Posts Tagged ‘R. Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier’

I have a friend who likes Richard Strauss but dislikes Der Rosenkavalier. He says it is Strauss’s most overrated work. The first time he told me that, I asked him what about the Marschallin’s monologue, the delivery of the silver rose and the final trio? His answer was “Precisely: you have to endure two hours of cacophony to get 45 minutes of beautiful music”. Of course, I disagree with him, but I understand that he has a point. The great challenge of conducting this score is to integrate both tingle-factor highlights and the Falstaff-like comedy scenes, exactly as the Leitmotiv structure concocted by Richard Strauss and also the mirrored Marschallin/Octavian and Ochs/Sophie situations devised by Hofmannsthal demand. Some conductors achieve that by Marschallinizing the whole opera, most notably Herbert von Karajan in his glamorized melancholy performances with Anna Tomowa-Sintow and Kurt Moll in Salzburg. Others Ochsify the three acts, by keeping things objective and kaleidoscopic as Karl Böhm, most notably in his formidable performances with Christa Ludwig and Tatiana Troyanos also in Salzburg. Both share the same secret ingredient: the Vienna Philharmonic. Some will say Carlos Kleiber could get the best of both worlds, especially in his last recording with Felicity Lott and Kurt Moll. He had the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (i.e., the Vienna Philharmonic’s day job) then.

I don’t know if Simon Rattle shares Karajan’s or Böhm’s credo, but he definitely does not fall into the Carlos Kleiber slot. At the end of act 2, I was about to say that he had to be classified in the Karajan group, for the complex counterpoint of the ensembles in Faninal’s Stadtpalais proved to be beyond his possibilities. And the fact that he does not have the Vienna Philharmonic made it more difficult for him. The Met Orchestra is not the nec plus ultra in terms of clarity of articulation, and its brass section has its bumpy moments. Sir Simon chose forward movement as his Ariadne’s thread in this labyrinthic score, but that often involved blurred orchestral playing, clouded phrasing and unsubtlety. If I could mention a composer in which Simon Rattle is at home this would be Gustav Mahler, whose music – if contemporary to that of R. Strauss (they knew each other, as a matter of fact) – requires an entirely different approach. Here I noticed that Rattle tended to look for a Hauptstimme, invested everything in it and let the myriad of secondary voices fall into place by themselves. That might work in the Lied von der Erde, but unfortunately not here. This is a score that has to be built brick by brick and not by assembling components. On the other hand, act 1 seemed more successful at first – the conductor was able to keep the aural image symphonic, with beautiful interplay between woodwinds and singers, but he had light-voiced soloists (or something like that) and refrained from pressing the turbo button when the music cried for more intensity. A similar effect could have been achieved by a flexible beat, but his one trick was rhythmic regularity. I wondered how the final trio could deliver its full emotional content under these circumstances. It did not. It showed no development in terms of dynamics, tempo or intensity. And then there was the problem with the cast.

It is a tradition to start with the leading soprano and so I’ll speak first of Camilla Nylund, who happened to be the most successful singer this evening. Ms. Nylund’s big lyric soprano, even in its prime, lacked radiance in its high notes. Above the passaggio, it acquires a velvety, floated quality that tends to stay on stage rather than pierce into the auditorium. In the role of the Marschallin, this natural float helped her all the way. Instead of shifting into mezza voce every time she needed to suggest pensiveness, she just had to keep doing her thing. And her middle register has the necessary warmth and plushness to suggest the chic the role really needs. There were moments when one wanted a little bit more pointedness of delivery or presence (the final trio, for instance), but her naturalness had a patrician glow to it and that made do. This Marschallin was above trying to make an impression. This woman was the measure of all things in her world.

I once bought a ticket to see Magdalena Kozena’s Octavian in Berlin but couldn’t make it and had never overcome the feeling of unfinished business until this evening. I feared that the Met might be too big an auditorium for her reedy Mozartian mezzo and my intuition proved to be right. Ms. Kozena is a singer incapable of carelessness – she sings every note and utter every word as if they were the most important thing in the world, but I am not sure if the audience in Family Circle could hear that. When Strauss requires the full orchestra, her low notes were inaudible and her high notes could be hooty or fluttery. When surrounded by chamber-like sonorities, however, she relished in poised phrasing and sounds of instrumental purity. In terms of stage presence, her Octavian was convincingly boyish and aristocratic. Her Mariandl, nevertheless, lacked the necessary tomboy quality. As shown here, the Count Rofrano had a natural talent to walk on high heels.

As Sophie, Golda Schultz displayed absolute ease throughout her whole range. She was hands down the singer with best low notes in the role in my experience live in the theatre. At the same time, she did not have to change any gears to float her high notes in the delivery of the silver rose. She sang from beginning to end with musicianship, abandon and charm. And yet the absence of silvery quality in her voice made her small-scaled and excessively discreet. With such a self-contained Sophie, the final trio sounded like a sundae without the cherry on top. I don’t think either that the role is close to this singer’s personality – although she worked hard to be the damsel in distress, the acting seemed to be build from the outside in rather than inside out.

