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Posts Tagged ‘R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier’

Der Rosenkavalier is an opera intimately related to the Salzburger Festspiele – not only has it seen some of the key names perform on its stage (from Lotte Lehmann to Kurt Moll, by way of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Tatiana Troyanos and Lucia Popp…), but some absolute standards have been established here (especially Karajan 1960 and Böhm 1969). In this Straussian 150th anniversary, it is only fitting that this work has been chosen to be performed in the Großes Festspielhaus. In the old days, however, you would see the crème de la crème of the operatic world in a Strauss performance in Salzburg – I don’t know if I could say that the audience had something like that this evening.

Franz Welser-Möst does have indisputable Straussian credentials – his performances in Vienna and Zurich have met with critical acclaim and, with the help of the Vienna Philharmonic, one can expect nothing but perfection. The high expectations might have something to do with the disappointment, but a serious attempt to be objective makes me say that this was a lukewarm performance, graced by an orchestra capable of producing exquisite sounds but often poorly balanced, unsubtle brass throughout. Although one could hear vertical clarity, there was not really the sense of a presiding intelligence that makes every element in the score live up to a coherent and meaningful “arch” in every act, let alone through the whole opera. The fact that the cast was vocally underpowered posed a serious challenge to the conductor, who deserves praises for trying to accommodate his soloists, by keeping the orchestral sound light and transparent. Nevertheless, the final effect seemed ill-at-ease, meager and sometimes awkward. In any case, purely orchestral moments too had variable results – the introduction to act I sounded a bit rough-edged and humorless, for instance. On the other hand, act III opened in the grand manner, an example of structural transparency.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s lyric soprano has seen better days – a consistent diet of heavy roles has robbed her voice of focus in its upper register. The most immediate result is that it is often difficult to hear her, unless when Strauss requires chamber-size sounds from his orchestra. Until her act I monologue, this was a very frustrating experience, but once she reached that key moment, she soon redeemed herself by offering a stylish, musicianly and elegant account of the part of the Marschallin. She masters the art of expressive mezza voce and uses portamento tastefully. More than that: her approach is truly personal, freshly conceived and inspired by none of her famous predecessors. As performed by Ms. Stoyanova, the Marschallin is a savvy woman who sees her glass half-full. Although she knows that this won’t last forever, she will enjoy it until then. Sophie Koch is one of the best Octavians in the market these days. She too could be hard to hear in her middle and low registers this evening, but consistently produced rich and full top notes. Mojca Erdmann struggled with the part of Sophie during the whole evening – her voice sounds microscopic in this music, comes in one only saccharine color and she cannot float high mezza voce to save her life. Also, she seems clueless about what to do with the role. Fortunately, Günther Groissböck is a vivacious, fully idiomatic Ochs, a young man in the role for a change. He sang his long act I scene uncut and produced his showpiece low notes securely. There could be a little bit more volume and tonal variety and he lost steam at some point in act III, but still it was a refreshingly convincing take on this role so prone to exaggeration and musical imprecision. As much as his Maschallin, he would have been better appreciated in a less large auditorium. Adrian Eröd’s Faninal too seemed to resent the acoustics and sounded on the grey-toned side during the whole evening. Curiously, given the Festival’s tradition, all minor roles have been unspectacularly cast, Annina and Valzacchi barely noticeable and the Italian tenor labored and hard on the ear. Exceptions should be made to a forceful Leitmetzerin of Silvana Dussmann and a powerful and rich-toned Polizeikomissar of Tobias Kehrer.

Harry Kupfer’s insight-free production is inoffensive to a fault and staged Hofmannsthal’s libretto in an almost exclusively design approach – the sets were dominated by projection of photographs from Vienna, props reduced to a minimum and costumes in a strict chromatic palette. It could have been a concert version, but I guess that these singers would rather have the orchestra in the pit.

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The fact that the Komische Oper has the whole repertoire sung in German often makes it overlooked in comparison with the other two famous opera houses in Berlin, where one is treated to international casts, famous conductors and world-class orchestras. But when it comes to Der Rosenkavalier, I am afraid that the house at the Behrenstraße gets pride of place. Andreas Homoki’s production is the opposite of a revelation, but proves to be far more consistent and incredibly better directed than what remains from Götz Friedrich’s for the Deutsche Oper and from Nicolas Brieger’s for the Staatsoper.

