Götz Friedrich’s Rosenkavalier Comes Over as Fresh as Ever

GermanyGermany Deutsche Oper Strauss-Wochen (5) – Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, Children’s Choir (choirmaster: Christian Lindhorst), Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Richter), Movement Choir, Extras, and Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Ulf Schirmer (conductor). Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 10.4.2016. (MB)

Der Rosenkavalier (2008) (c) Bettina Stöß.

Strauss,  Der Rosenkavalier

Cast included:

Die Feldmarschallin, Fürstin Werdenberg – Michaela Kaune
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Albert Pesendorfer
Octavian – Daniela Sindram
Herr von Faninal – Michael Kupfer-Radecky
Sophie – Siobhan Stagg
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Fionnuala McCarthy
Valzacchi – Patrick Vogel
Annina – Stephanie Lauricella


Götz Friedrich (director)
Gottfried Pilz, Isabel Ines Glathar (designs)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (Spielleitung)

What a splendid way to finish, with Götz Friedrich’s Rosenkavalier. Few opera productions have a productively long life; I do not mean that as an insult, for by their very nature, successful stagings tend to respond to the concerns of their time, which will not necessarily be ours. There are exceptions, of course; have you ever met someone who has tired of the Chéreau Ring? (Perhaps there remain, somewhere on a reserve, a few choice creatures who still angrily reject it, ‘in the name of all that is winged in helmets’, but let us leave them to their webpages.) Friedrich’s 1993 production, doubtless in conjunction with (very) successful revival direction, still has a great deal to offer. Unlike, say, Otto Schenk’s ideas-free, drama-free, totally-missing-the-point-of-the-opera bad-taste-Rococo-fest, Friedrich’s staging, surely the inspiration for almost all interesting productions thereafter, might have been imagined yesterday, or even tomorrow; comparison with Chéreau is far from exaggerated. Its seventy-fifth performance had me think more than a little; it also had me cry more than a little. It can therefore be said to have done its work very well indeed.

Anachronism is the opera’s thing, or rather it is part of the opera’s most profound concern: the passing of time. Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding. (Or ‘sonderbares’?) It is too in Friedrich’s staging: it is about playing roles, wearing masks, navigating the æsthetic and historical disjunctures with tragic wit and comedic fate. That is done out of love, out of necessity; as a game, as a way of life; as a Viennese, both rooted and cosmopolitan, of ‘then’ and of ‘now’. The point is, of course, that the Vienna of Der Rosenkavalier never existed; it is not ‘really’ the ‘Jesuit Baroque’ of Maria Theresa, to which Hofmannsthal referred in a letter to Strauss (24 April 1909). Yet if there is both truth and untruth – more a matter of dialectical drama than of dishonesty – in Hofmannsthal’s claim, there is likewise both truth and untruth in another Hofmannsthal letter (to Harry Graf Kessler, 20 May 1909) that the Marschallin is not intended in a ‘voltairianisch’ way. Again, there is reference to the ‘Austrian Jesuit Baroque’, but there is something that both encompasses and transcends, or perhaps transgresses, the Austrian, even the Viennese, setting. There was never really a Vienna of Voltaire in the first place; the Austrian Enlightenment was richer – and poorer – than that. Joseph II, whilst co-Regent, pointedly passed by Voltaire’s château rather than visit him. But the artwork has a cosmopolitanism to it too that should not be ignored; the Marschallin’s French may not be intended in that way, at least not entirely, but she is not so far from the salons of Paris – or of Capriccio. There is something of the historico-æsthetic need to recreate in all of that, as there is in what we see.

For the production opens not in the ‘Jesuit Baroque’, not really; nor even in the Vienna of 1911, not really. It seems, and semblance is surely the important thing here, a way in rather than an endpoint, to have more of the 1920s of it, albeit an ‘interwar period’ as we now know it, looking back: fondly, nostalgically, maybe even a little desperately. That is not just Friedrich’s doing, of course; his production, aided enormously by the excellent designs of Gottfried Pilz, Isabel Ines Glathar and by Duane Schuler’s clever lighting, has lived on too, now in the Spielleitung of Gerlinde Pelkowski. The work’s over-ripeness – a part, but only a part of it – has been historically anticipated, almost as if it were aware of Walter Benjamin, which in a sense, of course, it is. It and its after-history are certainly aware of the Marschallin’s hopeless desire to stop the clocks; the poignancy is, if anything, added to, by the extension of the ‘too late’ quality, but also by the Marschallin and Octavian dressing up, recreating, with some of the greatest eroticism I have seen in this work, that never-was dix-huitième we know and love. (Not the Rococo: are you listening, friends of Otto Schenk? Listen to Hofmannsthal… Listen to Strauss: even Johann, via Richard!) The Personenregie unfolds with deceptive, unsparing realism and non-realism; we feel on the one hand it is real, and on the other, that it is artifice. Such is the work; such is the production; such is musical performance. We cannot stop the clocks, although everyone of us would help the Marschallin do so.

