Friday 26 September 2014

Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier (Salzburg 2014 - Webcast)

Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Salzburg 2014

Franz Welser-Möst, Harry Kupfer, Krassimira Stoyanova, Sophie Koch, Günther Groissböck, Mojca Erdmann, Adrian Eröd, Silvana Dussmann, Wiebke Lehmkuhl, Rudolf Schasching, Stefan Pop, Tobias Kehrer, Martin Piskorski, Franz Supper, Dirk Aleschus, Roman Sadnik, Rupert Grössinger - August 2014

It's probably a self-evident truth and practically a definition of opera, but perhaps more so than any other work, there needs to be a perfect coming together of all the various elements in Der Rosenkavalier. Each of its elements - not just the music, the singing and the staging, but all the other areas that are considered less important - all have their part to play in making this difficult opera work. Truly work as it's meant to. As Salzburg productions go, their 2014 Der Rosenkavalier isn't one of their most adventurous, but in almost every area it serves the intentions of the work, showing in the process just how perfect Der Rosenkavalier can be, and consequently just how miraculous the nature of opera itself can be.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal's first fully-fledged collaboration (after adapting Hofmannsthals' dramatic version of Elektra), Der Rosenkavalier is an immense but delicately poised work that presents considerable challenges in its huge orchestration, the intricacy of interplay and interaction and the demands that it places on the singing voices. Attention to these demands is necessary to achieve a very specific tone and mood, and a production can't really stray too far away from these intentions without undermining the entire purpose of the work. As it says itself, it's a Viennese farce and nothing more, but like the Mozart comedies that it is styled on, Der Rosenkavalier opens up deeper meditations on life, love, time, on the necessary but beautiful pain that comes with the passing of the old and the birth of the new. Der Rosenkavalier in itself, reverential and referential of older opera works, indulges this nostalgia for the past at the same time as it points a way towards the future.

The person best placed to draw out those qualities in a production of Der Rosenkavalier and bring the necessary balance of warm nostalgia and reflective meditation on the meaning of it all, is traditionally the conductor. It's always the conductor who is in charge of Der Rosenkavalier. Leading the ever impressive Vienna Philharmonic, Franz Welser-Möst's control and management of the score is absolutely stunning, weaving Strauss' complex lines through the singing voices, matching the melodies, the tempo and the sheer majesty of a score whose lyricism and evocation of resonances belies any notion of the work being merely "a Viennese farce and nothing more". More than anything else, it's Strauss's writing that fleshes out the broad strokes of the stock characters, imbuing them with considerably more personality and humanity and making their concerns and behaviour universally recognisable.

It's immediately apparent that the Salzburg production has a handle on all these essential ingredients. From the overture to the impression that is created by the elegant set for the Marschallin's bedroom in Act I, everything feels right and sounds right. All the more so on account of the singers we have in the roles of Marschallin and Octavian. Sophie Koch is maybe not so sure of voice on the top notes as she once was singing Octavian, but her experience counts. She knows the role well and is better fitted than most to handle the intricacies of this difficult trouser role (ahem, Glyndebourne!). Krassimira Stoyanova is a glorious Marschallin and gives a great performance here. She has an amazing voice that is perfect for big roles like this, and she is simply just one of the best Marschallins in the world at the moment. I don't think there's any particular chemistry between Stoyanova and Koch, but they work together well and bring their own character successfully to the roles.

I was disappointed however by Günther Groissböck's Ochs von Lerchenau. Not with his singing, which I thought might have been challenged by such a role. True, he doesn't have the commanding boom that is required and is probably a little too young and handsome for the role, but he navigates his way perfectly through the long and challenging sing-speech rhythms of the part. His timbre is lovely and his delivery is perfectly good, but I just couldn't take to him as the baron. He never looked terribly comfortable with the part either, his gestures limited to an arrogant sneer and swagger, adopting a teapot stance and flicking his hand dismissively now and again. His concentration on the delivery means that he sings the role almost entirely without looking at any of the other characters he is interacting with. It's possible I suppose that this is how the role has been directed, Ochs always dominating, the other characters always behind him, subservient to his sense of self-importance.

Whether it was an issue with casting or direction, Baron Ochs consequently failed to come to life for me or really make the necessary stamp on the significance of his role in Der Rosenkavalier. Other than that however, Harry Kupfer's direction is hard to fault. The stage design is classy and elegant, the silver-grey colour scheme giving a sense of a cool nostalgic detachment for an idealised past. Hans Schavernoch's set is made up of large panels and props that glide into position, while large projected photographs of classical Vienna scenes, rooftops and parks place the work perfectly into the essential context of the wider world that the opera is set in.

The stylised version of this cold idealised Vienna contrasted perfectly with the warm richness of the lives and sentiments of the characters within it. Act I and II contrasted noble elegance with vulgar extravagance of marbled ostentation, while Act III didn't just reveal the darker underside of the comic playing, it practically built the set around the performers in the location of a misty Prater park, making it feel wholly a part of the wider world. Everything slips into place the way it ought to, as elegantly as Strauss's score, and the finale consequently was simply gorgeous. Och ungraciously fades back into the mist, the Marschallin glides off in her Rolls Royce, leaving Koch's Octavian and Mojca Erdmann's delicately sweet-toned Sophie to look ahead to the future.