Cher Public

‘Ja, ja’ land

With today’s conclusion of a selected Rosenkavalier video overview in three parts, we leave behind the Vienna of the 1740s, the time of breeches, fans and white wigs. All three of the remaining performances reflect a modern trend toward setting Rosenkavalier in a less distant era, that of the opera’s premiere or a decade or two thereafter. 

When 56-year-old Herbert Wernicke collapsed on a street in Basel in April 2002, four months after a triumphant Met debut with Die Frau ohne Schatten, the opera world lost a visionary director/designer too soon. Wernicke’s Rosenkavalier had originated at the 1995 Salzburg Festival. A 2009 filmed revival in Baden-Baden boasted a luxurious cast and the finest Strauss conductor of his generation, Christian Thielemann.

This is a difficult one to pin down. It is highly stylized, with a couple of centuries seeming to take place simultaneously. The Marschallin’s servants would not look out of place in the Rudolf Hartmann, Otto Schenk or Nathaniel Merrill production, and the Baron’s “traveling clothes” in the first act are lederhosen. Other elements (the women’s clothes, Octavian’s top hat and tails for the rose presentation) put us in the 1930s. Large mirrors return again and again, serving, for example, as doors in the Marschallin’s boudoir, later a modesty screen behind which Octavian sheds his Mariandel garb.

A Pierrot figure with a blacked face exists both within and outside of the opera’s world, opening and closing the stage curtain but also playing the role of Mohammed. He hangs around on the sidelines of the rose presentation, staged on a staircase as cinematic fantasy.

Some of what Wernicke does is distancing in its heightened artificiality, and artificiality versus what is real—and to be treasured for its impermanence—is a theme. This is made explicit in the production’s closing moments, when a real red rose replaces the silver one. Drama of specific scenes is handled with insight. The conflict between Octavian and the Marschallin is among the best-directed in this survey.

“Everything slips through our fingers,” the Marschallin sings, and what slips through her fingers at that moment, quite deliberately, is the locket with Octavian’s portrait, which falls to the floor. It is a wounding moment for Octavian, and a believable one. The Marschallin can be wounded too. She sings of the clocks, and we see the haunting image of Octavian as viewed from behind, swinging his rapier from side to side in time with the muted chimes of the orchestra.

The Marschallin is trying and failing to make Octavian understand something. In her frustration, she can be unkind, and she knows she is being unreasonable. All of this is there in the text, but here it is raw and authentic, as though a layer of gauze has been pulled away. It strengthens the subsequent scene with Sophie. Octavian has been well primed for someone less complicated, less beset by neurosis. Not that this Sophie is without complexity. “I’m looking forward to being married!” is an artful and rather funny change of subject. Sophie’s mention of Octavian’s lady friends was mischievous, a faux pas of which Sophie was aware immediately.

Wernicke was no less adept in screwball antics. Mariandel is, of course, a young nobleman not accustomed to making a bed, and takes forever to do it badly. If the Baron were paying a different kind of attention, he would wonder how this chambermaid had lasted even a short time in the Marschallin’s service. The Baron’s attraction is amusingly hard to understand, for the attractive mezzo is made the most sexless Mariandel in Rosenkavalier history, both times “she” appears (frumpy shapeless dresses, a mob-cap in the first act, a frizzy red wig in the third).

Faninal’s fawning is too much even for Ochs, who grimaces at an unwelcome kiss on the cheek. In the tavern, Mariandel empties glass after glass of wine into a bucket while Ochs’s back is turned, signaling for refills when she has his attention again.

I do not like everything Renée Fleming does here—she can overemphasize musical/textual points—but she has easy command of the Marschallin’s music and responds with a wide-awake performance to Thielemann’s conducting, Wernicke’s production, and strong scene partners. She is a different singer from the one I have seen in the Met’s antique. Sophie Koch is an elegant cavalier and a spirited comedienne, putting her large mouth and eyes to good expressive use. One can overlook an occasionally taxed upper register.

Diana Damrau also succeeds as a total performer. Others have floated through Sophie’s lines with more even emission, but hers is a sweetly assertive performance, knowing and pugnacious. The character has uncommon fullness. Franz Hawlata sings less well than he had in the 2004 Salzburg Rosenkavalier discussed in yesterday’s installment, the voice sounding smaller and more nasal, but he again acts the role with verve.

There are considerable supporting attractions: Jane Henschel‘s Annina, Franz Grundheber‘s Faninal (also returning from 2004 Salzburg), Jonas Kaufmann‘s tuxedoed Italian divo, photographers in tow. It is all imposingly and lustrously framed by the playing of the Munich Philharmonic under Thielemann, who makes daring choices with a cast that can make them pay off.

