Zurich Opera Revives a Moving Bitter-Sweet Der Rosenkavalier

SwitzerlandSwitzerland R. Strauss, Der RosenkavalierSoloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich / Fabio Luisi (conductor), Zurich Opera, Zurich 23.2.2019. (JR)

Christof Fischesser (Baron Ochs) & Sabine Devieilhe (Sophie) (c) Zurich Opera

Countess  – Krassimira Stoyanova
Baron Ochs – Christof Fischesser
Octavian – Anna Stéphany
Sophie – Sabine Devieilhe
Faninal – Martin Gantner
Marianne – Miranda Keys
Annina – Irène Friedli
A milliner – Caroline Fuss
1st orphan – Soyoung Lee
2nd orphan – Olivera Dukic
3rd orphan – Julie Bartholomew
Valzacchi – Spencer Lang
Police commissioner – Alexander Kiechle
Countess’ major-domo – Leonardo Sanchez
Faninal’s major-domo – Thobela Ntshanyana
Notary – Stanislav Vorobyov
Innkeeper – Iain Milne
Italian singer – Derrek Stark
Leopold – Gian Dürrenberger
Mohammed – Noelia Finocchiaro

Producer – Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Assistant Producer – Aglaja Nicolet
Set – Rolf Glittenberg
Costumes – Marianne Glittenberg
Lighting – Jürgen Hoffmann
Chorus-master – Ernst Raffelsberger

The opening night of this revival, last week, of Der Rosenkavalier was blighted by two principal singers (Christof Fischesser and Sabine Devieilhe) coming down with the ‘flu’ and having to be replaced. A week later, both had – more or less – recovered, though an announcement asked the audience to forgive an occasional croak. At the end of Act I Fischesser looked decidedly unwell; at the start of Act II, an understudy was on stage with music stand and actually sang the first few notes, with Fischesser, until the understudy got the message that he would thankfully not be required. No one took the music stand away, just in case. Fischesser soldiered on, manfully.

Some consider Der Rosenkavalier an opera for beginners, with its comedic elements and sumptuous themes. I am not so sure: lacking in traditional arias and with the comedy played down, it is a long opera and those who had not done their homework with the synopsis found it hard going. Some find the plot, requiring a female singer (Octavian) in a trouser role making love to an aging Countess and, later, disguising himself as a maid to lure Ochs into a sex trap, implausible and tiresome. Critics at the time were saddened that Strauss appeared to have abandoned the avant-gardism of Elektra and Salome and reverted to the memory of Mozart. However the opera continues to bring in the audiences; it was therefore surprising that it took Zurich Opera so many years to decide to revive it. The original production in 2003/4 featured Nina Stemme, Vesselina Kasarova and Alfred Muff, a hard act to follow.

In the event, the singers did not disappoint. Stoyanova sang a finely balanced, sturdy Countess and acted most convincingly, especially when musing on the pain of growing old. She has sung the role to great acclaim at both La Scala and in Salzburg. Anna Stéphany did not quite have the stamina for the role, nor on this particular evening much beauty of tone: she was often overshadowed vocally by the Countess or by Sophie, sung captivatingly by the young French soprano Sabine Devieilhe, making an impressive house debut. Strategically and discretely placed glasses of water around the set helped her through the performance. The final Act III trio was a complete vocal success for all three singers and made for a most moving ending.

Christof Fischesser, as Ochs, is not perhaps my first choice for comedic talent (though his Austrian dialect was the best of the bunch) but, even with a cold, he remains one of my first choices of sonorous basses. He was only occasionally distracted by his catarrh but managed to sing through the long evening with aplomb, if not always with ease.

Minor roles were all competently taken. I particularly liked Alexander Kiechle’s sturdy if rather monotonous Police Commissioner; American newcomer tenor Derrek Stark proved a most promising Italian singer.

Rolf and Marianne Glittenberg (sets and costumes) delved into the history books to come up with as authentic re-creation of the original production as possible, including some exoticism (Chinese screen, Oriental costume for the singer and his flautist). Their only departure from the set text was to place Act III not in an inn but back in the Countess’s bedroom, replacing the bed (just a few pillows) with a small tent in which people could come and go, and hide. Ghoulish skeletons frightened Ochs and the waiters dressed up as insects – the comedic, farcical element was, however, decidedly low-level.

Costumes were fantastic throughout, especially the sumptuous dresses for the Countess and the louche costume for the coiffeur.

The first act brings the garden into the bedroom with stuffed birds on the wall and naked trees scattered round the room. I have seen more sensuous productions where a large bed often takes centre stage. The second act was set in Faninal’s huge kitchen with an army of cooks – this worked very well and was a feast for the eye.

Fabio Luisi in the pit relished every nuance of this delicious and opulent score, never allowing himself to linger and ‘his’ orchestra, the Philharmonia Zurich, played wonderfully: strings had a lustrous Viennese sheen and the brass blazed.

This was a moving, sensitive production and performance of this ravishing opera, with some fine singing, even when battling seasonal infections of their respiratory tracts.

John Rhodes

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