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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier - (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal) (1911)
Adrianne Pieczonka (soprano) - Feldmarschallin; Franz Hawlata (bass) - Baron Ochs; Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo) - Octavian; Franz Grundheber (baritone) – Faninal; Miah Persson (soprano) – Sophie; Piotr Beczala (tenor) – Italian Tenor; Elena Batoukova (mezzo) – Annina; Jeffrey Francis (tenor) - Valzacchi
Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Semyon Bychkov
rec. ‘live’, Festspielhaus, Salzburg, August 2004.
Directed for the stage by Robert Carsen
Directed for video by Brian Large
Sets and Costumes by Peter Pabst
TDK DVWW-OPROKA [2 DVDs: 201:00] 

 

 

As the curtain falls on Robert Carsen’s intelligent, provocative Rosenkavalier, the boos and yells ring out around the Salzburg Festspielhaus. Reflecting on the staging and thinking about what is usually required by the summer festival regulars, I couldn’t help but wonder what all the fuss was about. Yes, Carsen updates the action from Maria Theresa’s ‘old’ Vienna to something like the period in which the opera was written, in other words just pre-World War 1. It’s not the first time this has been done, as other directors (Götz Friedrich, David Alden) obviously share Carsen’s view that many of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s themes about decadence, crumbling values, old giving way to new, are better illustrated by the period update. Whilst I’m not altogether convinced - and of course there is a lot more to the opera than just the above – when it is thought through and exceptionally well performed, there is much to ponder on.

Carsen is well known for wanting to make political capital out of opera plots if he can – his recent Candide lent itself particularly well to this treatment. He seems determined to take us away from a Romantic ‘never-never’ Vienna to a gaudy world of dimly-lit brothels, bullying soldiers and smug aristocracy. It does dilute some of the nostalgic charm of the creators’ original intentions, but this Rosenkavalier emerges with much more ‘thought fodder’ than many traditional stagings.

Carsen and his design team cleverly fill the vast space of the Festspiehaus by utilising the width and creating side spaces where off-stage action can be seen. So in Act 1 we see a huge crimson-coloured bed dominating the centre with ante-rooms going off either side. This is particularly effective for comic business, such as the arrival of the Italian tenor – a wonderfully full-voiced Piotr Beczala – and his antics with the servants. Conversely, Ochs’s entourage are given action that threatens to detract from the central area, where Octavian and the Marschallin’s post-coital embraces are setting the tone for other sexual explicitness to come. The massive width also produces problems for the camera crew, who occasionally get caught out and have to pan rather quickly to something else going on at the side. Although the small screen can’t make up for seeing the real thing, veteran Brian Large does his level best to give a balance between the bigger picture and the intimate close-up.

Act 2 takes us to the Faninal household, here represented by a massive dining table and elaborate chairs that seems to stretch into infinity. It’s a clever symbol of opulence yet gives plenty of space for the large cast to operate. It also gives room for old-fashioned spectacle, such as Octavian arriving on a real white horse to deliver the Silver Rose. Carsen also uses this act as an opportunity to take a swipe at the military, presenting Ochs’s retinue as soldiers rather than servants, and brutish ones at that. Indeed, his bullying of Sophie whilst being egged on by his ‘crew’ smacked of the barrack scene in Wozzeck, this Ochs being more Drum Major than conventional operatic buffo creation.

Act 3 is probably the source of the audience’s ire, with Carsen ignoring Hofmannsthal’s instructions for ‘a private room at an inn’ and taking us instead to a seedy brothel straight out of Schnitzler’s Reigen. The prelude and ‘pantomime’ give him ample opportunity to create a racy farce with as much full frontal nudity and explicit sex as you are likely to see on an international operatic stage. Ochs’s come-uppance is as effective as ever but the sheer magic of the famous trio, though beautifully sung is strangely muted by the events that precede it, at least to me. Carsen also invents his own slightly misguided ending, bringing up the backdrop around an entwined Sophie and Octavian - back on the giant red bed - and giving us an army of bayonet-wielding soldiers falling as they advance. Whilst it makes a ‘director’s statement’ about the futility of war and the slaughter of the young, something the young Octavian may well be about to face, it does leave us on a slightly sour note instead of a contented - if resigned - one, and the Salzburg audience were not going to forgive Carsen and his team in a hurry.

The capacity house did though raise enthusiastic applause for the cast and conductor, and rightly so. The principal women are excellent, headed by a dignified and subtle Adrianne Pieczonka as the Feldmarschallin. Although Carsen’s production paints her more as courtesan than courtly grande dame, she is remarkably moving in her big moments and sings with wonderful expression. As with many DVD productions, the close-ups do her no special favours, though they are less damaging than with Angelica Kirchschlager, who at times looks older than the Marschallin, and certainly not a teenager. However, her performance overall is extremely satisfying. The gorgeous Miah Persson is simply wonderful vocally as well as acting-wise, and it was a pleasure to see this impression confirmed in the Glyndebourne Cosi that was broadcast over Christmas. The smug Ochs of Franz Hawlata has already been noted and he is nicely complemented by the ever-reliable Franz Grundheber as Faninal, though his near definitive portrayals of Wozzeck in the past did nothing to get that opera out of my head whilst watching. Smaller parts are all excellent and the chorus, far from being embarrassed, seem to revel in Carsen’s extreme demands.

Last but not least there’s the pliant, beautifully graded conducting of Bychkov, a real favourite of mine in Strauss - and who else can play this score like the Vienna Phil? So the two DVD set is well worth watching, though whether it is a first choice is open to debate. If you want a ‘safe’ traditional production, there’s always the opulent Schlesinger/Solti Covent Garden set, with a radiant Kiri te Kanawa and lyrical, boyish Barbara Bonney. She crops up again on the second of the Carlos Kleiber Vienna sets, this time with Anne Sofie von Otter and Felicity Lott. Otto Schenk’s production nicely strides the traditional and the questioning and may well prove the best all round bet, though the sound and picture are not as sharp and clear as this Salzburg release. There is also a well-received Welser-Möst Zürich production which I haven’t been able to sample.

Whatever the case, this is beautifully sung and sympathetically conducted and I have to say that even though Carsen presents the dying days of the Habsburg monarchy in a rather cruel and harsh light, I never felt the longeurs that so often affect ‘ordinary’ productions of this long work. He knows when to lighten up so the comedy registers, and while the romance may be underplayed in parts, the production at least is never cloyingly sentimental. It’s a pity there are no extras, especially interviews with cast or production team, but there’s no doubt that considering some opera productions that make it onto DVD, this one was definitely worth preserving.

Tony Haywood 





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