How you were, how you are: Thoughts on the new Munich Rosenkavalier

Elegance is often confused with opulence, and possibly no opera has suffered from this misconception more than Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier. The concocted atmosphere of the “old Vienna” of Maria Theresa in this “comedy for music” rightly conjures up delightful visions of period-piece-delight, but between idea and the stage reality, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, lies a great shadow, often one of vacuous kitsch. (A comparable situation exists for Broadway’s golden age blockbuster My Fair Lady, which, in its film incarnation and later stage life, became an orgy of grandiose sets and extravagant Edwardian couture to the detriment of the story.) One can sense the roots of the issue already in Alfred Roller’s celebrated designs for the 1911 Dresden world premiere, which achieved the delicate balance between these two poles with their deceptively restrained spaces, even in the crowded tavern room in act 3. Subsequent derivations from the Roller models, however, acquired more literal and figurative mass. The designer himself indirectly contributed to the trend by altering the design for act 2 in 1929 for conductor Clemens Krauss and director Lothar Wallerstein. The Saal in Faninal’s city palace was opened up with inlaid glass windows and doors to reveal a sweeping staircase beyond.

The famous contractual obligation for Roller’s designs did much to stabilize Der Rosenkavalier as an recognizable artistic product, but often at the expense of the original’s freshness. Munich Strauss doyen Rudolf Hartmann later lamented how an obligatory respect for Roller’s designs endured even as more independent and imaginative solutions for staging the opera began to appear. Ironically, Hartmann himself helped to crystalize (or, as more cynical commentators might say, calcify) the tradition in 1960, with the staging of a mammoth new production to inaugurate the newly finished Grosses Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival with designs by Teo Otto. Similar Rococo grandeur reached North America in 1969 with the debut of Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s lavish production for the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, after a five-year absence from the company’s roster. It lasted in the repertory until 2013, after which it was replaced by Robert Carsen’s new staging in 2017, which embraced the period of the work’s composition, showing a pre-World War One Vienna at the height of decadence. In Munich, the announcement that the renowned and well-toured Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, first introduced in 1972, would be replaced prompted a “rescue” petition to the office of the intendant Nikolaus Bachler.

Despite such protestations, the fêted staging was finally superseded at the Staatsoper this past weekend, with a new production conducted by the house’s music director designate Vladimir Jurowski and staged by Barrie Kosky, the intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin. (The livestream is available on until April 19 here.) Taking a unique route between opulence and elegance, Kosky’s Der Rosenkavalier reimagines a repertory warhorse in Munich with evocative ideas. While some elements of the concept play out less successfully than others, it nevertheless achieves a unique piquancy, smiling through one eye and crying through the other.

One must first commend Jurowski’s handling of the Staatsoper orchestra in a reduced configuration necessitated by pandemic restrictions. While reduced orchestrations for Salome and Elektra were licensed through his publisher Fürstner, Strauss never sanctioned such an edition for Rosenkavalier in his lifetime. Thankfully, Eberhard Kloke’s 2019 arrangement of the score, published by Boosey and Hawkes and utilized by the Staatsoper, succeeds in its own reimagining of Strauss’s original orchestration of 100+ players down to the scale of the instrumentation used in Ariadne auf Naxos, a minimum of 43 players, maximum 50. One senses here, however, a wise move on the part of Boosey & Hawkes to keep some vestige of control and profit from the Strauss catalog after the expiration of its copyrights in 2020. Kloke also has arrangements of Salome and Elektra for reduced orchestras as well. The similarities of the Kloke Rosenkavalier arrangement to Ariadne are especially pronounced in the addition of piano and harmonium, imparting a chamber feel throughout to what has arguably always been a Mozart opera flirting with Wagnerian dress. The effect in no way diminishes the score, which still packs its wallop while never overpowering the singers, a lifelong bugbear for Strauss himself.

In Kosky’s dramaturgy, with scenic design by regular collaborator Rufus Didwiszus and costumes by Victoria Behr, the crucial motif of time dominates the stage. Time, its passage, and human reactions/resignations to it are, of course, famous elements of the Marschallin’s character, as expressed in her monologues in act 1. The primary dramatic symbols of time onstage are a series of extra-musical chiming clocks that open each act before the respective prelude. For the first, a large grandfather’s clock strikes 6 o’clock (the same hour as the Dresden premiere on Thursday, January 26, 1911) before spinning in a clockwise frenzy the mimics the music’s infamous depiction of raucous sexual congress. For act 2, a more utilitarian alarm clock mounted on the prompter’s box awakes Sophie at 8 o’clock for her fateful ceremony with Octavian and Baron Ochs. For act 3, a more whimsical cuckoo clock heralds midnight and the start of the nocturnal farce that humiliates Baron Ochs and unites Octavian and Sophie. It is the act 1 clock, however, that recurs throughout the staging. Following the prelude, the Marschallin and Octavian emerge from the case through pendulum door in a state of afterglow. The gesture is effectively inverted in the final moments of the act, when the Marschallin, left alone by Octavian to make her way towards mass, climbs inside the clock case from the rear and pensively sits on the pendulum as it swings back and forth.

