Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier, Baden-Baden, 25 January 2009
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
|Der Rosenkavalier is only two years younger than
me, and we both seem to approach our centenary with undiminished vigour.
I never missed a performance of Rosenkavalier since the times when I also
offered my Silver Roses to girls I tried to persuade to take an interest in
It was during such performances of Rosenkavalier, as these days would not
even qualify for being attended by a critic, that I learned to look forward
to and yearn for those blissful evenings, when tears would again and again
flood from my eyes and I would feel that there is opera beyond the grim
horizon of a Parsifal or a Götterdämmerung.
Since those early days, the standards of performances have become more and
more polished and brilliant, with the roles of the Marschallin, Octavian,
Sophie and Baron Ochs becoming the ultimate heights the greatest singers
strive to attain. The near perfection of recording techniques now allows
millions to enjoy, love and compare performances. In more than eighty years
of having attended dozens of performances and watched even more DVD or TV
recordings of Rosenkavalier, because it is a work not only to listen to but
to watch, I feel that the one conducted by Carlos Kleiber and produced by
Otto Schenk in the Staatsoper in Vienna in 1995 comes as near to perfection,
and to what its creators wanted it sound and look like, as possible.
There can be a danger of approaching a performance purely in a spirit of
comparison. I can still shed tears of emotion, and sentimental recollection
of old times even in poor performances, but I try to approach them on their
merits rather than look for their flaws.It is a sad reflection of opera
production in general, that more and more often a cabal of producers, some
of them proudly declaring that they never watched an opera performance, are
given carte blanche by another cabal of Intendants, who feel that Wotan must
use his mobile phone to call Loge, or that Donna Anna must be raped on top
of a Landrover.
I was looking forward to this revival of the 1995 co- production between
Salzburg and the Opera National de Paris of Rosenkavalier because Herbert
Wernicke, who directed the original Salzburg version, was a highly respected
and thoughtful lover of opera. The cast and conductor announced were of the
highest order, and the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, one of Europe's
finest, was to perform for the first time in the orchestra pit, something
that promised an extra layer of polish to a star cast. A late announcement
that the role of the Italian tenor would be taken by Jonas Kaufmann only
added to the
frisson of expectation.
The Intendant of the Festspielhaus, Andreas Moelich-Zebhauser, who
singlehanded saved the venue from bankruptcy without any state subsidy, and
created in it a worthy competitor to Bayreuth and Salzburg, called the
production the finest of the last twenty years. Christian Thielemann, a
conductor who is just reaching fifty but who already has the reputation of
being one of the finest interpreter of Wagner, Strauss and Bruckner, spoke
of a 'galactic cast'.
The solidly opulent stage, so well known from innumerable performances still
in the spirit of Otto Schenk's production, is reduced here to an oversize
bed centrestage, with a minimum of armchairs and little tables. Large mobile
panels, which when turned round, as it often happens, become giant mirrors,
give a somewhat hazy impression of what is supposed to be the intimate
chambers of the Marschallin. As many as a dozen smaller mobile panels of
mirrors are placed in carefully researched positions in a semicircle all
around the stage, so that all movements are multiplied, distorted and
reflected to such an extent that one often loses a sense of the direction in
which the singers actually move and where they are acting.
Apparently Wernicke, from an early age, was fascinated by one of Leonardo da
Vinci's ideas about stagecraft, where rapid and baffling changes could be
achieved with the aid of dozens of strategically positioned mirrors. Whether
by accident or design, in one of these mirrors Thielemann's face could be
clearly seen throughout the first act, and again at the very end the act of
conducting the show was brought on the stage as part of the scenery, as it
were. For some reason that I could not fit in any directorial concept, the
stage was constantly underlit, without the least effort to show the passage
from intimate dawn surrounding the lovers just emerging from bed, and
enjoying a cup of chocolate, to the rising sun to greet the crowds fighting
for the attention of the Marschallin in the Lever scene. I would have given
much for a single standing lamp with a gold-coloured shade to give intimacy
to this enthralling scene, and make more visible the subtle interplay
between the Marschallin and an ardent youngster, sometimes less of a lover
than one looking for motherly love.
