United Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival  – Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (silent film): Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment / Thomas Kemp (conductor), Town Hall, Oxford 15.10.2017. (CR)
One of the more intriguing events of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival, focusing on ‘the Last of the Romantics’, was this screening of the silent film version of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, one of that period’s most popular and delightful operas. The film was created at the behest of its librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal who thought that, far from diminishing such a work by eliminating the contributions of the singers, it would be transmuted, if not necessarily enhanced or improved, into something equally effective and suggestive by emphasising gesture and action in his original operatic scenario. Robert Wiene – probably best known for his film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – directed this version, and Strauss supplied a reduced version of the score to provide a live accompaniment, scaled down both in length and number of instruments as compared with the original.
The film was produced in 1925, and premiered at the Semperoper in Dresden in January 1926, where the opera had also first been given in 1911. Hoffmansthal’s scenario is somewhat altered, and surely reflects the recent, harrowing experience of the First World War, which had only been a distant, possible threat in 1911, just as in the opera itself – set in the early part of Maria Theresa’s reign – the fact of the War of the Austrian Succession is only dimly implied. Furthermore, the film’s audiences in 1926 – many of whom would presumably have seen the opera in its original form on stage before the Great War – must surely have reflected upon the parallel between the charmed world of the Holy Roman Empire in its last decades before the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars brought it to an end, and the recent final years of the Habsburg monarchy prior to its fall after the Armistice of 1918. (And with the benefit of hindsight, how much more poignant is it for audiences of this film now, who must contemplate what more was about to change after its release, with the rise of the Third Reich, and the Second World War, just as Strauss also mused upon this era both in his last opera, Capriccio , which returns to the doomed era of the Ancien Regime, and again, after final defeat, in Metamorphosen.)
In the film of Der Rosenkavalier the Feldmarschall is actually given a role, and Strauss composed new march music to accompany his scenes away at war. He also appears in episodes showing his earlier marriage to the princess, his learning of his wife’s guilt, and his return to Vienna. The Marschallin’s role is somewhat reduced as comparatively less of her is seen than in the opera, and whereas there is hardly any guilt expressed on her or Octavian’s part in the latter, instead in the film she is wracked with remorse at entertaining his affections – even though there is not even any bed scene (as at the beginning of the opera) but Octavian merely swings through the window in the film’s first scene. Furthermore the Marschallin is denied the role of acting with gracious compassion and self-abnegation since the equivalent scene of Act III’s brouhaha at an inn becomes a celebratory party in a beer garden at the end of the war: amidst the comings and goings during the evening, Ochs is compromised with a girl, and the Feldmarschall’s near-discovery of the Marschallin’s assignation with Octavian is helpfully foiled by the schemers Valzacchi and Annina. In other words, there is no parallel to the great Trio at the end of Act III, although the music is used, and those intriguers have a somewhat more important role to play than in the opera.
That conclusion – which has been reconstructed from stills of the film, since the reels are missing – points up more clearly the influence of The Marriage of Figaro, with its similar garden scene in its final act, as does the episode in the film’s first act where Octavian is nearly found out when concealed behind the Marschallin’s bed, but has quick-thinkingly dressed up as the maid Mariandel, making more explicit and sensational than in the opera the parallel with Mozart’s scenes featuring Cherubino. That seems a pity since it makes the Marschallin seem a much more ordinary adultress than the sympathetic figure of the opera who laments her short-lived flirtation with the teenage Octavian and accepts his inevitable transfer of amorous interest to Sophie, all with the greatest discretion that also allays the trick played upon Ochs and influences him to accept defeat more or less gracefully in the end.
As one of the great directors of Expressionist film, it is perhaps not so surprising that Wiene’s direction results in some quite stylised and expressive gestures, for example in the looks of anguish and pleasure in Huguette Duflos’s’s face as the Marschallin, as she grapples with her contradictory impulses towards Octavian. Admittedly such gestures are necessary in a silent film, which lacks spoken dialogue, in order to make the drama more comprehensible, but to some extent they also bear some relation to the grandiloquent gestures that would have been seen on the Baroque stage, contemporary with Maria Theresa, and so coincides with the period conjured up in the film. Michael Bohnen inhabits the part of Ochs confidently, no doubt due to the fact that he had actually sung the part in performances of the opera and so knew what the role demanded.
With no singing on screen, then, it was left to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Thomas Kemp’s direction, to tell the story through the music. Comprising just sixteen performers, this was little more than a chamber ensemble, but there was marvellous sweep in their performance, as one episode followed the other and in no manner was incongruent with what occurred on screen. The cleaner lustre of the timbre from this period instrument orchestra seemed to suit the almost other-worldly succession of images in this silvery black and white picture, recorded over ninety years ago, though still producing ample drama and a rich texture as occasion required. Only the contribution from the piano did not always keep in step with the rest of the orchestra, but that may have had as much to do with one’s unfamiliarity with that distinctive sonority embedded within the score, as it is not included in anything like the same significant way in the orchestration of the original operatic version. That Kemp succeeded in maintaining an ideal pace throughout the performance was surely evident in that, unlike Strauss at the film’s premiere, he did not have to indicate to the camera operator when to slow down or accelerate the rate of the film’s projection!
The film may lack the charm and originality of the opera, but for lovers of the latter and Strauss’s music generally, it is a fascinating transmutation of this theatrical classic into the more modern art form of the cinema, and it shows Strauss willing and able to respond to the different dramatic needs which that entails. Further performances are intended to take place around Europe, including London, and as was Hofmannsthal’s aim, this run may well bring film and opera enthusiasts together.
For more about the OAE click here.