When it comes to casting, of course, the Komische Oper cannot feature blockbuster names, but the ensemble has solid singers – in the case of Jens Larsen, I would say that top-class ones. He must be one these happy few people with very little ambition, for his Ochs is better than some seen and heard in many a big opera house. Even the occasional rough patch makes sense in a truly funny characterization, in which voice (big basso profondo notes involved) and acting are perfectly united. The lovely Stella Doufexis has everything to be an exemplary Octavian but scale – hers is a small voice for the ensembles and her Rosenkavalier sounds a bit too elegant and feminine for the circumstances. Nevertheless, she is such a classy singer and such a convincing actress that one tends to take her side, even when things are not really easy for her. I have the impression that Brigitte Geller has already grown away from the role of Sophie. Two years ago, she seemed a bit unenthusiastic about it. Now she seems almost bureaucratic. She is a very musicianly singer, with touching turns of phrase, but the high mezza voce comes now a bit more difficultly and there are many moments just off-focus – not only vocally. The small roles are predictably tentative – for the exception of two very good tenors, Christoph Späth, an alert, bright-toned Valzacchi, and Timothy Richards, an extraordinarily heroic Italian tenor with easy high notes.

It is difficult to believe that these performances in Berlin are Geraldine McGreevy’s debut in the role of the Marschallin, for only a slight hesitation when mezza voce is involved and one or two false entries expose a certain inexperience in it.  Her soprano is ideally creamy, a solid middle and low register particularly helpful in this part; her diction is perfect, she phrases with utmost sensitivity and purpose and, best of all, the feeling is genuine. There were moments in which the emotions were so palpable that I feared she would just cry on stage. Well, in the audience, many of us have. She is too a competent actress and, even if there are more alluring Marschallins around, she can be very convincingly aristocratic. A beautiful performance.

The house orchestra lack a certain refulgence in the string section, but Patrick Lange could nonetheless produce a very intense yet clear view of the score, sometimes too hard-pressed and slightly superficial in its bright colors. In all key moments, when a little bit more patience would have allowed him to build up the atmosphere (especially in the final trio), things escalated too fast and the result was sometimes noisy and unhelpful for his cast. I have to grant him something, the violins in the end of act I (a favorite passage of mine) were marvelous, exactly as I would wish for. This alone was worth the ticket price.

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“Leicht muss man sein” was the advice Richard Strauss borrowed from the Feldmarschallin when he had to explain how Der Rosenkavalier should be conducted. It is a wide ranging score in which the composer tried to go a step further from Wagner’s Meistersinger and Verdi’s Falstaff and ended on producing a formidable patchwork of Musikdrama, operetta and tone poem. But the advice remains – it is supposed to be a comedy and the serious episodes should be played “with one eye wet and the other one dry”. Back in 2005 at the Met, Donald Runnicles followed this advice and produce a performance of great musical integrity. This evening he still followed the advice, but in its most superficial level. The orchestral playing was never heavy, but often unclear and only intermittently expressive. As with every musical comedy with a large orchestra, adjusting the sounds from the pit to lighter voices is always difficult and the usual victim is atmosphere. This evening, the general impression was of coldness – even in the orchestral episodes, when the conductor should be finally free to firework, the proceedings remained recessed and uneventful. The Sophie/Octavian “love duet” was an exception – exquisitely crafted by soloists, musicians and conductor, it gleamed in the middle of the prevailing lukewarmth. The other exception proved to be truly exceptional – this evening’s final trio was so faultless in its spontaneous flow, so free of artifice that it struck powerfully home: lots of wet eyes in the audience. This passage alone made the performance cherishable, in spite of all its flaws.

Götz Friedrich’s 1993 production for the Deutsche Oper looks older than its age: I could have guessed 1983 in its many splashes of bad taste in purple/red/mirror sets. As many productions in Germany, directors are obsessed with the work’s anachronism and make everything turn around schizophrenic aesthetics. Since Friedrich’s original direction is lost in the dust of time, I can only talk about what I saw: a kitsch staging in which singers are supposed to do what they deem better to do. It was quite lucky that this evening the cast had the more or less the right instincts about what that should be.

