A fine performance of Der Rosenkavalier in Berlin, hampered by a dismally vague production

GermanyGermany R. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, Children’s Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden (chorus director: Vinzenz Weissenburger), Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Gerhard Polifka), Staatskapelle Berlin / Joana Mallwitz (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin, 2.1.2024. (MB)

Staatsoper Berlin’s Der Rosenkavalier © Ruth Walz

First seen in 2020, André Heller’s production of Der Rosenkavalier, ‘in collaboration with’ Wolfgang Schilly, is something of an enigma. Not only does there appear to be no overriding concept, nor even sense of what the work might be about; there also seems to be little, if anything, in the way of direction of the characters. There are striking set designs from Xenia Hausner and similarly striking costumes from Arthur Arbesser, although the latter dart about confusingly when it comes to chronology; insofar as one can discern any idea, it comes from the former — and that really seems to be it. On entering the theatre, we are confronted in lieu of a curtain with a playbill for a 1917 benefit performance for war widows and orphans in Vienna. I assume that has some relevance to what unfolds, though war and its consequences are nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the Marschallin is supposed to stand in some relationship to Princess Marie Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, under whose auspices the performance is listed as taking place. The costumes, to this untutored eye, suggest something later, perhaps progressively so, the setting European japonisme. (My heart went out to Michael Kim as Pet Vendor: ‘orientalism’ does not begin…) In the second act, Klimt’s Beethoven frieze and ostentatious vulgarity do a reasonable job in evoking something more up to date for Faninal’s palace, although dressing Faninal entirely in gold overeggs the pudding to the point of exploding it. Quite why the third act is set in a giant palm house, I have no idea, but Heller apparently has ‘never understood’ why Hofmannsthal set it where he did. Perhaps he might have tried harder, but no matter.

There are occasional aperçus and likewise causes for bemusement. As an instance of the former, a full-grown Mohammed’s lingering over the Marschallin’s handkerchief at the close comes as a nice (or even nasty) surprise; he clearly loves her as much as the rest of us. Concerning the latter, I have no idea why a team of opera house crew walk on, in T-shirts saying ‘Staatsoper Unter den Linden’, to mob the Italian singer; such metatheatrical (?) presentism is not evident elsewhere. None of this does any particular harm; by the same token, none of it substitutes for an actual production, its thinking through or its accomplishment, although it might well have offered an attractive if slightly arbitrary mise-en-scene. If I remain some way off declaring ‘Come back Otto Schenk, all is forgiven’, I could certainly forgive on this occasion someone for saying so. At any rate, it was unclear why it should have been thought necessary to replace Nicolas Brieger’s staging I saw in 2009 (review click here) with this lavish Berlin successor.

Joana Mallwitz unquestionably brought more in the way of ideas, as well as greater familiarity with the work — and with opera more broadly. (One might have thought such qualities sine quibus non, yet in this brave new world in which anyone other than an opera director can be an opera director, seemingly not.) The Preludes to the first act and the opening of the second were attacked with great energy, vividly pictorial or at least amenable to vivid pictorialisation. The Introduction and much of the Pantomime to the third were spellbindingly Mendelssohnian in lightness and balance of textures; I have never heard them quite like that but should be keen to do so again. Tempi tended to broaden as the acts proceeded, and there were times when I felt the lack of something a little more classical (or indeed closer to Strauss’s own conducting), but there are far worse things than expansiveness in Der Rosenkavalier. At any rate, the Staatskapelle Berlin seemed to respond with enthusiasm to her approach and, if I have heard a greater range of kaleidoscopic colour drawn from the orchestra here, there remained much to admire.

Günther Groissböck (centre front, as Baron Ochs) © Ruth Walz

So too was there in the singing. It seems only yesterday I was making the acquaintance of Julia Kleiter’s artistry as Pamina; now she is the Marschallin, and a distinguished one at that. Her performance showed equal sensitivity to verbal meaning and deeper emotional currents, neither mistaking opera for Lieder nor painting with too broad a brush. Nor did she turn Strauss into Wagner, drawing on considerable Mozartian experience as well as natural, fitting stage presence. Plight, grace, and reassertion of control were moving indeed. Marina Prudenskaya’s Octavian was fruitier of tone than one often hears, though none the worse for that. She captured his ultimate cluelessness to a tee, and likewise offered due bearing for the role. The Faninals were hardly favoured by the production, but Golda Schultz’s unusually headstrong Sophie proved more likeable than usual. Roman Trekel made much of his words in particular as her father. Günther Groissböck was audibly ailing, yet nonetheless offered a vigorous and far from off-the-peg performance as Ochs. His command of Bavarian came in handy for baronial rusticity. There were no weak links in this cast; for me, Katharina Kammerloher’s lively Annina, Anna Samuil’s stern yet caring Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin, and Johan Krogius’s double turn as intelligent Major-domo to Herr von Faninal and spirited (and far from unintelligent) third-act Landlord stood out. No one hearing these performances could reasonably have been disappointed; if only there had been more of a production with which to engage.

Mark Berry

Director – André Heller
Assistant director – Wolfgang Schilly
Set designs – Xenia Hausner, Nanna Neudeck
Costumes – Arthur Arbesser, Onka Allmayer-Beck
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Video – Günter Jäckle, Philip Hillers

Cast included:
The Marschallin – Julia Kleiter
Baron Ochs – Günther Groissböck
Octavian – Marina Prudenskaya
Herr von Faninal – Roman Trekel
Sophie – Golda Schultz
Marianne Leitmetzerin – Anna Samuil
Valzacchi – Karl-Michael Ebner
Annina – Katharina Kammerloher
Police Officer – Friedrich Hamel
The Marschallin’s Major-domo – Florian Hoffmann
Faninal’s Major-domo – Johan Krogius
House Servant – Jens-Eric Schulze
Notary – Dionyios Avgerinos
Landlord – Johan Krogius
Singer – Andrés Moreno Garcia
Milliner – Regina Koncz
Vendor of Pets – Michael Kim
Leopold – Oliver Chwat
Lackeys, Waiters – Sooongoo Lee, Felipe Martin, Insoo Hwoang, Thomas Vogel
Mohammed – Joseph Umoh

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