I don't need to remind readers of this review of the delight with which
generations of opera lovers have greeted the arrival of little Mohammed, the
favourite page of the Marschallin, with his oversize turban, pouring a cup
of chocolate for his mistress. But there was no Mohammed in this production.
Instead, in hopped a full-size Pierrot, in his conventional white garment
with the big black pompons and the peaked hat. He served the chocolate and
when leaving, multiplied in an array of panels of mirrors, looking
meaningfully at Octavian, still stretching his legs under the blanket.
The entry of the Baron ought also be a watershed in the action. During the
first minutes his character should be firmly established, arrogant to all
below what he feels is his station in society, yet humbly and greasily
obsequious to the Marschallin, vulgar and greedy. Franz Hawlata, a renowned
Baron Ochs since his debut at the Metropolitan in 1995, has sung this role a
hundred times and yet, at any rate in this production, did not come up to my
expectations. It may also have to do with the personal direction. Only
minutes after his arrival, he took off his jacket – a gesture unthinkable in
the presence of the Marschallin. When crudely groping at different parts of
the disguised Octavian, he chased him/her through jumping on the bed, and
Renée Fleming, that paragon of gentle good taste and enchanting dignity, had
to grab the feet of the Baron and drag him off the bed.
One might ask, why are such details so important when judging an opera
performance? The answer is simple. Opera is, not only because Wagner coined
the phrase of a Gesamtkunstwerk, to be heard and seen to be understood in
its entirety. And, when a production loved and approved by its creators has
survived in its essential details for almost a century, gratuitous
interference with such details diminishes its impact.
From the first moment Renée Fleming and Sophie Koch emerged from that
oversize bed, one knew that they are indeed part of a 'galactic cast'. Renée
Fleming, just back from Washington where she ennobled with her participation
a rather earthy Presidential Inauguration Concert, is a diva, not because
she behaves like one, but because her achievements on the operatic stage and
recordings are amongst the greatest of the last thirty years. Her
Marschallin, matured through innumerable performances under great
conductors, is not cast in the unforgettable mould of a Sena Jurinac, whose
Marschallin and Octavian stood firmly on the ground and displayed a volume,
in every sense of the word, and power, more masculine than the delicate
subtleties that characterise Fleming's Marschallin. With her slim and
elegant figure, melancholic and vulnerable, she tried to console Octavian,
who sometimes seemed to hide his face in despair in her lap, more as a
caring mother than an ardent lover. She sang almost throughout at a somewhat
subdued volume, probably by design and not through lack of lungpower.
Thielemann supported her by giving her a soft and silky accompaniment,
perfectly interpreting the masterly orchestration that allows the
Marschallin to be commanding but gentle and vulnerable.
Rarely has a smart riding outfit fitted an Octavian better than Sophie
Koch's. Her beautifully graded mezzo rose into thrilling heights when adult
passion overcame youthful inexperience. She managed to give the impression
of a youngster, also vulnerable but learning fast to be passionate. They
were a completely creditable couple. The scene when Octavian is sent on his
way and the Marschallin is left alone to muse over her unfilled life,
brought the packed house, and me with it, into a compassionate silence,
before one woke up to reality.
Jonas Kaufmann, a superb tenor, seems to have looked on his unexpectedly
jumping in to sing that marvellous Italian aria more as a few days' rest in
agreeable Baden-Baden, than offering a great performance of that
irresistible interlude. Dressed, incongruously, like many others in this
performance, in a dinner jacket, Kaufmann returned to sing the second verse
of his aria by first sitting on the corner of the oversize bed and munching
from a plate of spaghetti. He is then said to have returned to the stalls
and happily signed autographs for his admirers. It was all a bit of a joke,
rather than the mellifluous interlude in the chaos of that scene.
Many of the little cameos were inevitably and bodily taken over from the
Schenk production, but everything was made oversize. Not one Chef came to
discuss the day's menu, but he was followed by six cooks carrying dishes and
filing out in a hurry once the fifteen second scene ended. The inevitable
flashlights of a photographer also made their appearance. Most of the little
subtleties, like the Marschallin claiming that her hairdresser made her into
an old woman, were lost in the melee, where only six little dogs would do,
and where there were six uniformed chambermaids straightening and covering
the bed, and a dozen wigged butlers rushing around. The role of the pompous
Master of Ceremonies was also largely hidden in the crowd that virtually
filled the large stage.