Replacing Petra Maria Schnitzer’s for the Feldmarschallin, the name of Lioba Braun made me worried and curious. If Christa Ludwig wasn’t an indisputable success in it, what hope should there be for other mezzos in that role? Well, Braun seemed determined to prove me wrong. She was not an indisputable success either, but she really can sing this part and has something to say about it. At first, her voice does not sound the role: it is a bit smoky, distinctively vibrant and a tiny little bit matronly. In its higher reaches, it doesn’t always produce seamless legato and sometimes variety is achieved rather from a very clear diction and spontaneous inflection than through tone-colouring, but she is certainly a technically secure singer who floats high mezza voce more effortlessly as many a lyric soprano. Her Hab’ mir’s gelobt really gave me goosebumps. If her singing is not always aristocratically poised, her whole attitude turns rather around decisiveness than musing. Even if the cool elegance of a Lisa della Casa or a Kiri Te Kanawa corresponds more to everyone’s idea of this role, I wonder if a XVIIIth century grande dame’s attitude was not closer to Lioba Braun’s commanding rather than charming approach. Considering it is only the second time she takes this role (her debut in it took place a couple of months ago in Leipzig), one can only wonder what she will be doing in it once she matures in it.

Daniela Sindram was born to sing the role of Octavian – her creamy mezzo soprano floats through Straussian phrases and, as her Marschallin, she readily takes to mezza voce. To make it better, she cuts a convincingly boyish figure on stage while keeping a patrician bearing and relishes the Mariandl episodes without excess of caricature (properly directed, she could be indeed perfect in it). Julia Kleiter, the tallest Sophie I have ever seen, unfortunately doesn’t share with these singers the ability to spin soft, floated high notes – a requirement in this part – but her high pianissimi, occasionally tight, are never hard on the ear. As a matter of fact, her greatest asset is the irresistible beauty of her voice. And the fact that she is an elegant, musicianly singer doesn’t hurt either.

At 64, Kurt Rydl is still a commendable Baron Ochs. Actually, he was in far better voice than last time I saw him (2009) in a Tannhäuser also in the Deutsche Oper. His voice only rarely sounded rusty and, if he did not always follow dynamic instructions, he had not followed them either in his studio recording in Dresden many years ago. An uninformed listener would find a large, rich, dark voice, very clear diction and echt Viennese quality (after all, he was born there). He is also a skilled comedy actor with almost perfect timing who could make us believe that Ochs is a nobleman (something many basses forget to do). Minor roles were very well cast, especially Yosep Kang’s faultless Italian Tenor, Burkhard Ulrich’s subtle Valzacchi and Ulrike Helzel’s bright, well-focused Annina.

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Otto Schenk’s production of R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier is probably by now listed in Frommer’s and TimeOut as one of Munich’s historical attractions: it was first shown in 1972 and made famous in Carlos Kleiber’s DVD with Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender and Lucia Popp. I can understand the Bavarian Opera’s unwillingness to part with it – it is an expensive staging that is still very popular. The sets to the second act were received by applause, something I had never seen in Germany before.  In any case, having seen the DVD does not mean that you’ll know beforehand what you are going to see. The new cast has brought it’s own contribution under a Spielleitung that responds to contemporary tastes rather than those of 1972.

Anja Harteros, for example, is a far more sensuous and less pensive Marschallin then Gwyneth Jones in the video. Her lighter approach is coherent with what Strauss himself expected in this role. She was, of course, born to sing it: she has the looks, the attitude and the voice. Her rich soprano finds no difficulties in the often low-lying declamatory passages, expands effortlessly in its higher reaches (exemplary contribution to the closing trio) and takes easily to mezza voce. She took a while to warm and only sounded her full-toned self by the beginning of her monologue. Although her diction is very, very clear and, being herself German, is usually spontaneous in her delivery of the text, I had the impression that she – very understandably – is still finding her way in this role. In many a key moment, she would opt for a studied, ready-made inflection borrowed from her famous predecessors in the role rather than trusting her own instincts. In these moments, her Marschallin invariably sounded uninvolved. But don’t mistake my words: if I make these observations, it is precisely because Harteros is on her way to becoming the leading Marschallin of her generation. If she is not that yet, the good news are that she is going to be even better in the future!

