Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House is getting flak because the sets look antiquated. Personally I think it adds to the mood of nostalgia, the idea that what is past can never return. So for me the ROH Rosenkavalier is beautiful, not because of the rococco decor but because the set evokes something deeper and more poignant than ornament. Indeed, gilt and guilt would be a better mindset because the opera is a gilded critique of society and material values.
I've pulled up a few clips of Rosenkavaliers past for comparison.
In her gilded cage the Marschallin reflects on the way people are horse traded like objects. If she can help it, she's going to do some good for others, like saving die kleine Sophie from a horrible fate. Pity the film quality is so poor, but look at Schwarzkopf's acting !
This is a much clearer film. Sophie is beside herself with excitement because she's overwhelmed by the ceremony of being presented with a silver rose. No way an innocent girl can see past the glamour : one good thing about the ROH Schlesinger production is that a light is shone on Octavian as he enters - he's a shining knight, like Lohengrin. Though he doesn't know it. he's come to save Sophie/Elsa. Strauss and his audiences might have got that reference. What's annoying about the Salzburg set (whole film is available) is that, while pretty it's not bright. Look at the tack black figures on the wall, not baroque silhouettes but something you'd find in a 50's cafe. And the floor in Faninal's mansion. Live, the audience wouldn't have seen the full impact, but a floor as elaborate and dominant as that doesn't add to the narrative, unless it's a very veiled reference to the oppressiveness of wealth. I don't think so as it's not borne out by much else. So Schlesinger at the ROH looks better and better.
And now the final trio, where The Marschallin gives up her last chance of happiness so that Octavian and Sophie might build a relationship based on love, not avarice. This time, the set is good because the tavern looks grubby and decrepit. It's a place used for sordid transactions, dishonesty, selfishness. Horrible as it might look, though, spiritually it's not so different from Faninal's palace, or Baron Och's illustrious ancestry. And the squalor makes the Marschallin shine out even more. She's the shining knight this time, lit up by the glory of her good soul. So who's the Rosenkavalier after all? Maybe it really is her, rather than Octavian, because it's she who makes their union possible. They'll end up like dust like everyone else but at least for a moment, there's hope. I'd love to see the ROH Rosenkavalier revived again, but with more focused direction and tighter performances. Life can be breathed into the old thing yet, just as the Marschallin brings new life to Sophie and Octavian. PS Please see what I wrote about the revival of Elektra (Charles Edwards) earlier this year - muich better than the original !