Friday, 13 October 2017

Oxford Lieder Festival - a Different Rosenkavalier

As part of the Oxford Lieder Festival's 2017 season, focusing on Mahler and his contemporaries, a very different Der Rosenkavalier, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenmnt, conducted by Thomas Kemp. Not Der Rosenkavalier the opera, as we know it, but a screening of the 1926 film by Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1921) and Genuine the Vampire (1920)  Tickets still, available, book here.

The film was made with the enthusiastic support of Richard Strauss himself, who appreciated the power of the new medium of cinema. The film was  first screened at the Dresden Opera House, where the opera itself had premiered fifteen years previously.  It wasn't an "opera movie" in any modern sense of the word, because it was made when movies were silent. In those days, films were accompanied by live performance, with music adapted to the action on screen. Obviously, the music for the opera would not fit. In any case, what would be the point in a silent movie?  Instead Strauss wrote a new soundtrack, based on an orchestra of 17 parts, which mixed extracts from the opera with snippets from other works  including Arabella, Burleske, Till Eulenspeigel and  Also sprach Zarathustra. He  threw in bits of Wagner and Johann Strauss for further effect. Strauss himself conducted the blend live while the movie screened.

The plot follows the novel from which Hugo von Hofmannsthal  derived the libretto, with extra scenes like the battlefield on which the Feldmarschall rides to victory and an opera bouffe in a small theatre, where the principals watch their dilemma being acted while the movie is screened. How will today's opera snobs react?  Methinks they take themselves too seriously, because the "silent" Rosenkavalier is a heady cocktail of good film and fun. It captures the savage satire while dressing it up with visuals so frothy they border on excess. This in itself is a dig at the materialistic culture that values frills, yet turns fresh young women into commodities in a cynical marriage marketplace. Swoon at the wigs and acres of lace, but this is no costume drama.

The technical film values are very high, as one would expect from the director of Dr Caligari (full download here) and Genuine the Vampire (more here). Scenes are carefully planned so they seem like tableaux in some elegant object of art, designed to distract from the grubbiness around it.  The Marschallin's boudoir suffocates in luxury: one imagines that any man kept like this would lose his masculinity. For all her wealth, the lady isn't happy. She sighs and uses exaggerated gestures and poses: Wiene is satirizing popular theatrical excess. Baron Ochs wears embroidered silks but is a boor. He somersaults, arms and legs akimbo like a broken puppet. Later, when Octavian challenges him to a duel, he collapses  though he's barely been scratched. The camera pans closeup on his face and then his mouth, wide as a grotesque sculpture. We can almost hear the screaming.  

Lots more about this Rosenkavalier some years ago, and also, about Robert Wiene, other Weimar films and music, and of course Mahler and his contemporaries, who are my main thing. This is one of the most comprehensive sites on the internet -I am frequently borrowed from, to put it delicately. So check here first for many things.

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