On the other hand, Sophie Koch is by now an experienced Octavian who knows exactly where her strengths are. Her creamy mezzo has the necessary brightness to pierce through, her passaggio is very smooth, she avoids pushing and can spin some forceful high notes and beautiful pianissimo. She is only tested when the tessitura remains too long in the soprano area. Even then, she acquits herself quite commendably. I like her stage performance as well; she knows how to play boyishness without making a charicature of it and how to seem aristocratic without seeming mature. She handles the physical comedy without overindulging herself too.

Lucy Crowe too is a convincing Sophie – she has the physique and finds the right balance between darlingness and purpose. Her soprano is a bit more substantial than usual in this part, but she can sound edgy and her cleanly attacked and floating high pianissimi sometimes develop a light, but noticeable beat. The other Briton in the cast, Peter Rose has the required low notes and clear articulation for the Baron Ochs. He is an excellent comedy actor too and can find a patrician note in an otherwise rustic character. I saw him in this role in 2003 at the Met, when he was more restrained with his ad libs and funny touches. At any rate, he has enough charisma to pull this out and certainly is one of the best exponents of this role in our days.

Conductor Constantin Trinks drew rich, warm sounds from the Bavarian State Orchestra without forgetting structural clarity; the prelude to act III was particularly clean – but had problems to find the right balance between pit and stage, often drowning his singers. In the more intimate passages, he gave the impression of being reined in and without ideas, while complex ensembles, especially those involving Ochs, were often messy.

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The Straussian credentials of the Philippe Jordan+Staatskapelle Berlin team have been more than sucessfully presented in this year’s season opening concert, when they treated the audience to an exemplary rendition of the Alpensinfonie.  Playing in the Lindenoper’s pit has not prevented them from offering a truly symphonic approach to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. From the  first bars, one could feel that this would be a special evening: faultless French horn solos, glistening string playing, vivid woodwind. More than that – a conductor in complete control of his forces who could therefore concentrate on expression and drama.

Although the score features beautiful and touching vocal parts, the audience would turn to the orchestra tonight to find the multilayered portrayal of the character’s emotions. Maestro Jordan did not need to play effects, he could give himself and his musicians the necessary time to let notes speak – during the Feldmarschallin’s famous act I monologue, one would invariably be distracted from Hofmannsthal’s text by the richly coloured chamber-like writing for wind instruments. Act III showed such thematic clarity that one would never consider it a long stretch of unmelodic music between act II and the final trio, which did not fail to be the emotional highlight of the evening in its perfectly calculated dynamic and tempo ebb-and-flow .

So why was this performance finally not unforgettable? I am afraid that the answer is simply that a symphonic approach needs voices large enough to cope with a large orchestral sound – and rather than adding to the ensemble, the largely light-voiced cast gathered here was overshadowed by it. Although Anne Schwanewilms often produces some exquisite sounds, her lyric soprano is also often too thinly produced to be really heard over the full orchestra. When she really tried too sing loud, the results were often pinched, unflowing or rather edgy, not to mention that her method to reach high notes is basically pecking at them. She is an intelligent singer who uses the text effectively, but I wonder how long her technique will allow her to sing roles that require true legato in the high register.

Katharina Kammerloher is usually billed as a mezzo-soprano, but at least this evening one would take her for a soprano. At some moments, her voice even sounded similar to her Marschallin’s, although her basic tone is creamier and her top notes richer. Even if her Octavian was rather on the light and feminine side, it was also beautifully and stylishly sung. I have previously written that I was curious to hear Sylvia Schwartz in a high-lying role – and I was right to suspect that they work particularly well for her. As Sophie, she could explore the best part of her voice and float effortlessly velvety top notes. It is true that her soprano is a bit small, but Sophie rarely has to deal with heavy orchestral writing – and she also has the looks and the right attitude for the role.

I had never been convinced by Alfred Muff, whom I knew from recordings, and I was doubly surprised by his Ochs tonight. First, because his voice is far darker and larger than the microphones suggest. Second, because the part really fits his voice. He finds no problem with the very low notes and the declamatory writing. He has some fondness for off-pitch effects, but the truth is he was the only member of the cast who could really project over the orchestra (I would also add Irmgard Vilsmaier’s quasi-dramatic soprano, rather too loud for the role of the duenna). Martin Gantner was an efficient Faninal, but he missed too many theatrical points to be really convincing and, in spite of the anounced sickness, Stephen Rügamer seemed at ease in the difficult tessitura of the Italian Tenor’s aria.

