And in the ‘how’

Yesterday’s first installment of a selected Rosenkavalier video overview covered two classic filmed performances, one from the 1960s and one from the 1970s. Today’s continuation closes out the 20th-century selections, crosses the millennial mark, and includes the first of our performances to depart from the opera’s prescribed 18th-century setting.  

A revival of the 1969 Nathaniel Merrill production opened the Met’s 1982-83 season, and a telecast from the series got its first video release in 2010. Music director James Levine leads several big names who have the right vocal qualifications, but the production received better performances over its 45 years of service. Stage timing is careless. People keep reacting to things they cannot yet have seen, or seen well enough to process. Robert O’Hearn‘s sets, inasmuch as they can be seen well in Gil Wechsler‘s murky lighting, were looking a bit dingy. The sound is thinner than on the earlier videos, with a loss of orchestral detail, so what registers most in Levine’s contribution is raw energy.

This is the Noo Yawk version of traditional Viennese. The Marschallin’s boudoir boasts a painted skyline view, and Faninal has the most spectacular palace. The latter gets scenery applause when the curtain opens on it (how many would-be Faninals were in the audience, I wonder?). The little boy playing Mohammed gets a lot of space to prance and mug while serving breakfast. Ochs shows up at Faninal’s in a loud suit the color of watermelon, and that gets laughs. Sequined appliqués on the ostentatious “noble” uniforms glitter for the Family Circle. It all may heighten one’s appreciation for the seemlier Otto Schenk.

Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos make a mismatched Marschallin and Octavian. The soprano is convincing in vanity, less so in philosophical response to it. She soft-pedals the German words and looks lovely without evoking much—a vague performance. Her mezzo partner is completely alive to each moment, tense and anxious. Troyanos is, in fact, the most successful element onstage here, although Kurt Moll‘s restrained, thoroughly musical deep-bass Ochs delivers on much of what it promises. One wants to see his portrayal in better surroundings, and will. Judith Blegen rather overplays Sophie’s sweetness, but makes pleasing sounds. Luciano Pavarotti, a luxury Sänger sounding slightly under the weather, performs with eyes glued to the book he grips.

I do not doubt that this telecast introduced many Americans to Rosenkavalier and may have nostalgic appeal. On this revisit, it strikes me as “basic,” as the kids say today—a primer on Rosenkavalier more than a statement about it.

Carlos Kleiber returned to Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera in 1994 with a cast that compares well with his 1979 Munich group, and a superior orchestra and chorus. Again we have a Schenk production, this one with overworked designs by Rudolf Heinrich. I am not sure it is a matter of the revival direction being better, but there are funnier people in the smaller roles this time. This is a more affectionate and tender performance than the 1979, with better teamwork among the soloists. Some of them had worked together before (the three leading ladies had sung Rosenkavalier with Kleiber at the Met), and they are comfortable with each other in the best ways.

Felicity Lott‘s gracious Marschallin, without the glamour of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gwyneth Jones or Te Kanawa, and done no favors by the wigmaker, works on intelligence and persuasive charm. Lott is nicely understated, with the lieder singer’s care in approach to text. She is imaginative and eloquent in her time alone on the stage, whether singing or silent.

Lott and Anne Sofie von Otter record a special Marschallin/Octavian partnership, among the best filmed. There is familiarity between them, and fondness, and a strong emotional connection. The affair has been going on long enough that what is unspoken weighs heavily. A look can be loaded, and so can a touch. “Mariandel” savors the act of putting Octavian’s picture in the Marschallin’s hand and closing her fingers around it. “She” then gently plays with the Marschallin’s hair, just enough not to arouse the Baron’s suspicion.

Von Otter, who in both male and female guises has a passing resemblance to Princess Diana, is the best of the mezzo Octavians considered here. Her sound is settled, toward the soprano end of the mezzo spectrum; her musical manners are patrician. She is fascinating to watch in the presentation of the rose, in which she is well partnered by Barbara Bonney‘s experienced but still girlish Sophie.

Octavian smells the “strong scent of roses, real ones,” the drop of Persian attar, before the silver rose is offered for him to smell. Kleiber and the Viennese are filling the air with that perfume, and we see in Octavian’s face and bearing, and hear in Von Otter’s singing, duty becoming discovery, bar by bar, moment by moment. It is quite magical, the sort of thing one goes to the opera hoping to see but rarely sees.

The lanky Swede’s shift to performed femininity for the scenes of Mariandel (most fetching) is exemplary. This Octavian knows women, likes them, and knows what an Ochs would like. Von Otter and Bonney find perfect dynamics and exquisite balance for “Ist ein Traum”—not a sequel to the trio but a hushed, awed postlude, a recession from the opera’s climax.

