Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss, Deutsche Oper Berlin, April 2016. Director Götz Friedrich, Das Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin conducted by Ulf Schirmer. Reviewed by Tony Cooper
First performed in January 1911 at the Königliches Opernhaus (predecessor of Semperoper), Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) was conducted at its première by the maestro of the day, Ernst Edler von Schuch, who also found himself in the pit for the premières of Strauss’ Feuersnot, Salomé and Elektra. And a maestro of eminent importance today, Ulf Schirmer, general music director of Oper Leipzig, spun his magic in the pit controlling a wonderfully-entertaining production featuring a stellar cast that marked the end of a very successful mini-Strauss festival mounted by Deutsche Oper with packed houses every night.
Der Rosenkavalier actually played to a packed house on its première. It was an overnight success but the Dresden authorities were concerned that audiences would find it offensive no doubt worried about the amorous adventures of Baron Ochs who manages to get himself in all kinds of trouble. In this well-directed production by Götz Friedrich (first seen in February 1993) he was up to his old tricks. Albert Pesendorfer portrayed Ochs in the usual coarse and vulgar manner in keeping with his bullish and arrogant character. But gladly he didn’t over-act the role, as so often is the case, and together with his lackeys they made an effective comedy team.
The opera’s working title was, in fact, Ochs von Lerchenau, appropriate enough for in German ‘ochs’ translates as ‘ox’, a word which correctly depicts the strong-minded character of the Baron.
The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal was partially sourced from Claude Terrasse’s operetta L’Ingénu libertin and Molière’s Monsieur de Pourceaugnac but Strauss set to work on what he called a ‘komödie für musik’ well before the libretto was delivered to him.
Strauss was also quick to pick up on the new 19th-century dance craze raging in Vienna and worked several waltz passages into the score as a medium to evoke the atmosphere of Old Vienna. But what we regard as wonderful pieces today was not always the case. When the opera reached La Scala, for instance, steadfast and excitable Italians booed the waltzes which, in their view, were only suitable for the grand society balls of Vienna.
Such great singers as Elisabeth Söderström, Lotte Lehmann and Renée Fleming have been closely associated with the central role of Die Feldmarschallin. Now you can add to this star-studded list, German soprano Michaela Kaune, who, deputising for Anja Harteros at short notice, had no trouble in the role whatsoever. She put in a warm and sincere performance and looked radiant and aristocratic as befitting her station in society.
The opening scene in the Marschallin’s boudoir, decked out with sky-blue sofas and matching bottle-green curtains, sees her cavorting between white satin-covered sheets with the youthful Octavian. Daniela Sindram delivered a well-mannered and detailed performance in this role. She made a triumphant start to a joyous production that never faltered in its pace to its conclusion featuring that gloriously-romantic trio, the highlight of the opera, in which the Marschallin renounces her love for Octavian while offering him reluctantly, but graciously, to her young and beautiful rival, Sophie, brilliantly sung by the Australian soprano, Siobhan Stagg. The richly-textured voices of the three female leads produced a range of colour and purity of tone that was simply a joy to listen to.
When Hofmannsthal sent Strauss the draft copy of the trio, the composer was delighted and dutifully replied: ‘It will set itself to music like oil and melted butter. I’m hatching it already.’ He hatched, indeed, an extraordinary piece which he loved so much that he requested to have it played at his funeral.
Overall the opera – colourfully (and stylishly) set in 1920s Vienna – was well cast and Matthew Newlin, who as the Italian singer in act I, excelled in his big number delivering the flowing and flowery love-song Di rigori armato il senon (Armed rigors of the breast) completely ‘over-the-top’ in a very expressive way while showing contempt for Ochs over his boisterous and constant interruption.
But the formality of the Presentation of the Silver Rose by Octavian, the grand affair in act II, was executed with the pomp and circumstance of a state occasion. The scenario was acted out against a brilliantly-designed set reminiscent of the plush and ornate period of the belle époque comprising café tables, decorative furniture and red carpets while floor-to-ceiling mirrors positioned at various angles offered a distorted but effective reflection of the assembled guests ranging from the lower orders to the landed gentry with Jörn Schörner, Faninal’s Haushofmeister, bossing them about as befits his status as the major domo. In among all this, Octavian and Sophie manifested their love for each other singing calmly and warmly, Wo war ich schon einmal (Where I was before and was so blessed).
Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s fine baritone voice perfectly fitted the role of Herr von Faninal (Sophie’s father) while Patrick Vogel (Valzacchi) and Stephanie Lauricella (Annina) were cunning and devious to the nth degree, bent on revenge against poor old Ochs. And revenge comes in a most satisfying and humiliating way in which Ochs puffs himself up for a rendezvous with Octavian masquerading under the name of ‘Mariandel’. The appointed place for Ochs’ downfall turns out to be a cabaret theatre sporting a great team of brightly-dressed burlesque acts strutting about the stage at random with a celebration party going on in full swing while Ochs is getting ready to entertain Mariandel, looking sweet and very much a ‘Heidi’ dressed in dirndl and braids. But, unwittingly, he soon finds himself propelled on to centre stage and the star act of the night! His intimate and private supper turns out to be a waking nightmare and he is caught with his pants down in full view of the police, cameras and hangers-on.
Octavian and Sophie slip away from the scene of his disgrace but not before delivering the opera’s final aria, Ist ein Traum (It is a dream), sung so passionately by Ms Sindram and Ms Stagg that it perfectly ended a brilliant, heart-warming and satisfying production. And, indeed, ended Deutsche Oper’s mini-Strauss festival which kicked off in a blaze of glory with Salomé and Elektra. All five operas were convincingly staged and extremely well cast. But what one takes away from the festival is seeing for the first time those two rarities: Die ägyptische Helena and Die Liebe der Danae. They were absolutely brilliant pieces and one hopes that they remain – for the foreseeable future, anyway – in Deutsche Oper’s repertoire. They deserve to!
Tony Cooper has been working in the field of publishing and the arts for a number of years writing mainly for Archant newspaper group based in his home city of Norwich. Nowadays, he focuses on opera and classical music. He is a great admirer of Richard Strauss and Wagner