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.