Nicolas Brieger’s 14-years old staging takes so many unnecessary and pointless liberties with the libretto (Mohammed is here a dwarf, the three orphan girls are here boys, naked maids run through Faninal’s palace, the act III inn is depicted as an outdoor place with a bed hidden behind bushes) that in the end you just believe that nobody bothered to read the libretto. To make things worse, Joachim Herzog’s costumes are erratic, mixing styles from different centuries with no apparent purpose.  It is decidedly provincial and unworthy of Germany’s capital city.

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If we bear in mind that the Komische Oper is something like the temple of Regietheater, Andreas Homoki’s 2006 production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier would be something like Otto Schenk’s compared to the other stagings shown in that adventurous opera house. Although the director does interfere with the libretto, I would say that the layman could still follow the plot. As it is, Homoki considers that the story’s main element is the passing of time in the sense of transition of epochs. Thus, both the Feldmarschallin and the Baron Ochs would represent the old generation and its relationship with making way for a new generation represented by Octavian and Sophie – a situation Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal would themselves experience as late Romantics in the eve of a world profoundly transformed by WWI and WWII. In act I, the rococo atmosphere shows the Marschallin in wig, corset, panniers etc, but Octavian’s clothes makes us think rather of the early XXth century, a hint of what is going to happen on act II – Faninal’s house is shown in what seems to be the 30’s. Act III’s Wirthaus is replaced by the upside-down version of act I and act II’s sets and the tricks played on Ochs become air raids. In the meanwhile, the Marschallin and Ochs retain their XVIIIth century-style outfit to the end. Homoki’s ideas are generally sensible and proper to a small stage such as the Komische Oper’s, what makes it more upsetting when silliness creeps in – Sophie strips to her underwear in act II and presents herself at the Wirthaus in act III in her robe-de-chambre. Why?

Although I can remember more flawless Marschallins than Solveig Kringelborn, her performance is still extraordinarily touching. To start with, she has something like the voix-du-rôle. Her lyric soprano is still attractive in its creamy floating mezza voce, but it does no longer sound “young” and, whether it is art or nature I don’t know, but her not entirely ingratiating break into chest voice always go with the situations when the Marschallin should sound less charming. It is also refreshing to hear a singer who has evidently tried not to copy some success formulas and is very much trying to be herself in this role. Her Marie-Thérèse is more “carnal” than most, evidently an experienced woman who has seen it all and her appeal has a touch of lecherousness behind the chic. Brigitte Geller’s Sophie comes close to fulfill all the requirements – her voice is extremely pretty and, as with almost all the great exponents of this role, tends more to the lyric than to the soubrettish. However, there is still something missing – she has been in this production for so long that a great deal of the enthusiasm that lies in the core of what Sophie is about is long gone. Also, her voice is sometimes off focus, too often in the key moments for comfort. That is a problem not shared by Elisabeth Starzinger, whose tightly focused high mezzo is otherwise too light for Octavian. It seems she still has to mature in the role – sometimes I had the impression she was a last-minute replacement. No offense to her personal charm, but she looks convincingly boyish and is a supple, congenial actress. Last but not least, Jens Larsen was a most satisfying Ochs – he has the right voice for the role and is also a naturally funny fellow who does not need to overdo anything in order to extract laughs from the audience.

Although the house orchestra is perfectly acceptable, it is not truly world-class. Nonetheless, Friedemann Layer proved that a gifted conductor proves his talents when he is not conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. The maestro knows the art of finding the right tempo in which the minimal level of polish is achieved with no sacrifice to forward movement and theatrical expression, took profit of the less than exuberant string section to produce an entirely transparent sound picture in which the complex polyphonic writing could be understood without effort and never let anyone down in key moments. As a matter of fact, his final trio was exquisitely built, with fine contributions from every singer.

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Yes, even Der Rosenkavalier: it happens to be the days of Empress Maria Theresa, but nobody seems to care about that anymore. In Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s staging for Dresden, we see the Feldmarschallin and Octavian after WWII; in Robert Carsen’s production at the Salzburg Festival, they see themselves just before WWI. But you can read more about that in the comparative review in re: opera (as always, the link is on your right).

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