene, they are clearly having a passionate affair. So far, so dramatic. But, this is opera, so the teenage boy is not only a female role, but one that is generally played by a singer even older than the one with whom he’s having the affair. Why, one might ask, did Richard Strauss not take a more straightforward realistic route and write Octavian for a dashing young tenor?
In hearing Scottish Opera’s revival of its deservedly immensely successful production of Der Rosenkavalier, all becomes abundantly clear. Fast forward from the opening bedroom scene to the famous final Act Three trio of the Countess, Octavian and his new, young and true love, Sophie. The blend of three female voices is pure heavenly bliss, with a beauty simply unachievable by any other combination. Add to that the immediacy of realisation that Octavian - here sung for the first time by mezzo Sarah Connelly - is one of the most technically, emotionally and physically demanding roles around, and there is no doubt that this isn’t a part for anyone who’s at all inexperienced.
‘I’ve waited twelve years for this’, says Connelly, who brings a glorious, rich voice to the role. ‘I made a mental note that I must sing Octavian at some point in my life. It’s far too difficult for someone under 30 and it’s really in the 40s that the mezzo voice reaches its maturity. I am so glad that my debut in the role is with Scottish Opera. It’s a wonderful company.’ Connelly also has a remarkable ability to get under the skin of what it is to be an adolescent: the turmoil of conflicting emotions, the apparent confidence coupled with underlying uncertainty, all of the difficult, vulnerable stuff that can make it painful to be a teenager. ‘There’s wonderful lyricism and romanticism in the music, of course’, she says, ‘but when he’s not in romantic mood, he’s quite defensive, quite snippy. I like that. And then he’s devastated when it all goes wrong. I’ve been thinking about this character for the past twelve years!’
Now 43, Connelly’s view is that the audience has to accept and understand that it is an older woman who sings Octavian. Somewhat enviably, however, she looks the part too. Slim, agile and, much to her delight, she gets to sport her own hair. ‘It’s a great relief not to be wearing a wig,’ she says. ‘It’s cut in a sort of Johnny Depp style, sort of Renaissance bob, that can be straight to the shoulder or tousled and flicked back.’ In a performance that is four hours long (but feels a fraction of that), it is vital that singers aren’t unnecessarily encumbered. ‘It matters to David McVicar, the director, that we all feel comfortable. With a lot of directors, the look is what is important, so they make you wear the most impossible things.’ The look of this Rosenkavalier is, nonetheless, ravishing. The complexities of the relationships, of marriage, of lovers and all the rest of it, are exquisitely observed by McVicar and his team. Connelly wanted her first experience of Rosenkavalier to be a happy one. Seems we’ve all been granted her wish.
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tue 14 Nov; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 21, Sat 25, Wed 29 Nov & Fri 1 Dec.