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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier, Op 59 (1912) [197.00]
Dame Kiri te Kanawa, soprano (Marschallin), Anne Howells, mezzo-soprano (Octavian), Aage Haugland, bass (Ochs), Barbara Bonney, soprano (Sophie), Jonathan Summers, baritone (Faninal), Cynthia Buchan, mezzo-soprano (Annina), Robert Tear, tenor (Valzacchi),
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House/Sir Georg Solti
Stage director: John Schlesinger
rec. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 14 February 1985
sung in German with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese
NTSC 4:3, Dolby 2.0 stereo; all regions
No extras.
OPUS ARTE OA1341D DVD [197 mins]

It is all too frequently the melancholy duty of a critic reviewing the reissue of a long-established recording to lament the abbreviated or even non-existent documentation that is provided with the newly available product, comparing it unfavourably with the substantial packaging that may originally have been available. It is therefore a matter for some congratulation that the reverse is the case with this welcome reissue. A previous release on NVC Arts not only dispensed with a booklet but reduced the accompanying information to an extremely brief synopsis and a track listing, all of which had to be read through the transparent plastic of the DVD cover; even the provided cast list was abridged. Here we now have a booklet, admittedly minus track listing, but containing not only a comprehensive cast list but a very full synopsis extending over three and a half pages and a number of colour photographs of William Dudley’s handsome sets.

And this production is well worthy of such treatment. John Schlesinger, unlike so many film directors who have dabbled in the production of operas, really understands the needs of musical theatre and the need for the visual aspect to complement the musical one. He sees no need to bodily wrench the drama to a different historical period, which appears to be the very first reaction of so many modern operatic producers. Der Rosenkavalier is, of course, already an anachronism in that respect; ostensibly set in the eighteenth-century Vienna of Maria Theresa, the score incorporates waltzes in a style fashionable a full hundred years later, presumably at some time during the 68-year reign of Franz Josef (who died in 1916, some years after the opera was first performed). Some modern productions have even ranged in period to a post-Second World War period, treating the action as a kind of nostalgic flashback to the previous century, and even this works; but the basic location, the Habsburg Empire with its stratified and ossified social structure, is essential to the whole and producers ignore this at their peril. Schlesinger is content to embrace the dramatic and musical dichotomy, adhering to Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s eighteenth-century setting with its romantic waltzes, and he produces enough imaginative touches to avoid any sense of fustian tradition. Indeed he even adds some subtle further anachronisms of his own: Faninal’s Stadtpalais in Act Two is a very modernistic piece of architectural design, with hints of 1850 Crystal Palace engineering, while the nouveau riche Faninal himself wears a full-bottomed wig that would have been old-fashioned even in 1750.

Such touches of time-shifting in Maria Björnson’s costumes and Dudley’s set designs extend in Act Three to an initially startling touch of Brechtian alienation. The complicated comings and goings in the stage action almost inevitably demand the provision of an acting area just outside the main room in the tavern where most of the drama is taking place, but to provide a side-corridor or chamber (as I have seen done in other productions) inevitably results in some of the action becoming invisible to a considerable part of the theatre audience. Schlesinger neatly solves the dilemma by treating the front apron of the stage as a corridor outside the room, where characters pass to and fro while being invisible to the characters behind them on the main stage; and once the convention is accepted, this makes perfect sense. It also enables Schlesinger to construct stage images for the end of each of the Acts which fix themselves indelibly on the mind: the Marschallin smelling the attar on the silver rose, the Baron downing his next glass of tokay, and the Negro boy page scouring the floor looking for Sophie’s dropped handkerchief. And the video production, with its close-up observation of the singers, does not miss any of these nuances. Above all there are none of the annoying cut-aways to show the orchestra and conductor in the pit which disfigure both of the videos from the same era featuring Carlos Kleiber – an unbelievable destruction of any sense of dramatic involvement that has been generated. Here Brian Large keeps the focus of the attention on the stage, where it belongs.

