Bittersweet Rosenkavalier at Zurich Festival Lacks Magic and Eroticism

SwitzerlandSwitzerland  R. Strauss, Rosenkavalier : Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, conductor: Fabio Luisi, Zurich Opera, Zurich. 30.6.2013. (JR)

Marschallin:           Nina Stemme
Baron Ochs:          Alfred Muff
Octavian:              Vesselina Kasarova
Sophie:                Rachel Harnisch
Von Faninal:          Martin Gantner
Marianne:             Liuba Chuchrova
Annina:                Irène Friedli
Valzacchi:             Michael Laurenz
Police Chief:          Dimitri Pkhaladze
Marschallin’s butler: Fabio Trümpy
Faninal’s butler:     Andreas Winkler

Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Sets: Rolf Glittenberg
Dramaturgy: Aglaja Nicolet
Costumes: Marianne Glittenberg
Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus: Jürg Hämmerli

photo credit: Suzanne Schwiertz
photo credit: Suzanne Schwiertz

As part of this year’s Zurich Festival, the opera house revived a 2003/4 production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf of Der Rosenkavalier. (Bechtolf has moved with ex-Zurich Intendant Alexander Pereira to the Salzburg Festival). The sets and costumes are pretty, as befits the opera, and the production non-controversial. The theme is the passing of the years, as both the Marschallin and Baron von Ochs rue their advancing years and lust for young lovers: which politicians and other celebrities spring immediately to mind?  The ageing process is shown on stage by dead trees, both incongruously within the various palaces themselves and without (as in Act II), and by the silent figure of a decrepit Octavian in Rosenkavalier costume, the age of Baron von Ochs, shadowing his younger self.

I have some minor quibbles with the production: there is no bed in Act I, and the eroticism, so evident in the libretto and music, is lost.  Act II is set in the kitchens of Faninal’s palace, dead trees can be seen through the upper windows, and the silver rose is handed over to Sophie who is hiding in a kitchen cupboard. So no glimpse of a glittering carriage and no spine-tingling magic as the rose is delivered. It was like having Matthew Crawley propose to Lady Mary downstairs at Downton Abbey. Act III is not set in a common tavern but in a tent-like structure within the Marshallin’s palace.

Act II was the prettiest, the kitchen was Wedgwood blue, the backdrop rows of expensive crested porcelain, and a bevy of chefs busily preparing blue sweetmeats. There is also a puzzling bird theme, probably mere decoration: birds on the wall in Act I, pheasants hanging from the ceiling in Act II, parakeets on the wall in Act III.

Vocally, this was a fine line-up. Nina Stemme as the Marschallin was in a class above the rest, regal acting and her voice in great shape.  She can go up high, sound ethereal, but has power in the middle and lower registers. I look forward to her Salome in Zurich next season.

I was also most impressed by young Swiss soprano Rachel Harnisch as Sophie who was by no means overawed by the big names on stage; her soprano was sweet and incisive. Bulgarian soprano Vesselina Kasarova is not always everyone’s cup of tea, but in the role of Octavian, she looked the part (i.e. masculine) and sang strongly, sometimes too much so. The veteran Alfred Muff took the limelight whenever on stage; he knows this role like the back of his hand and it showed. His comic acting was just right, his country Austrian dialect the best of the bunch (he is actually Swiss); his singing was always a delight, especially the really low notes.

In the less headline roles, Martin Gantner as Faninal was more than competent; Liuba Chuchrova made a chirpy Marianne (her Latvian-influenced German however not always the clearest). Irène Friedli, in a debut of the role, impressed as a gutsy Annina.

There were problems with balance at the beginning of both Acts I and II. Luisi chose to demonstrate the orchestra’s full volume and bloom, and with vigorous conducting and some fast tempi it was occasionally difficult to hear the singers. The orchestra were at their best throughout, Luisi bringing out both the modernistic and comic elements in the score.

Perfect Festival fare.

John Rhodes