That lack of balance between intimacy and crowd scenes got more and more
disturbing in the second and third acts. Faninal, sung by Franz Grundheber,
experienced throughout the entire Strauss repertoire, could not establish a
recognizably obsequious and yet calculating figure, once his fine bass
opened the second act with a stentorian 'Ein ernster Tag, ein Grosser Tag',
although the other roles were also filled by experienced interpreters. A
delightfully acting and singing Anina, Jane Henschel, could take advantage
of being left alone on the stage with the Baron, without being submerged in
crowds of choristers and extras.
Diana Damrau, as Sophie, won all sympathies even before she started singing.
Dressed in a spectacular white lace wedding gown, that made her look like a
mobile tea cosy, she was young, beautiful, not yet completely aware of her
attractiveness but being transformed by the admiring gaze of Octavian into a
confident and aggressive young woman, brave enough to defy the Baron and her
mealy-mouthed father. She sang the dangerously high role with such
delightful ease and accuracy that she is already probably the finest choice
for that role.
The arrival of Roffrano with the Silver Rose is normally well prepared by
the excited anticipation of the event by the small household and the staff
who report on Octavian's nearing the house. Here, the large panels forming
the background of the stage, and which could be turned round to present an
unbroken wall of glittering mirror surface, slid aside and stairs covered
with a red carpet were moved in their place, where on the top level Octavian
stood, followed only by Pierrot, holding the case for the Silver Rose. I
missed the usual parade of splendidly costumed officers and adjutants. The
score Strauss composed for this seminal scene demands a brilliant parade,
completely missing in this production.
This was the only scene where the centre stage was suddenly bathed in
brilliant, silvery white light. Octavian was dressed in snowhite tails,
wearing a white top hat and, incongruously, a sword dangling at his side.
This Octavian was in his slim boyishness a perfect match for Sophie, even if
he had some trouble in holding his top hat under his arm while facing her in
mute admiration. Sophie walked up the steps until they met in the middle.
There must have been hundreds in the audience for whom this scene, more
Humperdinck than Strauss, was deeply etched in their collective memories.
What we saw somehow diminished that combination of absolute delight those
silvery sounds, flutes, celestas and glockenspiel inspire and reduced it to
a feeling that we were watching an undermanned Panto scene in Scarborough.
It was only the delicate mastery of Thielemann, who allowed his soloists to
indulge in sheer self-adulation, and the moving singing of that ideal pair,
that allowed one to enjoy and love those timeless minutes. For those in the
audience who experienced Rosenkavalier for the first time, the magic of the
scene must still have been overwhelming. And, in the final reckoning, that
is what matters in a performance, however flawed in minor details.
The scene where the Baron is injured by Octavian could also have been more
effective and entertaining, if it had not been so grossly overdone. The
Baron is injured, not on his arm as convention demands, but on his backside.
The stage is suddenly filled by several dozens of elegantly uniformed
chambermaids, butlers, runners, the Baron's retinue of eight and Leopold,
all uniformly dressed in Lederhosen, without any individual character given
to them, that in the Schenk production helped to shorten some of the
longueurs in this act. They all rushed forward pointing menacingly at
Octavian, and even physically attacking him, while the Baron simply
disappeared out of view, sitting on an armchair behind the crowd. The
'Komödie für Musik', as Hofmannsthal and Strauss called their work, suddenly
became grand opera.
The marvellously rehearsed Philharmonia Chor Wien, at a guess eighty strong,
filled the large stage and under Thielemann's quite peculiar talent added a
fourth f to the composer's fff to let loose a ravishing avalanche of sound.
When a doctor arrives on the scene, he is dressed as if he just walked in
from the street outside, followed by three paramedics in immaculate white
and two uniformed assistants bringing in a stretcher. Barely do they arrive
than they already have to leave the stage. The entire scene is totally
pointless, because the fewer actors that surround the wounded Baron, the
more opportunities there could have been for some really comic acting, also
giving Leopold a chance to shine as a mute but comic actor. His relation to
the Baron was totally ignored throughout.
