Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Der Rosenkavalier, with a twist - Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment back at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tomorrow (17/5) with Der Rosenkavalier, but with a twist. Not the opera but the film suite.  What film suite ? Richard Strauss wrote for the movies ? Yes !  In 1926, Robert Wiene, who had directed The Cabinett of Dr. Caligari , made a version of Der Rosenkavalier with the enthusiastic support of Richard Strauss himself.   Dr. Caligari  pioneered the Expressionist aesthetic.And   there was Richard Strauss, if not quite in the vanguard, certainly sympathetic.  This should come as no surprise, since he wrote Salomé. Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Nuts to the notion that Strauss was sugar and cream.  Wiene’s film was screened at the Dresden Opera House, where the original opera itself had premiered fifteen years before, underlining the connection between opera and the new art form of cinema.  Wiene's Der Rosenkavalier wasn't an "opera movie" in any modern sense of the word. It wasn't a film of the opera but a work of art in itself, with the opera as starting point.  Works of art exist for themselves : there's no law that they have to set originals as given, any more than that art should be history.  Please also see my article from 2012, Gay Salomé the 1923 silent movie based on the Salomé storyn that inspired not only Strauss but many others. 

The plot loosely 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 out. 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. How would today's opera snobs react?  They take themselves too seriously, methinks, 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 close up on his face and then his mouth, wide as a grotesque sculpture. We can almost hear the screaming.

The scenes where the Men of Property and their lawyers work out the marriage contract are brilliantly done. Backgrounds dissolve into darkness, so the rococco filigree of the costumes and wigs frame faces whose features twist in angular contortion. Outside, in the garden,
gigantic gryphons five metres high tower over the party goers. In contrast, the actress who plays Sophie expresses her personality with
great sensitivity. Sometimes she looks like a nine year old, too naive to take in what's happening. Her jutting chin and turned up nose indicate her petulance.The rich folk cram into a tiny theatre in the Mehlmarkt to watch a play about "the Proud Father and his humiliation",
narrated in rhyming folk poetry. The Marschallin plans a masked ball. Great crowd scenes. Mystery letters direct Octavian and the Field
Marshal (straight from the battle) to meet a woman in the grotto of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. The last reel of the film is missing but the
inconclusive ending isn't a problem. We know what's going to happen. The last frame shows the little black boy, with his plumed turban,
drawing a curtain and gesturing silence. 
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is conducted by Geoffrey Paterson with Thomas Kemp as arrtistic director and Charlotte Beament, who will be singing Strauss songs.   The South Bank has been doing silent movies with sound for decades (Think Carl Davis) but this time the music is autentic original and there's no film, as such.  Use your imagination or watch the silent movie, which has been screened several times in recent years.  I wrote my article Rosenkavalier bei Caligari in 2014. But the OAE performance should make us think, about Strauss, and his interests in the avant garde and the idea of film as art form.  Me ? I'll be at St John's Smith Square for  Charpentier Histoires sacrées with Ensemble Correspondances, directed by Sébastien Daucé and Vincent Huguet.

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