In 2014, two prestigious festivals celebrated Strauss’s 150th birthday with new Rosenkavaliers. The earlier and lesser of these was Richard Jones‘s for Glyndebourne. Director, conductor (young Robin Ticciati, reinstating some unfashionable cuts) and all three leading ladies were new to the opera. A production can make a virtue of the process of discovery, and this often happens at Glyndebourne. It does not happen here.

Jones, fleeing anything maudlin, treats Rosenkavalier so lightly that he leaches the emotional pull out of the piece. Any charm he perhaps thought would compensate is lost on me. Scenes play out against variations on the director’s familiar tacky wallpaper, and inverted commas preclude any serious questioning. The cool Marschallin and the silly Octavian seem over with from the start. The Marschallin makes out with Octavian when the Baron is distracted, as if she wants to be caught. Perhaps the danger is all of the appeal.

Mohammed, a smitten young adult, spies on his showering mistress and later sniffs her discarded clothing. The Marschallin, half in a trance, touches Mohammed’s hair before the Majordomo steers him away. Mohammed is thrilled by the attention, not realizing that the Marschallin is touching “youth” rather than any particular youth. Like Carsen, Jones has Dr. Freud making cameos, but Jones starts earlier, with the Marschallin’s Act One monologue framed (mocked?) as material for the analyst’s couch.

Paul Steinberg‘s set designs for the intimate venue often leave a shallow playing area, and the playing is shallow to match. The Baron is shown a picture of Octavian with Mariandel’s grinning face above it. The mezzo looks equally feminine and has the same hideous wig in both identities, making it hard to believe the Baron does not catch on there and then. Octavian is shorter than each of his love interests, with awkward embraces. He has to take Sophie by the head and pull her slightly down to his level to kiss her. The first half of Act Three drags as much as it ever has, something for performers and audience to get through.

This is not one of Jones’s great productions; the ground was not made fertile for exploration. Tara Erraught (Octavian, not a role I expect will play a big part in her future) and Teodora Gheorghiu (Sophie) give satisfactory “young artist” performances. The more stage-savvy Kate Royal does not have the creamy sound one expects from a Marschallin, with some wiry top notes, but looks beautiful and carries herself elegantly. That she manages to be affecting is an achievement in the circumstances of an unsympathetic production with bizarre costuming (Nicky Gillebrand, sparing no one; Ms. Erraught gets the worst of it). Lars Woldt sings the Baron with a smooth, youthful light bass but is not encouraged beyond shtick.

The Salzburg Festival has been presenting Rosenkavalier at regular intervals since 1929, and half of the productions in this survey originated there. The 2014 staging by Harry Kupfer, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst (ably replacing the indisposed Zubin Mehta), made festival history. For the first time, Salzburg gave Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s opera with the complete text.

The resulting DVD/Blu-ray is the only complete Rosenkavalier of these eight, and what was true of note-complete recordings led by (among others) Erich Kleiber and Georg Solti proves equally true in the theater. The difference in running time between “substantially complete” and note-complete is not significant, and movements have better gestalt and equilibrium when experienced as composer and librettist conceived them.

Kupfer’s production, another early-20th-century update (perhaps the 1920s), surprised critics who had expected jolts from a legendary provocateur and instead got a gentle, “classical” Rosenkavalier. I believe that many reviewers missed virtues of this production. Perhaps its subtlety works better with the focusing effect of cameras than it did in the Festspielhaus.

Kupfer and set designer Hans Schavernoch employ the Pleasantville strategy: we begin in a nearly monochromatic world, to which color gradually comes. The final act is the liveliest, the most vivid. The Marschallin’s boudoir is in antiseptic good taste. Memories loom large; scenic projections are shifting black-and-white photographs of Viennese landmarks. Props and decorations are carried on treadmills, giving scenes variety and fluidity. A doorway, a bed or a car might glide in as needed, replacing something no longer necessary.

Jones and Kupfer had the same idea for Mohammed—a young man with a crush—but Kupfer is more restrained. Mohammed places a rose of his own on the breakfast tray, and one senses this is a favorite part of his day. He is crestfallen when he only gets a glimpse of the Marschallin’s hands, gesturing through the door for him to leave the tray and go. He does so slowly, lingering as long as possible in hopes she will emerge.

Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, in her early fifties at the time, brings an authoritative air, wry humor, beautifully supported full tone and cultivated German to the Marschallin. She seems older and much wiser than the other principals. Baron Ochs is a younger cousin, and not even Faninal is a chronological peer.

