Der Rosenkavalier: Fleming, Koch, Damrau, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Decca)

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Evidently, productions of Der Rosenkavalier have a habit of outliving their directors. In a positive flurry of recent revival that has seen the work severally staged at Covent Garden, the Metropolitan and, as preserved on this DVD, the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, each of the original directors was no longer around to supervise his show's latest outing. This matters less, of course, in stagings that cleave close to the scenic and theatrical givens of the work as conceived by Hofmannsthal and Strauss in microscopic detail, than in ones like that under consideration here that avail themselves of varying degrees of liberty and licence. Herbert Wernicke’s show – for show it is, and indisputably all his since he both directed and designed the sets and costumes: auteur-opéra, in fact – was originally mounted at the 1995 Salzburg Festival as a co-production with the Opéra de Paris at the Bastille, where it subsequently fetched up. Wernicke died in 2002, aged 56, having only recently debuted at both the Metropolitan – with Strauss’ monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten, controversial but by all accounts something to see – and Covent Garden, with a Tristan und Isolde so loathed by the first-night audience in 2000 (it was my birthday: one tends to remember these things) that the right royal roasting the dread Christof Loy’s replacement staging of the same opera justly received earlier this season truly seems like warm acclamation in comparison. Poor Wernicke: he looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights as a solid, air-pressure-changing wall of unanimous booing blasted through the auditorium (compare and contrast with Loy’s smug self-satisfaction at similar, much more merited treatment). All of which struck me as rather unfortunate. True, Wernicke’s Tristan was completely at odds with Wagner’s equally microscopically detailed instructions, but seemed to me to have an interest, an integrity of approach, and above all, high-definition theatrical professionalism that made for something compelling in its own right.

It would be nice, then, to be able to say as much of this now-posthumous Der Rosenkavalier. Alas, I cannot. In fact, many of Hofmannsthal’s stage directions are followed to the letter in terms of stage-business, and if you semi-shut your eyes and squint at the screen, the groupings, comings-and-goings, relationships and disposition of action are for the most part pretty much as you always see them. What is different, however, and gets so far in the way as to positively invalidate the otherwise unexceptionable updated elements of the staging, are the sets, or, more accurately, set. It comprises eight stage-high panels of mirrors that are built as triangular structures and can revolve, or at least move, in independent formation. They are for the most part used in discreet, symmetrical disposition with reasonably atmospheric, spatially suggestive different locations projected upon them – a Rococo boudoir, a glitzy Staatspalais, a house of assignation – so that there is nothing much to object to there, though Act III’s chambre-séparée at the inn is ridiculously vast and open-plan; the intricate, French-farce of the Marschallin’s bedroom’s various doors and what worlds lie beyond in Act I is exceedingly poorly articulated as credible stage-space; and there is absolutely no sense of social decline or differentiation between the acts as we supposedly pass from the Marschallin’s world of refined taste, to Faninal’s one of nouveau riche tastelessness, to a seedy semi-brothel. Here, it all looks pretty much identical. Worse still, Wernicke cannot then leave well alone, but must forever be having “ideas”. One, which progressively drove me up the wall as the opera wore on (and on) is the permanent, neon back-lit glass ceiling, resembling nothing so much as a third world airport lounge - or indeed perhaps the auditorium of the Opéra de la Bastille itself - which hovers blindingly and unchangingly over the unfolding drama of the entire opera. And another is the ceaselessly “busy” reconfigurations of the mirror panels during utterly blameless passages of the opera that do not require any suggestion of change of location.