When Günther Groissböck appeared on stage, I had to adjust my ears to the fact that, even if his voice was firm and solid to the super low notes, it sounded bottled up and lacking resonance. When I saw him sing this role in the Grosses Festspielhouse, it hardly sounded gigantesque, but here it made me wonder if the whole process of becoming a Wotan is really working. Back in Bayreuth in August, my impression was very different. So I would rather consider that he was not in his best night. Curiously, Markus Eiche, who in Bayreuth would never be counted as a forceful baritone, here – through clarity of emission and precision of focus – was the most hearable person on stage.

Der Rosenkavalier is an opera difficult to cast – the many small roles require important voices and I cannot say that I heard something close to efficient this evening. Matthew Polenzani’s Italian Tenor came close – he sang richly and showed amazing breath control, but the tone was far from ingratiating.

I had not seen before this evening Robert Carsen’s 2017 production for the Met, but it looks and sound as the watered down version of his 2004 production for Salzburg, where lots of ideas just hinted at here were fully developed. There, Ochs’s philandering is a façade for a mix of some sort of erectile and moral dysfunction, the Marschallin is a regular of the demimonde shown in act 3 and the ghost of World War I hovers around the opera rather than decorates the last scene. I cannot say I liked Carsen’s first attempt – I found it incoherent and kitsch – but it made sense somehow. The version “for all audiences” is incoherent, kitsch and silly.


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Although Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier had already been performed in São Paulo before, first by a visiting German theatre on tour in 1959 and 10 years ago in concert with Anne Schwanewilms and the OSESP, this run of performances in the Theatro Municipal are its first local production. Even if Richard Strauss himself conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Brazil in the 1920’s, this was not enough to make him a household name in opera houses deeply rooted in Italian tradition, such as those in Rio or São Paulo. There have been occasional incursions in his operatic works, especially Elektra and Salome, and the new Rosenkavalier might represent a renewed interest in the music of the Bavarian composer in these shores.

Roberto Minczuk is an experienced conductor in this repertoire who has been nurtured in the right tradition in his days in the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. This evening he has shown his deep understanding of the score in a performance that flowed in natural tempi, structural clarity, preference for warm sonorities and feeling for highlighting the Hauptstimme in almost Mozartian dialogue with his singers. The fact that the complex writing challenged his orchestra was never an issue in terms of putting across his vision. One could see that his strings left a lot to be desired in terms of articulation, but whenever it has to produce a key effect, such as in the closing of acts 1 and 3, this was never an impediment, even if one could wish for improvement. In any case, the brass section offered playing above its usual level and blended naturally with woodwind.
If act 1 lacked some atmosphere in the Marschallin’s monologue (the house orchestra’s strings tend to loose color in softer dynamics), the delivery of the silver rose proved to be the major misfire in the evening. In the slower pace chosen by Mr. Minczuk, a soprano ill at ease and meager orchestral sound just hanged fire. The ensuing duet showed everyone in better form. Act 3 made me think of Karl Böhm’s Dresden recording in the way it integrated comic and lyric moments. It can sound a bit all over the place, but not this evening, crowned by a final trio that built up steadily in a slower pace in a powerful conclusion.
I am not so enthusiastic about Pablo Maritano’s staging, the bureaucratic sets and anachronistic and often ugly costumes of which did not added up to any particular dramatic purpose other than fitting into a limited budget. The Personenregie tended to be overbusy, but the director benefited from the cast’s above-average acting skills. To his credit, he seems to have read the libretto from scratch and offered some fresh ideas. I have particularly enjoyed the end of act 1. Here the Marschallin sings very expressive music while she explains transportation arrangements. This has always puzzled me, but not this evening. As conceived by Mr. Maritano, the Marschallin is just trying to prevent an emotional breakdown by keeping things as objective as possible. When she is finally alone, she can’t hold back her tears anymore.
Argentinian soprano Carla Filipic Holm has acted here and elsewhere very convincingly. She has an expressive face and, although her voice and attitude are rather Germanic, one can see her South American emotional generosity behind that. This has made her a particularly multidimensional Marschallin. In terms of singing, Ms. Filipic has a creamy tubular soprano à la Angela Denoke that soars in high mezza voce without effort but and yet can acquire  a splash of hootiness at moments. She is sometimes a bit imprecise with pitch, especially in the end of phrases and her delivery of the text is not truly clear. Yet she knows the style and can produce beautiful sounds, such as in the opening phase of the final trio.
I have always enjoyed the artistry of Brazilian mezzo Luisa Francesconi, especially in Mozart, and was curious about this Straussian venture or hers. It is true that her voice is a bit on the light side for the role, but her fruity, firm-toned mezzo is appealing, her diction is crystalline and her German is very good. She floats pianissimo beautifully and, if she can sound cautious in exposed high notes, she compensates with ideal illusion of boyhood (she actually looks very “handsome” as Octavian) and her Mariandl was quite effective.
Elena Gorshunova’s soprano is pretty enough for Sophie, but she doesn’t master the art of high mezza voce and messed things up in the beginning of act 2 and at the end of the opera. Elsewhere, she could be s little bit more engaging if she were a little bit more engaged, especially in the acting department.
Dirk Aleschus knows everything one is supposed to know about the role of Baron Ochs, but at its present state his bass lacks tone and volume, especially in both ends of his range and he can be really imprecise in what regards intonation. He is a funny guy and had the audience at his side nonetheless.
Annina, Valzacchi and Faninal are not minor roles and require singers more adept than those cast for these performances. This was a serious if not major drawback in the overall effectiveness of this evening’s performance.