The prop clock returns at the end of the opera, in conjunction with the production’s other reigning dramaturgical device, that of love in the allegorical embodiment of Cupid. The stage is not menaced by a mischievous putto, but rather a comically-antiquated winged sprite more akin to Father Time, played by Ingmar Thilo. He first appears during the Frühstuck section of act 1, which here is staged as a playful chase between the Marschallin and Octavian amid sliver topiary. As they kiss, Cupid flings a handful of silver sequin confetti into the air. He returns to observe, participate in, and trigger the stage action. Notably, Cupid plays the panpipe to summon the Marschallin’s memories of the Italian Singer, drives Octavian’s silver carriage in act 2 for the Presentation of the Rose, flings his sequins over Octavian and Sophie during their first kiss, and witnesses the final bedroom farce, staged on a miniature theater stage oriented in reverse with a nondescript auditorium upstage. In the final moments, Cupid returns seated atop the grandfather clock. He watches over the duet of Octavian and Sophie and the Marschallin’s poignant “Ja, ja” of renunciation. As lingers in front of the clock case, Octavian and Sophie reenter for their final strophe, now taking literal flight with the silver rose. Left alone after the others exit, Cupid leans over the clock face, opens the glass, and removes the minute hand, leaving the hour hand at 6. He impishly holds it aloft as the clock sinks below the stage. (The bit replaces the page Mohammad’s whimsical search for Sophie’s handkerchief in the original scenario.) Like the Marschallin in the middle of the night, it seems that love can temporarily stop time, at least as long as it wants. While the initial Cupid appearance seems heavy-handed—here is love doing want it will do—there is a “nudge-nudge” quality to the entire interpolation that grows in strength over the course of the production.

Eschewing the familiar Rosenkavalier-realism, Didwiszus’s designs pursue three distinct worlds following the production’s conception of each act as an opera in and of itself based on the dominating characters: the Marschallin, Sophie, and Octavian. (A helpful discussion of this appears in the Online-Matinee for the production.) The world of the Marschallin in act 1 takes place in shadowy chambers etched in silver, aided by Alessandro Carletti’s lighting design. Gone is the infamous bed that incensed many in 1911. Instead, anchored by an upstage wall evoking an eighteenth-century palatial salon, a kaleidoscopic sequence of spaces, defined by wall units and other properties, moves across the stage throughout the act. Unfortunately, these constant shifts occasionally upstage the action in what is an extended dialogue between the Marschallin and Ochs, though some of the tableau, such as a series of Cupid statuettes, provide for effective staging bits. The often hackneyed leveé scene takes on a new level of chaos, with characters rushing in and out of the Marschallin’s mental and emotional space. Various gestures towards earlier historical periods are also introduced amid the transitions. The aria of the Italian Singer is staged as a wistful Baroque opera flashback with costumes recalling Ernst Stern’s designs for the world premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912. (Hofmannsthal adapted the text of the Singer’s aria from Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which later became the Ariadne framing device.)

Act 2 is conceived as an elaborate gallery of paintings, a fantasy world for the virginal Sophie, complete with her brass bed and scrapbook of Octavian clippings. Kosky stages the Presentation of the Rose as the entrance of the Knight of the Rose’s elaborate silver carriage, alluding to the golden coaches of Bavaria’s Wittelsbach dynasty. More extreme is the theater configuration for the final act, which adds a metatheatrical layer to what is already elaborate “performance” to ape Ochs. Some components of the original scenario are translated with lessened effect in such a setting. Hofmannsthal’s device of the pranksters laying in wait is reinterpreted somewhat awkwardly as agents of Valzacchi and Annina dressed as doubles of Ochs. Others, however, deliver stronger results. The curtain for the mock theater is drawn during the buffoonery, hiding the upstage auditorium space from view, but at the proper moment, the panels part to reveal the black-attired Marschallin as a lone observer in the theater seats and Cupid now serving as prompter.

