Thursday, 17 December 2009

The strangest Rosenkavalier?

A reader sent me a DVD of Der Rosenkavalier from Zürich in 2004. "Watch out for the kitchen," he said. Kitchen? The second act, bei Faninal, takes place in the kitchen. Sophie is awaiting the Silver Rose, which symbolizes her induction into the nobility. It's a big deal event, as Der Rosenkavalier arrives in great pomp and splendour to present a what is, after all, not your average supermarket bouquet. Of course she's in her grubbies, cooking.

In principle, mis–en-scène isn't a problem if there's a purpose to it. That's how drama works, it pricks us from complacency. Try as I could, though, I couldn't understand this. Perhaps Sophie is Cinderella, plucked from the scullery to marry the prince, after all she isn't bluebloode. as Ochs keeps reminding us. On the other hand, Faninal is rich, which is part of the attraction. She's not kitchen class like Ochs's other women. Sophie wants to be humble, but hiding in a kitchen cupboard doesn't do it.

Then the crucial moment where Octavian and Sophie lay eyes on each other. The music shows it's magic. It's probably not that easy to show erotic chemistry between two straight actresses but Malin Hartelius and Vesselina Kasarova as S and O really don't look comfortable. Opera singers are primarily singers, and most need to be convinced to act well. Here they seem to have been coached for pantomime acting. Raised eyebrows, grimaces for grins, tics etc. On stage you can get away with that. Three hours of filmed close-ups kills the point. Poor women, I thought, it's not their fault they look like Marcel Marceeau.

Perhaps the director (Sven-Erik Bechtolf) took Strauss at face value when he said the opera was just face, music for comedy. Der Rosenkavalier is loved because audiences love marzipan and icing. But beneath the surface there's a story that isn't sweet. It would be interesting to see a production that emphasized the dichotomy between outward display and inward decay. It would shock the marzipan set but at least it would be faithful to the score. Doesn't anyone get it, that this rose is beautiful and strongly scented. but a total fake? A lot like many marriages.

This production looks nice enough, elegant, clean lines and huge windows. Even the phantom trees in the Marschallin's bedroom aren't a bad idea because she is leafless and barren, like the trees are and visually they bring the "outside" indoors, which is what keeps happening throughout the opera. The principals are always being intruded on, by lackeys, merchants, shysters, more lackeys and petitioners, and of course, kids crying "Papa!" It adds to the dramatic tension, and the sense that this orderly aristocratic world is always on the verge of being submerged from beyond. In this production, the servants at the inn are insects, with insect heads. Crawlers, geddit, vermin? Actually, it works rather well and adds to the humour. But details like this aren't enough to save the whole.

Nina Stemme is the Marschallin, so expect luscious singing. She looks far too young to be convincing. Few divas will stand for being made to look unglamorous, but Stemme's acting seems curiously uninvolved, particularly against the antics the others are forced to get up to. Alfred Muff's Baron Ochs is almost a relief in comparison. His voice isn't as lovely as hers but he comes over as a lovable buffoon, an ageing rock star perhaps whose "wife doesn't understand him, so it's alright". Dirty, silly, but not menacing, he's John Cleese in damask.

On the other hand, Franz Welser-Möst gets nice, clean playing from the orchestra and the interludes are nice to watch, as well as hear. Thanks for lending me this DVD. I'm glad I saw it but didn't pay bog money for it. What a wasted opportunity this production was, some good ideas, but overall pulling back from the deeper implications. This has made me appreciate John Schlesinger's production at Covent Garden even more. There's a lot in the sets there that evoke good ideas and shouldn't be lost. Maybe after 25 years. someone could sit down and think, look at what we've got here. How do we bring it out anew? PLEASE see my OTHER posts on Der Rosenkavalier by using the search or labels on right.


Smorg said...

You think Stemme looks too young? But the Marschallin is supposed to be only 32 yrs old, isn't she?

I rather like this production, actually. It is unconventional and quite funny. There isn't much of a point to the 'kitchen' setting aside from playing up the farcical facet of the thing, I think (I suppose the plates on the wall symbolize Faninal's riches). Of course you won't get the laugh in it if you are trying to interpret it in a traditional sense.

I think Zurich Opera tends to play up the character interactions and motifs rather than straight reading of the opera. Sometimes it works quite well. Sometimes it is a head-scratcher.

In any case, this is a really superbly sung recording by all three women. They should have also released a CD version of this show! :o)

Doundou Tchil said...

She looks about 19, I was wondering what creams she uses ! Half the fun of OZ productions is their mix of good and bad. Not predictable. I loved their Elektra with Westbroek and then suddenly the horde of feathered birds ? Still thinking about it now. At least they aren't boring

Michael Mattison said...

Glad to have discovered your blog; thanks for the all the great subjects you've got on offer here. Articulate and insightful.
Love the Rosenkavalier write-ups, esp. since I've just done my own at my blog.
It's definitely a highlight in the opera repertory; well worth returning to again and again. Just saw our own new Stuttgart production. Staging was better than could have been expected in Stuttgart, where everything is either staged in a prison, classroom and/or construction-site setting. But glorious singing and acting.
Have a great weekend,

Doundou Tchil said...

Hi Michael, just read your blog - keep up the good work ! European things don't nearly get as much respect as they deserve because the market is dominated by the English speaking world. All good wishes to you. (currently a fan of Carnal Flower)