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
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