'Der Rosenkavalier' at the
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino,
Maggio Musicale Fiorentino,
a festival with a rich programme
but a dire financial situation,
reviewed by GIUSEPPE PENNISI
A few months ago, I reviewed a joint production of Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier by La Scala Milan, Madrid's Teatro Real and Paris Opéra ('Time is a Strange Thing', Music & Vision, 8 October 2011). The most important Komödie für Musik of the twentieth century is back as the inaugural opera of the 75th Florence 'May Music Festival'. The Festival program is very ambitious: ninety performances of operas, ballets, concerts, chamber music and plays during a five week span (thirty-eight days), six world premieres, a focus on contemporary music and young talents, two hundred guest artists and twenty-three different venues (theatres, cloisters, gardens and palatial halls). Thus, a really grand schedule. It is very ambitious, especially when compared with the financial situation of the foundation responsible for the festival, as well as for the annual opera, ballet and concert seasons in Florence.
A scene from Act I of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
The foundation has been closing its accounts in deficit since 1999 and has piled up a thirty million euro deficit. A new, glittering and highly technological theatre is being built, but the town (with four hundred thousand residents) already has five theatres (and nobody knows the fate of the existing opera house with its two thousand seats). This year a 'white knight' (the state-controlled power company Enel) arrived in a timely fashion to prevent a crisis. Most likely, the foundation management relies on attracting an increasing share of the flow of tourists to opera, concerts and ballet. The foundation's workers ran a demonstration in Piazza della Signoria (Florence's most significant square) on 4 May 2012, the day of the inauguration, and there was, until the last moment, the threat of a strike.
Ingrid Kaiserfeld as Marianne, Sylvia Schwartz as Sophie and Caitlin Hulcup as Octavian in Act II of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
This review, based on the 4 May 2012 performance, deals only with this particular production. Nonetheless, due to the dire financial situation of the foundation, it is required to raise a question: since Der Rosenkavalier is a very costly affair (with twenty-seven soloists, a huge orchestra and elaborate scenery), is it appropriate to stage it only for four performances as a stand-alone Florence May Music Festival production without any cost sharing with other theatres? The ten La Scala October performances were a major effort by three opera houses to revive a production already staged in Salzburg and Baden-Baden. It is to be wished that this Florence production of Der Rosenkavalier will find 'buyers' in the opera market. Otherwise, whatever its artistic merits, it will add to the disarray of the cash-stripped Maggio Musicale Foundation.
Caitlin Hulcup as Octavian in Act II of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Indeed, Der Rosenkavalier is so universally known that it does not need any presentation. Even in Italy, where in March 1911 it had a rather lukewarm La Scala reception (but it had been sung in translation, whereas one of the marvels of the Komödie für Musik is the perfect match between words and music), the opera has been staged quite frequently during the last twenty years, in all the major theatres.
Caitlin Hulcup as Octavian and Sylvia Schwartz as Sophie in Act II of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
This Florence production marks three important debuts. Firstly, it is the fourth time that Der Rosenkavalier has been staged in the Tuscan town, although in the past, the productions had been leased lock stock and barrel from Dresden (1942), Frankfurt (1955) and Köln (1989). This is the first time that the production is 'Florentine' (viz entirely prepared by the theatre's technical staff, albeit under the guidance of an international team). Secondly, and most importantly, at seventy-six, Zubin Mehta (although trained in Austria and Germany) tackles the complex score for the first time. Thirdly, the stage direction is entrusted to Eike Gramss who alternates academia (as a full professor at Salzburg's Mozarteum) with direction, mostly of movies and plays, but he also produced a successful Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Florence in 2002; the dramaturgy team includes Hans Schavernoch (sets), Catherine Voeffray (costumes) and Manfred Voss (lighting). The triple debut was planned, in any event, with an effective safety net: four very experienced protagonists (Angela Denoke, Caitlin Hulcup, Kristinn Sigmundsson and Sylvia Schwartz) both as singers and as actors, the young Celso Albelo in the 'cameo role' of 'an Italian singer' and a large number of specialists in the twenty-two other roles.
Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs with his retinue in Act II of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Let us start with Zubin Mehta's much awaited debut. Most probably, he hadn't tackled the opera until the age of seventy-six in order to give a special flavor to the score. His reading is both nostalgic and melancholic, even in the funniest moments of the Komödie für Musik -- most notably the final scene of the second act and, above all, the first half of the third act. His reading -- or, better still, his caressing of the score -- reminded me of the last time (in 1994) that Carlos Kleiber, at the age of sixty-four, recorded Der Rosenkavalier: through a Komödie für Musik reflection on the meaning of life and of history. Mehta did not manicure the score as Solti used to do. Neither did he emphasize the vigor, following von Karajan (and Thielemann). He sees Der Rosenkavalier as an apologue of the end not only of 'Felix Austria' but also of 'Felix Europa', a remembrance of time past. Thus, he slows the tempos especially in the 'finale' of three acts in engrossing diminuendos. The audience is enthralled and laughs at times but there are also a few tears such as those in Sophie's handkerchief collected by the Marschallin's little servant whilst the curtain falls at the end of the opera. On 4 May, the performance lasted five hours, including two intermissions. It is not generous to make comparisons, but the Florence orchestra sounded much superior to the La Scala orchestra in October 2011, especially when it has to switch from a post-Wagnerian symphonic approach to a chamber music style or even to a soloist's recital.
Zubin Mehta and the orchestra in the dress rehearsal for Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
Mehta was backed up by an excellent group of soloists. The mezzo Caitlin Hulcup (Octavian) has the physique du rôle of an adolescent growing up to become a young adult: on stage for the full length of the opera, she goes from sensual, indeed erotic, duets, to the discovery of the 'true love' with young Sophie, from vocal acrobatic flights to real fencing in actual duels. Angela Denoke (the Marschallin) still has the beauty of a thirty-three-year-old woman who -- we can imagine -- after the adventure with seventeen-year-old Octavian -- will have many other affairs with other men. Sylvia Schwartz is the young Sophie, fifteen years old and just out from education in a convent; in a single day, she will learn how to fight up to her hilt for her young man. Kristinn Sigmundsson is an ill-mannered and vulgar Baron Ochs but never a buffo. It's impossible to mention all the others in this good company.
Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs in Act III of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
The staging and the dramaturgy deserve a comment. In his analysis of Der Rosenkavalier, the German musicologist Gerd Uekermann underlines that, although the plot is set in the past, Hofmannsthal was aiming at 'timelessness', thus embracing the present; in 1911, the present was the decline of 'Felix Austria'. Indeed, the plot is based on a ceremony (the presentation of a silver rose to the bride-to-be) invented purely by Hofmannsthal and Strauss, and the waltz was neither played nor danced in 1730 (the period when the plot is set). To stress the unrealism of the comedy, the reference staging -- that signed by Otto Schenk and shown only in Vienna and Munich -- imagines an overly decorated rococo in a declining Empire. Now it is reasonable to emphasize the decline of 'Felix Europa'. Gramss and his colleagues set the Komödie für Musik in a timeless setting from the eighteenth century to the years immediately before World War I. The stage set is simple but strengthened by good projections -- the Vienna dawn in the final scene was magnificent -- and mirrors. A real joy for the eyes.
Angela Denoke as the Marschallin, Eike Wilm Schulte as Faninal, Caitlin Hulcup as Octavian and Sylvia Schwartz as Sophie in Act III of Richard Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier' at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Photo © 2012 Gianluca Moggi. Click on the image for higher resolution
There were nearly twenty minutes of ovation at the end of the performance.
Copyright © 9 May 2012 Giuseppe Pennisi,
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