In this respect, Wernicke undoubtedly saves the absolute worst until last: in the astonishing populous mêlée that accompanies Ochs’s exit – thirty children, count ‘em, all screaming “Papa!” – the mirrors go walkabout, to reveal, when the mayhem and the crowd clears, that we are now outside, where two large open-top motor cars c.1910 are parked back-to-back with a vista of a leaf-strewn highway beyond and between them. Against that preposterous vision of gridlock in the era of the Model “T” Ford we are given the whole of the closing scene, trio, duet and all. It single-handedly kills the emotion of the sequence stone-dead, and when the Marschallin – who, you may recall, has offered to calm the social-climbing Faninal’s coronary come-over by giving him a lift back into town in her carriage – instead goes off on her own in one direction, Faninal in the other, barking their little dialogue about “how youngsters are”/ “Ja, ja” across some twenty feet of stage space to each other as their respective cars drive off, you glumly realise the sad truth that you – we, the singers, the audience, poor old Strauss and Hofmannsthal - are all at the mercy of an idiot. Unforgivable, as is the treatment of Mahomet, the Marschallin’s little black servant, who instead here is played by an adult male dressed as Pierrot in blackface, floppy shirt, conical hat, pantaloons and all, and who gets to open the whole opera à la Pagliacci by popping out in front of the curtain during the prelude, then drawing it back conspiratorially (he also gets to serve up breakfast, ostentatiously comprising “Ferrero Rocher” in a bowl: I hope someone got product-placement money for this.) Hofmannsthal’s directions are respected at the very end insofar as Mahomet does indeed reappear – mind you, Octavian and Sophie have never left, being busy entwined on the Van Nest Polglase shiny black floor – but instead replaces Sophie’s silver rose with a real one (pure kitsch, this) and then finding, not her handkerchief, but a discarded item of Mariandel’s drag disguise (how did it get “outside”?) and using it to wipe off the blackface whilst pulling the house-curtains shut. Er, why? Telling us what, exactly? Where does any of this additional “invention” get us? As Strauss so presciently observed, well over eighty years ago: “God preserve us from producers with ideas!” other major problem is, I would guess, confined more to the specific practicalities of filming. In the theatre I dare say the almost continuous mirror-play was mildly diverting when not too distracting: but in close-up, on screen, the endless reverse-angle reflections of the backs of people’s heads, furniture, even the audience from time–to-time as the walls motor around, are exceedingly disorientating, amounting to spatial information overload which cannot possibly be “read”. And the usually reliable video-director Brian Large is here very loathe to give us proper, stage-wide “establishing” shots of the whole set-up, and seems to have fallen for the lamentable Met disease of shoving a camera right up a singer’s nose, or, worse, focussing intently on overblown reaction shots – Jane Henschel’s blowsy Annina and Sophie Koch’s furiously mugging Octavian are much the worst culprits – rather than concentrate on the matter in hand of whoever actually happens to be singing. In the Act I levée – admittedly a locus classicus of information overload, even in the best stagings – he scarcely seems to know where to point any of his cameras, and some indeed are caught out napping in the wrong position (exactly the sort of thing I would have thought a commercial release, as opposed to a live relay, would have ironed out, but evidently not). But we do get to see plenty of Jonas Kaufmann’s greasy, preening, spaghetti-guzzling Italian tenor, looking like a modern Mafioso, surrounded by flash-popping press photographers – in the Marschallin’s bedroom ?!?! – and sounding so baritonal that I would almost swear (but won’t, because it isn’t) “Di rigori” had been not so much transposed as dumped down an entire octave. I have never heard Strauss’s cheery piece of Puccini-baiting sound less like mock-Italian and more like Amfortas clutching at his bandages, but there it is.

In all this, it’s sometimes quite hard to concentrate upon the singers. Sophie Koch, as recently at Covent Garden, has a whale of a time in the role of Octavian, smoking after sex, prancing around as a white tie-and-tailed, top-hatted ring-master for the Presentation of the Rose (the size of a sunflower, with Pierrot/Mahomet in fawning attendance: the whole scene goes for nothing) and is captured in significantly freer, better focussed voice throughout, perhaps helped by the fact that she is not here in Act I having to romance a dough-faced, charisma-free old granny. But Koch does overact consistently throughout, especially in Act III, where for some reason that escapes me, her “Mariandel” is done up as a cross between Fanny Brice and Tugboat Annie, the very antidote to desire and a most unlikely recipient of Ochs’s attentions, one might have thought. Also, on DVD at least, there is the inescapable fact that she is, to look at, the very embodiment of French female sensuality – think Fanny Ardant, with bigger ears – and totally implausible as a seventeen year-old boy (unlike the fifty year-old Susan Graham, who paradoxically looks and acts the part to complete perfection).

