Thoughts for today but going back in time with Otto Schenk’s vintage Der Rosenkavalier at Vienna State Opera

AustriaAustria R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Philippe Jordan (conductor). Livestreamed (directed by Dominik Kepczynski) from Vienna State Opera, 17.4.2022. (JPr)

Christina Bock (‘Mariandel’), Maria Bengtsson (Marschallin) and Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs)

Director – Otto Schenk
Sets – Rudolf Heinrich
Costumes – Erni Kniepert
Chorus director – Martin Schebesta

MarschallinMaria Bengtsson
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Günther Groissböck
Octavian – Christina Bock
Herr von Faninal – Adrian Eröd
Sophie – Louise Alder
An Italian Singer – Josh Lovell
Marianne – Regine Hangler
Valzacchi – Thomas Ebenstein
Annina – Stephanie Maitland
Police Commissioner – Wolfgang Bankl
Marschallin’s Major-Domo – Juraj Kuchar
Faninal’s Major-Domo – Angelo Pollak
Notary – Marcus Pelz
Milliner – Anna Nekhames
Innkeeper – Jörg Schneider

It was so good to be back in Vienna for the start of – all being well – a month of livestreamed opera and ballet, beginning with this Der Rosenkavalier, with Lucia di Lammermoor, Tristan und Isolde, and Martin Schläpfer’s new baller Die Jahreszeiten to follow. After some recent new productions this was opera in Vienna as I remember it from the time when it was virtually my second home forty years ago or more. Otto Schenk’s production – which he refreshed in 2010 – is now 54 years old and was receiving its 392nd performance and these staggering figures transcend criticism over any concept Schenk – now 91 years young – might have had for this opera, if indeed he actually had one.

I will be repeating myself from previous reviews by suggesting how the choice for any mainstream Der Rosenkavalier is between Viennese nostalgia or Viennese decadence. For the latter it is usually fin de siècle Vienna around the time of the opera’s composition (c.1911) when times were changing in many strata of Austrian society. Alternatively, chocolate-box nostalgia is best served by setting the work in an opulent Rococo Hapsburg palace during the mid-eighteenth century, which is exactly what I believe we have here. With critical faculties strictly on hold it was wonderful to luxuriate in Schenk’s ultratraditional approach: Rudolf Heinrich’s elaborate sets and Erni Kniepert’s sumptuous costumes – frock coats and powdered wigs ‘n all – are simply gorgeous and have a sumptuous period feel. Every detail of colour, light and movement in this production contributes to a series of stage pictures that will delight the senses; even though the set for Herr von Faninal’s ‘town house’ at the beginning of Act II looked imposing enough for the Act III costume ball in Swan Lake. Whilst for all the final act shenanigans we are in a typical Viennese tavern (beisl).

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal – respectively the greatest German composer and librettist of the early twentieth century – were collaborating together for only the second time on Der Rosenkavalier. The opera has become one of the composer’s most popular operas despite not being unanimously lauded in its early years and the fact that Strauss and Hofmannsthal both became somewhat dissatisfied with their creation.

I believe Wolfgang Schilly was responsible for the revival and clearly made a valiant attempt to show us much of the subtle details that must have been there in Schenk’s original staging which, I suspect, followed many of the libretto’s stage directions closely. Almost immediately we see the young page Mohammed (Noah Schuster) shaking his head at the state of the Marschallin’s bed and later there is a particularly careful build-up to Sophie and Octavian’s eyes meeting during the presentation of the rose. We not only get a poignant portrait of human relationships and class envy, but also something of a neo-Baroque comedy of manners and a successor to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. In the first scene, having the ‘trouser role’ Octavian (aka Count Rofrano) dressed up as a maid is clearly a homage to Cherubino. But the liberalism of the early twentieth century is also reflected by having Octavian and Sophie united against the old aristocracy and its decadence as personified by Baron Ochs.

A number of other things in the opera do seem remarkably modern: the self-consciousness of the Marschallin (aka Princess Marie Thérèse), the very open and frank sensuality, as well as the opera’s scathing critique of blundering masculinity. The Marschallin’s arrival towards the end supplies one final twist too: she calls the whole plot simply ‘a farce’ and displays her moral authority by dispensing the noble and traditional values of discretion, benevolence, and personal self-sacrifice in magnanimously pardoning the young lovers who have conspired against her. In so doing she orchestrates the expected happy ending and as the various social strata coalesce with the juxtaposition of the Princess, the Count, the Baron, the upwardly mobile, newly ennobled Faninal (Sophie’s father), with the various servants of different rank, Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s choice of their period setting makes perfect sense. We are clearly in the mid-eighteenth century and contemporaneous with Mozart’s earlier opera.

