Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier
Wiener Staatsoper, 2015
Adam Fischer, Otto Schenk, Martina Serafin, Wolfgang Bankl, Elīna Garanča, Erin Morley, Jochen Schmeckenbecher, Caroline Wenborne, Thomas Ebenstein, Ulrike Helzel
Wiener Staatsoper Live at Home - 12 April 2015
There are some things to be said for Otto Schenk's old, traditional, somewhat stuffy, period realistic production of Der Rosenkavalier. Not much admittedly, and it's perhaps unintentional, but Act I at least fully indulges Strauss and Hofmannsthal's qualified nostalgia for an idealised Vienna of the past, a way of life that is on the point of change and never to be regained. And since this production is being played in Vienna itself, that is likely to hold some measure of recognition with the home audience. So it's not a stylised Vienna either, but one that looks and realistically reflects how things might indeed have looked and, to an extent, operated in the olden days.
The Vienna seen in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier, in the bed chamber of the Feldmarschallin, is one where the privilege of nobility permits all manner of abuses. These are presented in a saucy farcical manner by Strauss and Hoffmannsthal - with reference evidently to the music and operetta of the time - but there is a little bit of an edge here that shows attitudes, morals, social gatherings, behaviours and manners that are rather hidebound and out of step with the world we live in today. It's a world that is already starting to change with the arrival of the merchant class of nouveaux riches, seen in the second act. Unintentionally then, Otto Schenk's frumpy, old-fashioned set does reflect a world clinging to a past that is in conflict with social changes.
Particularly in its attitudes towards women. Octavian, a young boy sung by a mezzo-soprano in a trouser role who is to be our optimistic hope for a new future, dresses as a maid in Act I and soon finds out what it's like to be on the receiving end of male attentions. The behaviour of Baron Ochs towards Mariandel is not surprising however, nor are the allusions to servants bearing illegitimate offspring of the nobility without those children having the same rights and privileges, but it's mostly played for laughs in the opera. What makes Der Rosenkavalier a little more pertinent however, is the attitute and contemplation of the situation of the Marschallin.
Marschallin has enjoyed the privilege of having a prominent position in nobility, but she - "ordered into wedlock straight from the convent" - has never enjoyed the same kind of freedom that men of rank and position hold. Baron Ochs can chase her "maid" around the room, probably "get the money and the young girl" from a rich family that he is engaged to and boast of there being probably more than one other little bastard Lerchenau in the servant's quarters that he doesn't even know about. Marschallin however, as a woman, has to be very careful to hide her illicit although perhaps not entirely guilt-free (abusing her position as a wealthy and beautiful woman?) affair with her young cousin Octavian. "That's the way of the world".
But the Marschallin's contemplative melancholy goes beyond the inequalities in how the sexual behaviour of men and women is perceived. She also feels "the fragility of all temporal things" as only a woman can, and knows time is more cruel to women than to men. But more than just fearing the approach of old age and the diminishment of her charms, there's an awareness - its implications perhaps not entirely grasped - that the times are changing too. "Don't be like all other men!", she warns Octavian, even as she has the premonition that their time together is approaching an end, and that society will leave her kind behind just as Octavian will, sooner or later, leave her for Sophie. He must take advantage of these new opportunities and offer Sophie, and women as a whole, a different world from the one she has known.
All this is laid out in Act I, and there's not much Otto Schenk's production can do to take away from the beauty of what Strauss and Hofmannsthal have created here. It's a scene that carries resonance all the way through the longeurs of Act II and particularly Act III, right up until the moment that the Marschallin reappears and brings all the lovely melancholy of time and change with her once again. The production however has nothing much to contribute to any of this, Act II at the residence of the Faninals scarcely looking any brighter or more modern than Act I, Act III's dark interior of the inn looking exactly as you might expect a den of iniquity to appear, played plainly as a farce without any of the work's satirical tone.
The production values however are high, as you might expect, Octavian in particular cutting a fine figure against this backdrop in his period costume and wig. That's Elīna Garanča, looking terrific if not in the least bit manly, singing the role beautfully. She sings one of the best Octavians I've heard recently, but her movements, performance and delivery are a little stiff, not really seeming to engage with the production or as well with the other characters as you might like. And yet, the performances of each of the other singers Octavian plays off is also outstanding in his or her role. Martina Serafin is a perfect Marschallin, Wolfgang Bankl a well-characterised Ochs auf Lerchenau, but it's Erin Morley's Sophie who really gives the production that freshness and vitality that is unfortunately lacking elsewhere.
Der Rosenkavalier was broadcast from the Vienna State Opera as part of their Live at Home programme. The next broadcast is L'ITALIANA IN ALGERI on the 30th April. May sees Juan Diego Flórez in DON PASQUALE, Plácido Domingo in NABUCCO and the beginning of Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production of DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN, conducted by Simon Rattle. Details of how to view these productions live at home can be found in the links below.
Links: Wiener Staatsoper Live Streaming programme; Staatsoper Live at Home video