Perhaps the greatest victory against the ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’ tendency, though, is the beginning of the second act. It looks magnificent, on a first glance; it does on a second, too, although not in the way they think it does. Some of them actually applauded, presumably thinking they were in Schenkstadt. But they were not; the joke was on them. They do it with mirrors, as the Marschallin would have told them, if only they listened, or cared. Faninal’s Palais actually resembles a smart hotel; it is all a little too functional. It even resembles the smartness of the Salzburg Festival, a Straussian, Hofmannstahlian, strenuously ‘Austrian’ invention itself. We love it; our lives are enriched by it. But it is an invention; an imposter, even, claiming Mozart, in no meaningful sense whatsoever an ‘Austrian’, just as it claims his Salzburg, his Vienna.

The third act is perhaps the greatest triumph of all. The pretension – and I use the word deliberately – of a created Beisl is revealed for what it is: again, this is true criticism. The exaggerations of this ‘old Vienna’, presumably ‘suburban’ in the old sense – think, perhaps of Mozart’s Theater auf der Wieden, or of any other example that takes your fancy – are revealed and, just perhaps, explained. If it is an old Viennese ‘farce’, then it is also old Viennese Fasching; Faschingsschwank aus Wien, as Schumann might have had it. The commedia dell’arte hints (the lovers’ dressing up) of the first act find their destiny here, the Pantomime ‘real’ and the events ‘proper’ theatre; or is it vice versa? The splitting of the stage and the interaction between the two ‘halves’ show us that it is not either-or, but also that a sense of either-or is necessary to appreciation of the delights of the metatheatrical constructions, both Werktreu and otherwise. Valzacchi’s photography is spot on. He draws us into his world, makes us voyeurs, foreigners, consumers, anachronisms, participants. The scandal sheets, the situation, the carnival would be nothing without us. And none of this detracts from our being moved at the end; quite the contrary, it enhances, it necessitates that.

And how we were moved at the end – and not just then. The three women – well, two women and a ‘man’ – complemented and contrasted with each other splendidly. Michaela Kaune’s dignity was unanswerable; it grew, as time went on. She became more beautiful in every way, the more her fate and her mastery of the situation were sealed. Daniela Sindram’s Octavian, stuck in the middle, was unsparingly portrayed: quite right, there should be no sentimentalism here. The character’s youth might seem attractive, but it is not, neither for him, nor for us. Siobhan Stagg’s spirited Sophie was just the thing: horrifyingly little-girlish at the start – the schoolgirl dress was also just the thing – and developing, little by little, not too far but far enough. Albert Pesendorfer’s Ochs was not merely boorish; there was an element of charm, as there should be, at least at times. His pretensions to being a Kavalier were satirised, but not too much, as much in performance as in the silly reddishness of his wig. It was intriguing to encounter a Faninal with real charm too, as well as undeniable arriviste qualities. In Michael Kupfer-Radecky’s portrayal, we were treated to vocal as well as stage suavity, no mere caricature; he knew how to turn it on too. The Italians were uncommonly fine in vocal terms, and more complex character than one generally sees; Patrick Vogel’s quicksilver Valzacchi was complimented by Stephanie Lauricella’s glamorous Annina. Nothing else, I am sure, would have done in this ’20s-ish world.

So it went on, everyone playing his or her part, and the quality of the ensemble playing the greatest part of all. Except, perhaps, for the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, whose praises I have sung in every one of these reviews, and which I shall sing again here. ‘In its blood’ is perhaps an unfortunate, if not entirely inappropriately unfortunate, metaphor here, but it really, doubtless unsurprisingly, seems to speak Strauss like few other orchestras. Ulf Schirmer, in one of the finest performances I have heard from him – self-effacing, not faceless – was first among equals; one had the sense that the orchestra’s waltzing coaxed him, just as he coaxed it. Moments of stillness were such that a pin could have been heard to drop; moments of commotion were so finely balanced that this might have been a second Meistersinger. There was direction, but there was time to linger. Rubato might not stop the clock, but it might increase our desire to do so. Strauss’s Wagnerism – leitmotif here unusually apparent, without overbalance – and his worship of Mozart were as carefully held in check, as productively drawn into conflict and, perhaps, even reconciliation, as they were on stage. As I said, I thought – and I cried.

Mark Berry



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