And then, watching this Der Rosenkavalier I was more uncomfortable about Strauss’s opera than ever before because of 2022 sensibilities. I won’t dwell on it too much now but let me just give a different outline to the plot: powerful woman sleeps with teenage boy whilst elderly serial sexual predator sets his sights on a 15-year-old virgin. I did believe in the thirty-something Marschallin’s regret at the passing of time and losing her young lover to Sophie with whom he becomes immediately attracted on his errand to present her with the traditional silver engagement rose on behalf of Ochs. I liked the way Sophie seemed more rebellious and feistier than sometimes she can; she knew her own mind and seemed unwilling to put up with Ochs pawing at her and condescendingly calling her ‘A good girl’ and he thoroughly deserved the slap she gave him. As for Ochs he had no redeeming features and – perhaps I was overthinking it – I couldn’t find him funny and having asked for it from Ochses in the past I found much of his coarseness and lechery rather repulsive.

Christina Bock (Octavian) and Louise Alder (Sophie)

I can appreciate of course how well it was all sung and there was a three-way tie with the leading women’s voices; Maria Bengtsson’s lust for life and poignancy as the Marschallin, the understated masculinity of Christina Bock’s Octavian and Louise Alder’s spirited Sophie. Bock made her comic business in Acts I and III – when Octavian is disguised as her female alter ego ‘Mariandel’ – really funny. Her voice was rich, full and sounded (through my loudspeakers) as if it was better able to consistently cut through a loud orchestra and some occasional moments of Strauss’s helter-skelter scoring, than most of those she shared the stage with. Alder’s portrayal of Sophie, the ultimate object of the Octavian’s affections and who Ochs intends to marry to secure his finances, veered appealingly between girlish innocence, hopes and fears, yet displayed a welcome dash of twenty-first century feminism. The second act duet (‘Mit Ihren Augen voll Tränen) was particularly beautifully rendered by Alder and Bock. Maria Bengtsson was the Marschallin; her monologue in Act I – as she reflects on her life, her worries about ageing, and convinces herself to send her young lover away before he leaves her anyway – was an emotional highpoint of Bengtsson’s performance alongside the considerable poise, resignation, considerable sadness and vocal radiance she brought to the trio (‘Marie Theres’! … Hab’ mir’s gelobt’) near the end.

There is no doubting Günther Groissböck’s sheer imposing physical presence as a more youthful and slimmer Ochs than we might have seen in the past. It was a vocal masterclass with his impeccable diction and resonant bass notes. (Not only his impressive deep ones but there was a sustained top F on the word ‘hay’ during Ochs’s Act I celebration of his conquests which I understand is often cut.) Would I want such a repulsive character to ooze charisma, possibly not? However, Der Rosenkavalier is a long opera and Ochs is rarely off-stage, so it makes for a long time watching someone you do not really like, though I accept this was not really Groissböck’s fault!

All the to-ing and fro-ing in this revival benefited from an ensemble cast of young and old talent: amongst whom, Josh Lovell was a stylish Italian tenor; Regine Hangler sang well as Sophie’s loyal duenna, Marianne; the Italian conspirators, Valzacchi and Annina – who are so disgruntled by failing to get any payment from Ochs that they assist Octavian in bringing about his downfall – were characterfully played by Thomas Ebenstein and Stephanie Maitland; finally, I found Adrian Eröd’s singing as Sophie’s exasperated father, Faninal, just a touch overwrought.

Der Rosenkavalier is clearly far from my favourite opera, yet when the waltzes weave their magic it can have some glorious moments. Rarely can any of the four leading singers ruin a performance completely but it may be easier for the conductor to do just that. There was no problem here from Philippe Jordan and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (abetted by a lusty-sounding chorus) and it sounded a brilliant account of one of the swooniest of operatic scores. Together they whirled confidently through what is so often little more than a concoction of waltzes. Jordan’s reading – after we see him launch into a potent and erotically charged prelude – had a mellow inner glow and a musicality that was impossible to resist. Occasionally, Strauss’s colouring of mood and atmosphere overwhelmed the action, or lack of it, on stage and not for the first time with this opera found myself concentrating more on the enveloping musical feast than on any comedy or human drama I was supposed to be watching.

Jim Pritchard

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