Moll’s lowest notes have gained in authority since 1982, and sound so easily attained and sustained that he could be depressing keys on an organ. He has not given up much in the rest of the voice. The portrayal is smoothed out, with more water to loosen that mass of earthen tone. Moll again really sings Baron Ochs’s music, and is a crucial element in a performance that looks for and finds truth and beauty in the highest musical values.

“Jesus Maria, steht a Bett drin, a mordmässig grosses!” A Robert Carsen production without a giant bed is a rarity, and he can get it out of the way early in his controversial 2004 Salzburg Festival staging, a first draft of his 2016-17 Covent Garden/Met effort. Carsen’s set/costume designer in 2004 was Peter Pabst, and Carsen himself and Peter van Praet light gorgeously, as usual. The first scene is very sensual. That big bed obviously has seen good use. Octavian and the Marschallin cannot keep their hands off each other, but their connection is more erotic than emotional.

We are in the waning days of the Habsburg Empire, around 1911. The Great War looms, a subtext that more than once becomes overt. Faninal “supplies the Army in the Netherlands,” and Carsen does not imagine this refers to belt buckles or chocolate bars. The Marschallin’s boudoir is all deep red decadence, the kind of overpowering space that is striking at a glance but does not invite long lingering. The Feldmarschall’s mustachioed visage hangs above the bed, observing without knowing. Ochs is a monocle-sporting military bully.

This is a big, extravagant show: the Animal Seller brings a veritable pet store; Octavian enters Faninal’s dining area on horseback; crowd scenes are very crowded. Carsen and Pabst make excellent use of a big stage (the first-act set has parallel chambers), and the director has a good comedic touch, for both comedy of manners and the broader variety. There is resonance too, but it comes as much from knowledge of Strauss/Hofmannsthal’s time as from Rosenkavalier‘s characters.

Sigmund Freud makes a very funny appearance in the second act, as the doctor summoned following the “duel.” He ministers to the overwrought Faninal and then takes notes on the Baron’s self-pitying monologue. The tavern/inn of the third act is a seedy brothel operated by a man in drag, calling to mind the lurid Vienna written about by Stefan Zweig and, more recently, John Irving. (In fact, a character in Irving’s The 158-Pound Marriage is said to have seen Rosenkavalier in Vienna, and “it bored her, though she thought it shouldn’t have.” She might have enjoyed Carsen’s production more.) Octavian gets his male-to-female makeover from the brothel girls.

Act Three features full frontal nudity from supers, and fairly graphic sex from same, but more interesting is the way Carsen turns the text on its head. Mariandel acts the brazen hussy, and Ochs is uncomfortable with her aggressiveness. Ochs had smugly regretted in Act One that the Marschallin could only experience “the defensive position.” Octavian/Mariandel was paying attention.

The servant Mohammed was traditionally a cute little boy; here we have an early example of another modern trend, the young-adult version. Mohammed is one of several servants in the breakfast scene, and he ends the opera drunk and stumbling with a rifle, one of so many young men unlikely to survive the horrors to come. There is foreboding in “Ist ein Traum.” The young lovers are correct. The dream cannot be true.

The climactic trio is dynamically blocked, dramatizing hesitation, uncertainty, shifting emotions and allegiances. The tenor’s number in the levée, too, is inventively done, and oddly moving. Piotr Beczala enters looking like Caruso, and servant girls and society figures alike stop what they are doing, find chairs or seats on the floor and are united for a few minutes. Great singing (and Beczala’s is that, for them and for us too) stops time and holds everyone in thrall.

Carsen and conductor Semyon Bychkov (opening some cuts and going after a bold, colorful reading that can overwhelm) had a good though not legendary cast. Adrianne Pieczonka has done nothing better for pure singing than this Marschallin. She makes lower-lying phrases count for more than some have, and her sound in 2004 was freshly minted, shining. She succeeds by serving Strauss’s music so faithfully and well. She is less of an actor, tending just to hit the marks and display the attitudes. Miah Persson is one of the best video Sophies, physically ideal for this immaculate prom-queen ingénue, with effortlessly sustained and even line.

Angelika Kirchschlager‘s vocal presence is high-strung and characterful; hers is a forceful Octavian in the Brigitte Fassbaender mold. Fiery and sarcastic, she acts with flair and relishes her Mariandel opportunities. With Franz Hawlata we are back to a bass-baritone Ochs better suited to the top of the role than to cavernous lows, but Hawlata (also Carsen’s filmed Water Goblin and La Roche) knew the part well, was in good voice for the occasion, and fulfills Carsen’s expectation that there be something “irresistible” about the Baron. This Baron is younger and lighter on his feet than the norm, not without charm. He even gets to dance, and Hawlata does that well too.

For all its excesses and occasional miscalculations, Carsen’s Salzburg production makes Rosenkavalier funny, sexy and thought-provoking. Even some good Rosenkavaliers do not go three for three.

Tomorrow: The recent history of Rosenkavalier on video includes something (relatively) old and some things new.