Richard Strauss at Salzburg,
with GIUSEPPE PENNISI
with GIUSEPPE PENNISI
Over the last few years I've reviewed a joint production of Der Rosenkavalier by La Scala Milan, Teatro Real Madrid and Paris Opéra ['Time is a Strange Thing', 8 October 2011] and a Florence Opera production at which Zubin Mehta made his debut conducting the opera ['Important Debuts', 9 May 2012]. Rosenkavalier is so universally known that it does not need any presentation. Even in Italy where in March 1911 it had a rather lukewarm reception at La Scala (although it was sung in translation, whereas one of the marvels of this Komödie für Musik is the perfect match between words and music), the opera has been staged quite frequently in most major theatres during the last twenty years.
It is only natural that in the year of the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of Richard Strauss' birth, the festival he helped create would offer, along with a major program of symphonic and chamber music, his most Austrian opera. This review, based on the 1 August 2014 Salzburg Festival performance, deals only with production specifics. In Salzburg, this new staging features the Vienna Philhamonic Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst in the pit, stage direction by Harry Kupfer, settings by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Yan Tax, lighting by Jürgen Hoffmann, video by Thomas Reimer, the Vienna State Opera Chorus directed by Ernst Raffelsberger and the Salzburg Festival Children's Chorus directed by Wolfgang Götz.
The production details are important because Welser-Möst, the Vienna Philharmonic and the chorus perform Rosenkavalier in the Austrian capital about ten times every year in Otto Schenk's production which, due to copyright, is shown only in Vienna and Munich (although it is often on television by way of a DVD conducted by Carlos Kleibert). The Otto Schenk production is generally considered as the 'reference production' for the Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss Komödie für Musik. In his analysis of Rosenkavalier, 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 completely 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, Otto Schenk's production imagines an overly decorated rococo in a declining Habsburg Empire, and it emphasizes the comic parts of the Komödie für Musik, especially in the second part of Act II and in the first part of Act III.
This production by seventy-nine-year-old Harry Kupfer, still very active and witty, has no connection with the Otto Schenk staging. In line with the rest of a festival largely devoted to World War I, it sets the action not in overly decorated 1740s rococo, but in 1911, when Rosenkavalier had its premiere in Dresden and there were already the political, economic and military conditions for the explosion of war at the end of July 1914. Thus, the Komödie für Musik deals with the sunset of 'Felix Europe', not only of 'Felix Austria'. The staging is almost entirely in black and white with period furniture and costumes, plus huge projections of Vienna details circa 1912 — churches, palaces, the Prater, the Belvedere. Even the Feldmarschallin's white carriage is replaced by an oversized long white limousine.
No doubt, the differences in staging involved differences in musical direction. Whilst these performers offer a joyful Rosenkavalier at their home theater in the Opern Ring, their Salzburg readings are both nostalgic and melancholic, even in the funniest moments. The score seemed to be caressed, as with Carlos Kleiber in 1994 (at the age of sixty-four) and Zubin Mehta (at seventy-six) in 2012: through a Komödie für Musik, Hofmannsthal and Strauss provide a reflection on the meaning of both life and history. Welser-Möst slows the tempos especially in the 'finale' of the first and third acts, in engrossing diminuendos, and gives room for celesta and harmonium solos.
Welser-Möst was joined by an excellent group of soloists. Mezzo Sophie Koch is very experienced in the role of Octavian, and has the physique du rôle of an adolescent growing up to become a young husband. On stage for the full length of the opera, she goes from sensual duets, to the discovery of 'true love' with young Sophie, from vocal acrobatic flights to real fencing in actual duels. Krassimira Stoyanova sang the Feldmarschallin — a highly successful debut as both a singer and an actress. Mojca Erdmann was young Sophie, fifteen years old and just back from being educated in a convent; in a single day, she will learn how to fight up to her hilt for her young man. But on 1 August, when compared with Koch and Stoyanova, she seemed to lack color. An excellent surprise was Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs; in line with a staging which underplays the most humorous elements, he is a gentlemen in his forties, quite unlucky as a would be womanizer.
There were ten minutes of accolades after nearly five hours of performance.