Stoyanova works well with Mme. Koch (more subdued than in Baden-Baden, still an Octavian of quality and fine detail, but nearing time to set the role aside). Something happens at the end of their scene that I have never seen or sensed before, and it is effective. As the Marschallin describes her plans for the day, Octavian at first is visibly relieved. He thinks his lover’s melancholy mood has passed and things can be as they were. When the Marschallin clarifies with her last words that Octavian may ride beside her car if he likes, Octavian looks crushed. This is more than an expectation of public propriety; it is a pointed distancing. Whenever the formalities may come, this is the moment it is over.

It is only when the Marschallin is alone that Stoyanova lets us see, in dignified repose, how difficult this morning has been. The lights lower and the Marschallin concludes with her back to the audience, staring at the latest in the series of huge black-and-white photos on the wall: a misty park. The image is timeless, but to the person regarding it, even if the same setting can be visited at any time and is unchanged, that picture captures a specific moment or day. It was something that already had passed by the time the picture was developed.

Adrian Eröd in his operatic work is often the most interesting person to watch on the stage. There have been other good Faninals in this survey (Erich Kunz, Grundheber twice), but Eröd and Kupfer make more of Sophie’s father than anyone we have had so far. This Faninal may be a social climber, but he is no fool. He is oblivious to nothing except, initially, Sophie’s feelings for the rose-bearer. The Baron’s behavior disappoints Faninal as it does Sophie—he too had expected better. He keeps forcing those feelings down, weighing what he is giving up and what he will get, and deciding to see the agenda through. The subplot becomes a mini-drama about selling out, and selling out a loved one.

Eröd’s thoughtfully shaded performance, in handsome tone, compensates for a casting problem elsewhere in the Faninal family. Microphones for the broadcast allow us to hear Mojca Erdmann, which many attending the festival could not, but her chalky squealing of Sophie’s music makes audibility a mixed blessing. She is German and has the physique du rôle (a convincing teenager, “shoulders like a pullet […] thin like a rake, but white, with a sheen,” as the Baron puts it), but there her qualifications end.

About all that can be said against Günther Groissböck‘s young, energetic, perversely magnetic Ochs, the most beautifully sung non-Moll Baron in this survey, is that he is still early in his exploration of the role, and can only be expected to improve. Rupert Grössinger, apparently an aspiring baritone, gets some stage experience in the mute role of the Baron’s illegitimate son and valet, Leopold, and makes an uncanny younger double for Groissböck.

There is a superb Polizeikommissar from another charismatic young bass, Tobias Kehrer, who looks born to play Wagner giants, and does so. Kehrer makes the most of the full version of one of the opera’s most frequently shortened scenes. Here the episode has sharp musical and theatrical definition and some laughs, such as Mariandel “evading” Faninal. Another good Annina, contralto Wiebke Lehmkuhl, has fun with the Baron’s alleged kids and slaps the face of his real one.

One thing I believe Kupfer is saying in his Rosenkavalier is that memories are precious, but life lived and enjoyed is more so. We all can benefit from taking the occasional trip to a trashy tavern; participating in some crazy masquerade, Viennese or otherwise, or just taking a walk in the park. The Marschallin’s photograph gives way to the real thing, in vibrant greens, for the final scene, and what in black and white looked like an ending is actually a beginning. The Marschallin and Faninal are driven off in her limousine, and Octavian and Sophie are left alone in the mists. The libretto’s timeline notwithstanding, these look not like gathering mists of evening but parting mists of what promises to be a beautiful day. Bright dawn in the Prater.

I have always considered Rosenkavalier a lucky opera on record and video, and six of these performances have much to recommend them—as do, I am sure, others I have omitted. The most recent, the 2014 Kupfer/Welser-Möst, has the advantage of completeness, rare for this opera in live performance, and its strengths do not end there. Of the others, the one I found most touching and most completely satisfying was, to my surprise, the 1994 Schenk/Kleiber from Vienna.

  • PATRICK MACK

    ‘Ja, Ja’ Land’?
    I bow low.

    • Porgy Amor

      “‘Ja, ja’ Land” was from the mind of La Cieca. We had three parts in this one, so everyone was happy!

      I had named one part of it “Today or tomorrow or the next day” before we decided to break this into three installments rather than two, so that worked out really well as the part-one title.

      • PATRICK MACK

        I love these retrospectives so much and I really appreciate your insight into all of these performances. It makes me want to go back to a few so I can appreciate them more. Opera is so rich that way and I guess that’s the primary enjoyment I get is the subtleties. Thanks so much.