Marlis Petersen, once a Sophie in the previous Schenk Rosenkavalier, makes her role debut as the Marschallin with this production. Fitting her extraordinary dramatic gifts, she imbues the role with, to borrow from Roland Barthes in another context, a bittersweet punctum that vividly renders innumerable nuances of both text and music. Samantha Hankey gives a vigorous edge to Octavian while registering the character’s latent self-awareness of his impetuosity. This plays out poignantly in act 3 when Octavian realizes his relationship with the Marschallin is over. Katharina Konradi’s Sophie was something of a revelation dramatically. Like Asmik Grigorian’s Chrysothemis in Salzburg last summer, Konradi flipped a habitual swooning ingenue role into one of agency and perspicacity. More ambivalent is Christof Fischesser’s interpretation of Ochs. While exhibiting a clear command of comedic skill, particularly in the Mariandel scenes of act 1 and the duel in act 2, which is staged as a minuscule finger prick, Fischesser’s Ochs lacks something of the brusqueness that makes the character both endearing and repulsive. Strauss once described the Baron as, fittingly, Don Juan “translated into the comic,” so an impulse akin to forwardness is necessary. Johannes Martin Kränzle did yeoman’s work as a delightfully avuncular Faninal, and the remainder of the supporting roles were well filled out.

Plaudits are due to the Staatsoper for producing one of the largest operas in the repertoire in the era of social distancing without a hint of diminishment. One looks forward to seeing how the production evolves in a post-Covid landscape.

My Flaming Executioner: A Brief Appreciation of Facebook Memories and Phaedra

Circuitous musings about a picture of a page from a play.

Facebook Memories (©, ®, ™, or whichever symbol might be appropriate) are mixed blessings. Like looking through the relic of the physical photo album, each daily scroll prompts a wave of cringes. The further away I get from my first posts in 2006, I marvel at the amount of Vaguebooking that went on, why one thought cryptic quotations from esoterica were “cool,” and the lunacy that once upon a time we had to generate every post as a “[Name] is” formulation.

More often, however, my reaction is one of befuddlement and frustration. My older self laments that the younger self could have been much more specific and stronger in content. I read words of past successes, failures, or the “everyday.” Or I see images of trips, gatherings, objects that momentarily held interest. For most of these signifiers, only transparent phantoms remain in my own mind. Memory, that fickle thing, fails, but after all, perhaps that is the point. The words, sounds, and images we put into the void by the second might be seen as immutable, but their lasting significance is far from it. The good and the bad thing about the gigantic pile of shit thrown up by the Angel of History is that there is no one way to make your way through it. 

All this highfaluting is a bloated preface to the fact that during this morning’s scroll, I came across this image from November 16, 2017:


It’s a share from Instagram of a photo of a page from Robert Lowell’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre, the Urtragedy of French neoclassicism. For this memory, I do remember the context. I was reading the Lowell translation, Anglicized as Phaedra, while I was knee-deep in an exploration of Britten’s cantata of the same name from 1976. This was, no doubt, the product of a Dame Janet Baker kick at the time. The work was written expressly for her, and both the partitur and vocal score bear the simple dedication “For Janet Baker.” That is all one could hope to achieve in either music or a prepositional phrase.

While the cantata, one of the last works Britten completed before his death, is a compact masterwork, reading the Lowell translation makes one lament that the composer did not adapt the entire work for the dramatic stage. Its perfect distillation, however, makes one loathe to tamper with its solidity. Regardless, the cantata is an essential consequent to Britten’s last opera Death in Venice, another mediation on “forbidden” love and desire that is repressed and transmuted into forces of self-destruction. Phaedra’s end, however, after the revelation of her passion for Hippolytus possesses a nobility and a self-possession that the forlorn Gustav von Aschenbach in DiV lacks entirely.

Again, I stray. The page in the photo (from act 2, scene 5) contains the most biting line ever written about infatuation: “Misfortune magnified your loveliness”—from Racine “Tes malheurs te prêtaient encor de nouveaux charmes.” Lowell gives Racine’s malheurs a stronger personification, not Atë by name, but her presence in effect. Britten sets it marvelously in the Presto section of the cantata at the 4:45 minute mark.

Who among us has not had this realization? Or, for that matter, who has not experienced the sentiment of the preceding lines “You loathed me more, I ached for you no less”? There is a self-awareness inherent in these words, a self-awareness of desire speaks in particular to the queer experience of loving and desiring against the “conventional” grain(s), self-suppression, and the universal tragedy of loving and desiring without reciprocation. Fitting my earlier simple mediation of memory, I may not have a complete recollection of everything in my world on November 16, 2017, but that single line unlocks a flood of memories from beyond it when I, like so many of us, faced the flaming executioner, Aphrodite, at the very least in the guise of Mnemosyne, fell goddess and Titaness of memory.