Franz Hawlata’s cigarette-smoking Ochs, decked out in feathered hat and lederhosen, sings the part as scrupulously as ever, though the rich, fat voice has dried out somewhat since his Covent Garden appearances in the role, with Fleming, in 2000, and the low E is more an act of determination than actual delivery. He is also middling-stilted as an actor, going through well-rehearsed motions and peering myopically at the pit rather than freely inhabiting the role as the finest performers surely should. For no sensible reason, his wound in Act II is deliberately delivered by Octavian to his backside, which makes nonsense of his subsequent loungings-around on the sofa and the doctor’s examination of his arm (though by this time, of course, it comes as an almost knowing confirmation that we are indeed dealing with a staging that doesn’t know its arse from its elbow). Diana Damrau, unflatteringly costumed in a white frock that is structurally four-fifths wedding-cake, and with a bosom apparently inspired by that of Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, looks unsurprisingly far too mature for the role of Sophie – oddly like Sarah Jessica Parker, in fact - but sings, in her steely, Gruberova-esque way, to perfection, floating the Bs effortlessly, and acting with a degree of emotional insight, especially in Act III, rather beyond her role’s sixteen years. Normally, I adore her: in this, however, I found myself repeatedly thinking that the role isn’t right for her, or rather that she isn’t right for it.

Franz Grundheber, the soul of sycophancy, alas wobbles rather too much as Faninal, though Ingrid Vilsmaier nails Marianne Leitmetzerin superbly. The thumpingly-named Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke – Glyndebourne’s drag Witch in Hänsel und Gretel – doesn’t make much of a Valzacchi in Ray-Bans reading La Repubblica, though Jane Henschel is a piece of vocal luxury indeed as Annina, for all that she is visibly twice the age, not to mention the width, of her “uncle”.ée Fleming has been singing the Marschallin for about fifteen years, and has now, presumably, reached an age where the character’s ruminations upon the passage of time are beginning to strike home, and have led, it seems to me, to an appreciable deepening of her musical response. She looks quite fabulous, oddly reminiscent of Eleanor Steber I invariably find myself thinking these days, and not a million miles different vocally, either, but I would suspect with a degree of charismatic glamour and beauty of timbre unmatched by anyone in the work’s hundred-year history. Even so, I thought that the Met’s HD relay early in January 2010 caught her in altogether superior form, radiant to behold in period costume (in which she is able to find both a wider repertory of naturally apt gesture and aristocratic magnificence of deportment denied her in the effectively modern dress sported in Baden-Baden in January 2009; and in which, for want of a more precise term, she simply seemed much more at home, and able to subsume the character, rather, than as in Baden-Baden, have to work visibly hard at it). Vocally too, though exquisite – and in much worked-at German, and on very best behaviour – the voice was altogether more burnished and poised in New York (it is also a fact that she simply relates so very much better to Susan Graham’s more serious Octavian than Koch’s coltish kid). The Met performances also found her far less vague and dreamy, more capable of flashes of authentically splendid temper and profound emotion. As I’ve said, the closing trio is pretty much done for by Wernicke’s egregious staging, but it is quite superbly sung until Damrau flattens at the very end, engulfed by the cataclysm of sound Christian Thielemann unleashes to sweep all the singers away.

