Expectations run high for this Rosenkavalier
, not least
because of the involvement of Semyon Bychkov, the Vienna Philharmonic,
Angelika Kirchschlager and Miah Persson. And the standard is as
high as could be expected from any of these world-class Straussians.
Canadian director Robert Carsen adds in a few little surprises
to unsettle the Salzburg Festival’s respectable clientele,
but in general this is a solid, traditional reading, well performed
and well presented on DVD.
The setting is updated slightly to late 19th
century Vienna, although with the exception of
Act Inn Scene, little of controversy is presented
on the stage. But what a stage it is! Carsen has so much space
to play with that he regularly divides the stage into three adjacent
rooms, and even when the libretto calls for an anteroom to the
Feldmarschallin’s chamber, Carsen adds another for good
Among the singers, top musical honours go to Franz Hawlata as
Ochs and Miah Persson as Sophie, while dramatically, Angelika
Kirchschlager puts in the most engaging performance. Hawlata is
commendably repulsive as Ochs, and both monocle and wig are used
to great comic effect. His voice is commanding in the baritone
register, but he struggles slightly towards the bottom. That’s
intentional, and Strauss only writes those low notes in to underline
the character’s rare moments of vulnerability.
Miah Persson has the looks and the voice to play the part of Sophie.
There is a directness and simplicity about her tone which is always
attractive, and which is particularly impressive in the higher
register, where her security and fluency really stand out, even
in this impressive cast. Kirchschlager takes the part of Octavian
to extremes, and worries little about continuity of character
in the various cross-dressing transformations. But that doesn’t
matter a bit, because she controls the stage in each of her guises.
This is an opera filled with strong characters, but Kirchschlager
makes sure that Octavian remains the focal point of the tale.
Adrianne Pieczonka is a little more stiff as the Feldmarschallin.
She is always graceful though, and her tone is full of Straussian
colour. Her tone is occasionally thin at the very top, but her
tuning is never in question. The opening scene is enriched musically
by the complementary timbres of Pieczonka and Kirchschlager, which
never risk emulsifying the often complex ensemble textures.
Bychkov delivers the kind of spectacular Strauss interpretation
for which he is rightly famous. He has a rare skill in the orchestra
pit of being able to keep tight control of both the singers and
the players all the time, yet without imposing any apparent restraint
on either. The Vienna Philharmonic don’t play with quite
the unity that they might when on stage, but this too is to Bychkov’s
credit, as he really gets the players to relax into the music.
So without the visuals, you might be slightly (and I mean slightly)
disappointed by the absence of that super-precise VPO sound, but
in the context of this production, the easy Viennese charm with
which they present the various woodwind solos, or strike up waltzes,
is more than enough to win the day.
The video direction by Brian Large involves a number of moving
cameras and some editing between close-ups of singers, but it
is all done with discretion and never feels excessive. The exceptionally
wide stage means that we occasionally watch scenes in one corner,
but are only aware of the fact because all the voices are concentrated
on one channel of the stereo array. That can be slightly jarring,
but only if you haven’t been paying attention. The sound
is good, but is much better down stage than up, a consequence,
presumably of live recording.
So, all in all, a solid, traditional and well performed staging,
with lavish production values and no real surprises...or so the
audience thinks at the end of the first half. At the start of
Act 3 things change significantly, as Robert Carsen transforms
the ‘Inn’ into a seedy red-light district brothel.
The visual innuendos that the setting allows are fully commensurate
with the libretto, and you get the feeling that the shock value
of the idea has missed its mark. On the other hand, the Salzburg
Festival caters for a slightly more aristocratic demographic than
the home DVD market, so perhaps it had its effect live. The only
sticking point between Hofmannsthal’s inn and Carsen’s
bordello (apart from its occasionally being described as the former)
is the reaction of the police, who seem disproportionately concerned
about the Baron’s vices considering the other goings-on
in the establishment.
In fact, the seediness of this scene is ideal. For despite the
palatial surroundings of the rest of the opera, it is after all
a work about sexual deviancy, about infidelity, cradle-snatching,
cross-dressing, polygamy ... the list goes on. These may be aristocratic
circles, but Carsen does the work a service by peeking behind
the veneer of decency and showing us how this society really works.