Whenever the stage was left empty, and the mirrors stopped turning around,
the combination of beautiful playing and singing drilled deeply in one's
heart. Even the Baron, left alone with Annina, rose to a fine and relaxed
performance. Those last few bars, with the Baron relaxing at last with a
glass of Tokay, bring the boiling cauldron of the second act to a
wonderfully peaceful ending, and Thielemann filled every bar with meaning
delicacy, making up for everything I may have felt ought to have been done a
The third act started with a truly virtuoso performance of the overture,
with its rushing triplet runs in complex fugato and with its sparkling wind
and brass surprise pinpricks, showing Thielemann's almost obsessive and
surgical concentration on squeezing every ounce out of that marvel of score,
even where the content is more pretence than substance.
The stage is used in its entire width and depth, giving up any pretence that
the scene is a 'separée' in an inn. Candles are lit, and as quickly
extinguished. Hosts of uniformed waiters and waitresses bustle about, and
the Baron's entry with all his retinue is almost lost in the confusion. To
confuse and frighten the Baron, a group of extras, dressed in the
Rosenkavalier's white tails and top hat rush about in stroboscopic light
effects and are reflected in the ubiquitous mirror panels. The scene is
constantly kept in dim semi-darkness, but the action on the stage never
stops mobilizing large crowds. There must have been two dozen children
screaming 'Papa!' and wrestling the Baron to the floor. When the bills for
the party are presented to the Baron, the stage is virtually filled with
several dozen extras. The scene between Mariandel and the Baron, while not
lacking in some crudities, like the Baron opening the flap of his
Lederhosen, trying to mount Mariandel, and being kicked in the groin by her,
went routinely by, but allowing Hawlata to show his mastery of the role,
honed in a hundred performances.
This is the scene where one waits with a slight feeling of impatience for
the entry of the Marschallin. While Renee Fleming, a consummate actress,
instantly established command over the scene, much of the subtleties, like
deflating the pompous Police Commissioner, were lost on the underlit stage.
Faninal, and eventually Octavian and Sophie and even the Marschallin, were
costumed in unrelieved black, and in the gloom one could vaguely see the
Marschallin moving about only, because she wore a large white collar. When
the scene was cleared at last for that unforgettable end, the singing on the
stage and the playing in the pit reached at last unruffled unity and beauty.
Two vehicles appeared in the back of the stage, and the Marschallin and
Faninal left the young lovers alone, the carriages being pulled off the
stage in opposite directions, ignoring that the Marschallin, consoling the
hapless Faninal, offered to allow him to ride in her vehicle.
The usually deeply moving scene, where the Marschallin on her way out stops
for a moment and allows a conscience stricken Octavian to kiss her hand, was
somehow also lost in the gloom. The confrontation between the Marschallin
and Sophie was movingly traced from some initial pangs of jealousy, to
resigned acceptance. Nothing can destroy or even diminish the magic of those
last twenty minutes. If bliss can be made manifest, it is not in paintings
or poetry. It is those last minutes that again and again reconcile one for
anything that may have been done better or more conventionally in a
Three wonderful singers, and a Maestro who combined technical virtuosity
with a radiant love for this score, which he could fully share with his
orchestra, made a rapt audience ready for that witty relief from deep
emotion, the arrival of little Mohammed who always steals and crowns the
whole show by traipsing in on the by-then-deserted stage to search for the
dropped kerchief of the Marschallin, and finding it, waves it exuberantly
and brings down the curtain. Alas, instead of Mohammed, Pierrot appeared
once more on the dark stage, throwing contemptuously away the Silver Rose,
dropping a bunch of flowers on the bodies of the lovers cowering motionless
in their black costumes on the floor, and pulling the curtain to close the
When the curtain rose again for the entire cast to thank for the rapturous
applause, in which I took enthusiastically part, there was at last radiant
silvery light flooding the entire stage surrounded by walls of mirrors.
There must have been over two hundred and fifty singers, choristers, extras
on the stage, and in a logistically brilliantly organised gesture, the
entire orchestra appeared with the real hero of this production, Christian
Thielemann, leading the entire cast again and again forward, to take part,
as it were, in the celebration of a great evening. That all this should have
taken place and repeated twice to packed houses in a sleepy and provincial
little town in the Black Forest is, for me, the real significance of this