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.