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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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In the Met’s old and yet still beautiful production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin’s elegant and unexaggerated boudoir and Faninal’s white palace with hundreds of windows for Vienna to watch inside are spetacular as they should be. Only the 3rd act Wirthaus looks a bit confusing, since the limits between the room and the corridor are not entirely clear. The same cannot be sad of Donald Runnicles’ conducting, which is clarity itself. The second act and especially the third act were performed in an unusually euphonious manner in a sense of organization and continuity which would win the heart even of the most suspicious Straussian. To say the truth, some moments needed a more distinctive orchestral sound to work to perfection, such as the delivery of the silver rose, which ideally requires richer but still transparent sonorities. Maybe divided violins were not the best idea for that big venue… However, after a promising haunting pianissimo ending to act I, the orchestra delivered an exciting structurally clear prelude to act III (despite some blunder in the brass section) and an exquisite final trio, truly powerful in its rising tension. It is also remarkable the naturalness with which Runnicles finds the dance rhythms even in the most structurally complex scenes.

Angela Denoke’s Marschallin is an evidence that the golden age of Straussian singing is not over. Her blond slim graceful figure and playfulness have something of Schwarzkopf, although she eschews all kind of exaggeration. Her reedy floating full-bodied tone has something of Janowitz, although there is nothing cool and distant about her. The warm feminine low register and appealing mezza voce have something of Crespin, although she is entirely comfortable with her top register. However, in spite of all comparison, she was pretty much herself: a Marschallin whose appetite for life thinly disguises a highly sensitive nature that learned never to indulge in gloominess. Glücklich ist der vergißt… could be this Marschallin’s motto. Her crystal-clear diction, the natural delivery of her native language, allied to a wide tonal palette, projected her highly expressive portrayal vividly into the vast auditorium with no vocal constraint. Being a highly accomplished singing actress, her monologue and ensuing duet with Octavian scored so many points in subtle inflection and the sheer beauty of tone was so beguiling that even a non-German speaking person in the audience would take her slightest point. Her floating full pianissimi made for a particularly touching launching of the final trio. If one would like to find any criticism about this exquisite performance, that would be a certain flutter in her vocal production, especially in high notes from mezzo forte on, probably due to the frequentation of dramatic roles. Let us hope that her sucess in the part of the Feldmarschallin will mark the beguinning of a new phase in her career dedicated to Romantic German lyric roles, tailor-made for her voice and personality.

Probably not in her best form, Susan Graham displayed a rather bleached out tone above mezzo forte and the top notes took a second or two to blossom, with the exception of her appealing mezza voce singing. In act III, she seemed to be in better shape and ended the opera with a stream of velvety floating sounds. She is a committed staged performer, but her Octavian is too much of a tomboy to be really convincing – a fault shared by most singers in this part (the notable exception being the young aristocrat played by Sena Jurinac in the video from Salzburg).

It seems Lyubov Petrova has recently delivered a baby and that may explain a certain lack of radiance in her voice. She could float her tone all right in the delivery of the rose, but in a rather unexceptional manner. A certain rattling in her vocal production and the China doll looks gave her old-fashioned charm, but the necessary breathtaking vulnerability and loveliness – even more so when the Marschallin displays such a beautiful voice – were still missing . All in all, she was a stylish Sophie and I would like to see her in better condition.

Peter Rose’s bass is entirely functional for Ochs – the tone is firm and rich and he has the low notes. Nevertheless, the voice is a couple sizes too small for the Met. His Baron was refreshingly young sounding and he could find the right balance for the rustic aristocratic devised by Hofmannsthal.

Håkan Hagegård’s straightforwardness as Faninal was also most welcome – and his solid clear baritone is still a pleasure to listen to. Matthew Polenzani had to force his otherwise dulcet tone for the Italian tenor aria. Unfortunately, Wendy White was rather small-voiced for Annina.

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