Opernhaus Zürich, 2013
Fabio Luisi, Sven Eric-Bechtolf, Nina Stemme, Vesselina Kasarova, Alfred Muff, Martin Gantner, Rachel Harnisch, Liuba Chuchrova, Irène Friedli, Caroline Fuss, Francisca Montiel, Olivera Dukic, Verena Hasselmann, Michael Laurenz, Lukas Jakobski, Andreas Winkler, Dmitry Ivanchey, Erik Anstine, Martin Zysset, Stefan Pop, Thomas Pütz
Zürich - 4 July 2013
I'm not sure that Sven Eric-Bechtolf's direction or Marianne and Rolf Glittenberg's set design for Zurich's Der Rosenkavalier really play to the strengths of the work. It's not so much that it's taken out of period - the period is important to a certain extent, but only to highlight the work's main theme of time of life ever changing and renewing - or that its design is a little bit strange, as much as the fact that it doesn't seem to offer any new ideas or bring out other dimensions in a work that offers a great deal of richness. Fabio Luisi's conducting too seemed a little heavy handed in places for my liking, not really chiming with the nature of the work's shimmering beauty and playful pastiche, but as the work itself gained momentum, wading though the over-stretched farce to its remarkable conclusion, everything eventually settled into place.
Act I however scarcely looks like the Vienna of the time of the Empress Maria Theresa, with trees growing through the floor of the Marschallin's bedchamber and servants in Turkish or Eastern dress. There is at least a brightness and openness of space with early morning light coming through the high windows that gives an indication of the abandonment to the moment that Marschallin and Octavian have shared in bed together. It's only a temporary moment of bliss, a fleeting escape from the business and responsibilities that comes with the new day. Those appointments duly arrive and play out strangely here - the Italian tenor for example appearing to be a Chinese automaton in a box - but rather more of a problem is that fails to capture the sense of Mozart opera parody that should be there when the lecherous Ochs arrives and chases the Cherubino-like Octavian who is dressed in a maid's costume as Mariandel. The lightness is missing and the sense of playfulness that is critical to establish that the old ways are about to give way to the new.
If if fails to capture the wonder of the old, the strength of this production is in its expression of the new, and that comes through rather wonderfully in Act II. Act I is long and often tedious, but it's necessary to establish the nature of Marschallin's world and her realisation that she's getting old, that the world is changing, that her lover will leave her today or tomorrow for someone younger. When that realisation comes there is nonetheless a reluctance to submit to the inevitable that Strauss captures so brilliantly, so precisely and so movingly in the music of the act finale. Act II on the other hand is about the crystalising of time, capturing the present and living in the moment. It's about a new rising class, the nouveau riche (the Faninals) and its incompatibility with the old (Ochs), it's about falling in love (Octavian and Sophie), forgetting the past (Marschallin) as precious as it once was, and not even thinking about the future (that's Act III). It's all about the now.
The Zurich production sets the second Act in the kitchen of the Faninal residence - pale blue with a wall of plates - which again adds nothing, but everything that is needed here is in the meeting of Sophie and Octavian and it's given proper direction and prominence here. Amidst the boorishness of Baron Ochs and the social pretensions of Faninal, this one moment is made real. Everything around them, all the bustle of the kitchen preparations, literally stops at the moment of their encounter. While the singing can't exactly be said to be lacking in the casting of Nina Stemme in the role of Marshallin and the experienced Alfred Muff playing Ochs, it's appropriate here that the casting of Octavian and Sophie are the brightest points of this production. Vesselina Kasarova's usual mannerisms are relatively restrained and any extravagance in her delivery can be put down to the youthful exuberance and vigour of Octavian's nature. Irène Friedli's Sophie too is simply marvellous, her soprano one of soaring beauty and vivid expression, one moreover that complements Octavian and the other singers.
Act III of Der Rosenkavalier can always be problematic in this work, but - again despite unhelpfully returning to what looks like the inn improvised in a marquee in the Marschallin's boudoir - it's here that the Zurich team work best. Instead of going for the obvious farce that is very much what Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl were aiming for, Bechtolf introduces a darker element into the proceedings and downplays Ochs' oafishness. Death is implied in the figures dressed in skeleton costumes that obstruct Ochs auf Lerchenau's intentions and deflate his pomposity. He's another relic that is not going to go easy in this new world, but his time has come. Marschallin and Ochs gather up what dignity and respect remains for their age and position and accept that it's time for them to step aside and let the young have their time free from the rules of the past. All that is captured wonderfully in Nina Stemme's deportment and the lush velvet timbre of her voice and in Alfred Muff's more gentle and sensitive interpretation of the nature of Ochs.
What's also vitally important is that the idea that something beautiful is dying is not only recognised but brilliantly and fully expressed in the music, and here Luisi's conducting is just perfect. The waltz music feels old-hat, but at the same time nostalgic of another wonderful time, the neo-romanticism and chromatic language speaks of the beauty of the now, while the discordant chords of the Rosenkavalier theme speak of the music of the future, Strauss miraculously fusing them together indivisibly into a thing of incredible beauty and unbearable sadness. And, for all the flaws and variations of tone in this production, that unquestionably was the sentiment you were left with at the end of the performance in Zurich.