  • Camille

    Christian Thielemann IS the best with Dr. Strauss, ’tis true, ’tis true! Nobody can beat him. Wish he would visit here once in a while…grumble.

    What an exhaustive survey. How does one sufficiently render up one’s gratitude at this cornucopia of Lederhosen and perukes and cross-dressing? “Hab mir’s gelobt…”?!!!

    • Porgy Amor

      Aw, thanks!

      I wish it truly had been exhaustive, with another installment covering Tomowa-Sintow/Karajan, the second Te Kanawa in Schlesinger’s production, the one with Nina Stemme, the one with Cheryl Barker, and — the one I most regret leaving off, because people here speak highly of it — the one with Anne Schwanewilms. However, it’s a long opera, and eight, spaced out chronologically as they are, seemed as ambitious as I wanted to be in less than a month. As much as I love this opera, around #6, I was thinking, “I’m glad the finish line is in sight.”

      • Armerjacquino

        That Aussie one with Barker is really, really good. And I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the Carsen, too. Pieczonka is wonderful and Persson pretty much definitive for me- not to be a note queen, but she does something so, so special with the ‘gruss von himmel’ in the Presentation.

      • O Porgy I weep in jealousy and hurl myself to the floor (thus having to press my APP for the Greater Philadelphia Block and Tackle to be made upright). Maybe you can publish an addenda sometime about those you didn’t get to (for entirely understandable reasons, if I had had to listen to Rosenkavalier more than once I’ve have slit my throat!). You are SO illuminating on those you chose. Tebaldi thank you… (whisper: “grazie….” weep, softer whisper: “grazie…”…sob.)

      • Camille

        Funny how Schwanewilms’ head keeps popping up in an advert adjacent to Bessie Blackhead for this Sunday’s much anticipated recital. As I have been thinking of her as pretty much a contemporary ideal in the role — and do recall that our own Clita del Toro witnessed her in this role n Chicago, a few years ago, and had nothing but praise for her.

        As she shall be singing a made to order program of both Dr.
        Strauss and poor old Hugo Wolf, with no whimsical wannabe offshooting into parlous and fanciful territory, well then, I am expecting one of the BEST sings of this entire season and highly anticipate what the Easter Bunny will be bringing me--no rotten eggs with this recital.

        BUT--I have to admit that--despite her frailties due to age and yadda yadda yadda, and despite my long held deep affection for Madame Crespin’s take, and for whatever it was that die Geliebte Leonie gave to the role — assuredly NOT in her sweet spot!--hélas!!!--when I think of Marschallins, I always think first and foremost of the “halbmal Lustig, halbmal Traurig” sheen in the voice of Maria Reining, eine echtes Wienerischen Frau, and all else ist Wann, Wann, überalles Wann. She’s kind of “it” for me. And that’s not going into the great Lottchen, neither who animated this part for many, for many long years. Hard to beat.

        “Und in dem wie…da liegt der ganze Unterschied”!

  • Porgy
    This absolutely spoiled me, now I expect to read a video survey once a month! Deeply thought, well informed and beautifully written.
    I would like to add that Dame Gwyneth’s business with the mirror at the end of act 1 was also very moving live -- I saw her twice at the Met and the gesture carried all the way to family circle standing room.

    • Porgy Amor

      Danke. I’m always glad to hear people enjoy these. The one thing I don’t like about doing them is that it’s necessary to shorthand a lot. I cannot cover everyone’s contribution as I would if I were writing about them singly. (Rusalka came nearest, because there were only six to cover.)

      They’re enjoyable to work on, though.

  • Thanks for a great finish, Porgy.

    This is a difficult one to pin down. It is highly stylized, with a couple of centuries seeming to take place simultaneously. The Marschallin’s servants would not look out of place in the Rudolf Hartmann, Otto Schenk or Nathaniel Merrill production, and the Baron’s “traveling clothes” in the first act are lederhosen. Other elements (the women’s clothes, Octavian’s top hat and tails for the rose presentation) put us in the 1930s.

    I wonder if this was an attempt to show that (some of) the characters are modern in their outlook and attitudes while stuck in an older, more constrictive time.

  • Evenhanded

    Well.

    This has been an outstanding, thoroughly satisfying survey of Rosenkavalier on video (despite the exclusion of several versions, as you mentioned). I thank you sincerely for all the time, thought, and effort you contributed the the trilogy, Porgy. Really -- first rate and highly entertaining to read. I will be adding to my collection, based on your impressions. Thank you!

  • Porgy Amor

    BTW, I hope whoever cut the video trailer above for the Kupfer got a nice bonus. Beautiful job. It makes me want to watch it again immediately.