Wiener Staatsoper, 9/1/2013
Die Feldmarschallin | Angela Denoke
Baron Ochs | Peter Rose
Octavian | Stephanie Houtzeel
Faninal | Clemens Unterreiner
Sophie | Sylvia Schwartz
Marianne Leitmetzerin | Caroline Wenborne
Valzacchi | Michael Roider
Annina | Ulrike Helzel
Jeffrey Tate | Conductor
Otto Schenk | Director
There comes a moment in life, it is said, when one realizes that one is no longer young. It does not inevitably follow that one is old or indeed incapable of going back to younger ways, embarrassingly or otherwise, just that one begins to evaluate one’s existence and internal standards in a different way. In this sense Der Rosenkavalier is less about the passage of time than the transformative power of self-awareness, which the Marschallin steadily gains in shortly after Ochs, a man entirely without it, barges his way into her escapist romance. He is far more of a mirror than the one in which she imagines her fading looks, and his timing, gender and character are no accident. The foil to his predatory hedonism reveals itself as a bittersweet empowerment which, far more importantly than the giving up of Octavian, the Marschallin uses to set Sophie on a more positive matrimonial course than that she has enjoyed (we sense from her reaction to Octavian’s breezy, unaware comments about the Feldmarschall’s exploits in the Croatian forests that her husband’s trophies swiftly lose their fascination once mounted). Ochs, who remains in denial, will not allow one setback to prevent him from chasing skirts, but while the Marschallin will never look at romance or herself in the same way again, more than mere impulse governs the near certainty, as Strauss himself later felt moved to flippantly point out, that Quinquin will not be the last youth she takes as a lover. A common observation draws the Marschallin of Act III as a female equivalent to Hans Sachs, but a more optimistic possibility Hofmannsthal leaves open is that she and Sophie have transcended the dualism of the Madonna/whore archetype.
With reference to language one could go on and on, for Hofmannsthal’s libretti certainly lend themselves to endless discussion and indeed we are so used to looking past their bourgeois surfaces by now that in many instances the subtleties are more familiar to us than their more superficial outward meanings (I believe it is Žižek who reminds us that Octavian’s post-coital gushing of ‘Wie du warst! Wie du bist! Das weiss niemand, das ahnt keiner!’ is a breathless comment on spectacular sexual performance). It should come as little surprise however that Otto Schenk’s production for the Wiener Staatsoper is not so interested in meanings poetic or mundane, though what ultimately makes it such a bore is its stubborn impermeability to irony, which hobbles SpielleiterInnen and singers who might otherwise get some campy mileage out of its kitsch – as was the case in last November’s Meistersinger, when the potential of Botha in tights and pretzel-shaped insignia straight out of Springtime for Hitler was quite distinctively milked. A Rosenkavalier so indifferent to Hofmannsthal could, if nothing more, simply be smoothed over and knowingly parodied as a rambunctious wienerische Maskerad’, to use the Marschallin’s words, but while Schenk is determined to reduce this character, intellectually, to an 18th-century Mrs. Robinson, the farce he crafts around her is utterly cardboard. I also maintain, for there are many in Vienna who incomprehensibly find this Rosenkavalier authentically naturalistic, that the faux-Palladian monstrosity of Faninal’s residence is entirely at odds with the pretensions of Am Hof (the Viennese address quite purposely specified in the libretto and painstakingly rendered in the scale and fittings of Alfred Roller’s design for the opera’s 1911 premiere).
The opera’s spiritual home has seen many fine Marschallinnen give of their best, but around a year ago I had thought that Anja Harteros would be as good as it gets for this production’s immediate future. Even in direct comparison Angela Denoke was however no disappointment, showing a lyric beauty and elasticity that resurfaced untouched by all the Wagner and Janáček she has been singing lately. A tendency on sustained notes for vibrato to tighten and tone to metallize petered out on warming up, and though her way with the text was understated she had the measure of the libretto’s urbanity and indirectness. Stephanie Houtzeel has come a long way in a role which didn’t fit her voice all that well a couple of seasons ago, but her Octavian still feels somewhat of a work in progress, while Sylvia Schwartz, experiencing a bad off night, was in acutely poor voice and produced sour and stringy high notes that were hard on the ears. Peter Rose is a dependable Ochs but his is a performance shorn of cheap buffoonery only if one doesn’t look and listen too closely, one of the many giveaways being all-purpose Wienerisch that the Viennese themselves no doubt delight in hearing from a Nicht-Wiener and which, in fairness, is lazy practice among a good few German-speaking singers. One might think that Lerchenau is some area in the Viennese district (famed for its working class micro-dialect) of Meidling, such was the wideness of the L Rose used to pronounce its name. (Kurt Rydl has little voice left nowadays but his Ochs is worth hearing for inflection that realizes a character rather than a caricature.) Clemens Unterreiner, a rising star of the ensemble, rather uncharacteristically blasted his way through Faninal.
This performance sagged in all the places a sketchily rehearsed Rosenkavalier tends to do, the Staatsopernorchester once again proving that this is not a piece which takes well to having its spell broken. But Jeffrey Tate, a Staatsoper stalwart when it comes to Strauss, did keep sentimentality and cloying violins at bay, and ‘Ohne mich’, so often overshot, had the ideal degree of Schwung. The prelude was however oddly ponderous and outright loss of pulse afflicted the Presentation of the Rose, its phrases almost unrecognizable and violin tuning simply an atrocity. Ensemble is so complicated in Der Rosenkavalier, particularly if precision is to be balanced with the more positive attributes of philharmonische Gelassenheit (freedom and easy spontaneity), that the Staatsoper could do with a new production purely for those non-Philharmonic members of the orchestra who have never truly rehearsed the work.
Image credit: Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper
Image credit: Michael Pöhn / Wiener Staatsoper