Francis Shelton
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 me.

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 and
delicacy, making up for everything I may have felt ought to have been done a bit differently.

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 performance.

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 show.

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 revival.

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