Thielemann’s conducting was critically regarded in 2000 at Covent Garden as little short of the Second Coming. I hated it with a passion, finding it drawn-out, flabby and prone to bouts of narcissistic self-regard – “listen to me ! Listen to what I’m doing with this old thing!” – and wearyingly short on nimbleness, wit and brilliance. Nothing much has changed in the interim - Act II remains especially earthbound - except that the interminable, bad-joke hiatus before the start of the trio proper in Act III has shrunk from the preposterous seventeen full seconds of dead silence – I thought somebody had died, and if Strauss hadn’t already, he would have, there and then – to a more manageable seven (still too long, though I suppose at this rate, some time in about 2020, he’ll get it right). He seems an unsmiling, louring presence in the pit, and secures playing from his Munich Philharmonic that strikes me as reasonable but in no way distinguished – the leader is incapable of sustaining the final note of Act I properly, which really needed patching - certainly not fit to be mentioned in the same breath as that of the Met, under, of all unlikely people, Edo de Waart, who found much more light, shade, animation and genuine feeling in the score. In fact, I sincerely hope that the release of this DVD from Germany won’t preclude the possibility of a further Fleming Marie-Therese from New York. There, the late Nathaniel Merrill’s ancient production, considerably older even than the equally late John Schlesinger’s show at the ROH, has an innate, unfussy “rightness” that would bear repeated viewing, which is something I cannot imagine, under any circumstances, proving to be true of the essentially tricksy and shallow Wernicke gloss on the work as provided on this DVD. Given that this is the ninth different filmed Der Rosenkavalier to grace my shelves – though when are we ever to see a transfer of the Schwarzkopf/Karajan Paul Czinner film? – I can’t say that I think it particularly competitive, especially up against either of the Kleibers on DG or the Solti on NVC (or, if you can track it down, Karajan’s second Salzburg stab at it, with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, on Sony).

The filming in Baden-Baden, odd glitches apart, is a suave business, sounds well and looks good, though I find it peculiar the first actual music you hear having loaded the disc is the Toccata prelude to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, heralding the menu screen. On the other hand, full marks for the decision to run the opening titles over miscellaneous shots of the audience foregathering and the orchestra tuning up, rather than, as with the Met relays, appallingly pre-emptive snippets from the staging itself. The end of Act I is fractionally too precipitately faded to black in order to cut out the applause – though any reduction of the orchestra’s first violin’s fairly desperate playing at this point is, I suppose, welcome – and even Act II gets the snip ‘n silence treatment at the end, which is plain silly given its sit-up-and-beg-for-applause nature. At the end of Act III we of course see the whole sequence of curtain calls, and uniquely bizarre they are, too. Rather than start with the minor characters and work your way up to the principals – standard practice the world over for eternity – this show reverses the priority, though initially you don’t realise it, because the first person we see solo is Renée Fleming, followed by Koch, then Damrau, then Hawlata, carrying on and on down the cast until Kaufmann’s rapturously received Italian Tenor comes out last. Then the main curtain reopens to reveal Thielemann and the entire Munich Philharmonic clutching their instruments on stage, a nice touch actually, albeit one not particularly merited in the event. So it’s official: despite the opera being called Der Rosenkavalier – who is Octavian – and always bearing the name Ochs auf Lerchenau until ten weeks before its 1911 Dresden premiere, it’s the Marschallin’s show, at least when Renée Fleming is singing the role (the live Met relay ordered things rather more appropriately).

There is a half-hour bonus included on Disc One comprising interviews with all the principals. Interestingly, they are all left to speak in their native tongue – Koch in French, the others in German – except for Fleming, who, uniquely, delivers her passionate and intelligent observations direct to camera, in German. I cannot begin to reconcile Kaufmann’s lightly unemphatic, diffidently tenorial speaking voice with the vast, dark baritonal sound with which he sings here, but it’s a fascinating paradox to encounter all the same. All the singers come across as kind, appealing, thoughtful and sincere (Thielemann alone seems wary and on the professional qui vive) and though no-one offers any startlingly original insights, it’s worth watching, not least for Grundheber’s surprisingly touching, very autumnal wisdom.


Stephen Jay-Taylor
Opera Britannia

Last Updated ( Sunday, 31 January 2010 15:43 )  


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