The musical text of Rosenkavalier is always a rather vexed problem. It is almost certain that Hofmannsthal never intended that his detailed dialogue should be set to music by Strauss without abridgement; but to his surprise the composer did precisely that, even by accident including a stage direction in the part for Ochs just before the end of the levée scene (actually printed in the vocal score, although always corrected in every performance I have ever encountered). Strauss was alleged to have consented to certain cuts in the opera, although none of these are marked in the score and conductors seem to differ as to where they should come. But then Strauss is also on record as vehemently objecting to cuts in performance, and those that seem to have become regarded as standard hardly seem to justify themselves either on the grounds of musical or dramatic pacing. Solti in his 1968-69 Decca recording gave us the score complete; here there are some minor abridgements, but oddly enough they differ from those he employed at the Royal Opera back in 1959 (as enshrined on a Pristine transfer which I reviewed some four years back).

It goes without saying that the performance of the opera itself is superlative, with a richness of casting that almost beggars belief – most startlingly of all Kenny Baker as the (silent) dwarf attached to Ochs’s rustic retinue (his name was omitted altogether from the cast list on the NVC issue). The production was staged to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Sir Georg Solti’s first appearance at the Royal Opera (the Pristine performance mentioned above); and no trouble was spared to ensure that the large roster of singers required was more than adequately cast, employing many regulars in leading roles in both the London opera houses in minor parts. Only two of these strike me in any way as incongruous: the fundamentally lyric voice of Robert Tear is perhaps insufficiently spiky for the Italian intriguer Valzacchi, and the robust John Gibbs has a decidedly healthy-sounding voice for the asthmatic Notary. Others are superb: Cynthia Buchan as a strongly characterised and mercenary Annina, and Dennis O’Neill as a properly disdainful Italian Singer, have particular impact, and the roles of the two major domos are taken by singers of the stature of Kim Begley and John Dobson. In Solti’s 1968-69 Decca recording in Vienna, the role of Annina was taken by Anne Howells; here she is promoted to Octavian, and brings a properly masculine manner and presence to her bearing. Her voice may not be the richest ever to have undertaken this role, but she is dramatically forthright and believable – and she makes a thoroughly credible cross-dressing ladies’ maid. Barbara Bonney, initially looking strained (as indeed she might be in the dramatic circumstances) blossoms ecstatically into her less confined situation in the final scenes. Jonathan Summers is a likeably warm Faninal, harassed beyond endurance but not as unsympathetic as in some interpretations. Aage Haugland is a suitably leering Ochs, able to plumb the depths of the role without distorting his vocal lines with the sort of reckless abandon that Kurt Bohme perpetrated for Solti in 1959.

In that 1959 performance Solti’s Marschallin was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf; here it is Dame Kiri te Kanawa, at her prime in what was surely her greatest theatrical role. I know that some critics over the years have compared her vocal inflections unfavourably with those of Schwarzkopf, but surely her upright demeanour is entirely correct in dramatic terms. The Marschallin, as Hofmannsthal makes very clear in the aristocratic language she employs, is concerned above all to maintain the social distinctions of her society, and it is only when she is alone that she allows her real emotions to shine through; for the rest, those emotions (and what emotions!) are entirely reflected in the music that accompanies her voice. This makes all the more effective the heart-stopping moment in this production when, at the end of Act One, she raises the rose to her nose and a tear runs down her face. This is one of those moments in the operatic literature on disc when criticism simply fails; music, image and sound are all absolute perfection.

The sound, picture quality and format were all the best available at the time, and still remain excellent. I would imagine that all those who love Dame Kiri will already have this video in their collection, and many Solti fans likewise. Those who have not will doubtless sweep up the reissue avidly, and will be grateful for the improvements in the presentation. And anyone who has not previously encountered this performance, and loves this most loveable of operas, should surely invest in it now. May it long continue to be available to new generations of viewers.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Other performers
Dennis O’Neill, tenor (Italian Singer), Phyllis Cannan, soprano (Marianne), Susan Maisey, soprano (Milliner), Kim Begley, tenor (Marschallin’s Major-domo), John Dobson, tenor (Faninal’s Major-domo), Paul Crook, tenor (Landlord), Alan Duffield, tenor (Animal-seller), John Gibbs, bass (Notary), Roderick Earle, bass (Police officer), Linda Kitchen, Kate McCarney and Yvonne Lea, sopranos (Orphans), Paschal Allen, Donaldson Bell, Malcolm Campbell and Keith Jones, tenors and baritones (Footmen), Kenny Baker, George Macpherson, John Parry, Keith Raggett, Duncan Reece and John Roche, tenors and basses (Ochs’s retinue), Richard Hazell, John Kerr, John Kollman and Anthony Smith, tenors and basses (Waiters)

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