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.

“I swore to love him” or, On-again/Off-agains with “Der Rosenkavalier”

FullSizeRender-2Anniversary meditations on the works of Richard Strauss.

As breaks amid preparations for my exams, I’m revisiting Strauss’s major works on the anniversaries of their premieres with more informal and personal, if not occasionally wandering, musings.

Today, a big one:

Der Rosenkavalier

Premiere: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden; Thursday, January 26, 1911

The calendar struck with two big Strauss anniversaries back-to-back, so this offering is unfortunately tardy. Looking over the fare I offered on Elektra and Metamorphosen, I realized that I skirted too closely around the shoals of formality. The benefit of a medium like this is frankness. One should always be accurate, of course, and I welcome any and all responses to what I’ve written. My goal is to nourish kernels of my own thoughts which would not likely have a friendly home in a more academic venue, and wrestle with ideas without concern if they come up short. Much will end up ultimately being fragments, a form too often undervalued.

Which brings me to the work under consideration for today, perhaps the most quintessential of all Strauss stage works: Der Rosenkavalier. Lately, I’ve been perplexed. When it comes up in discussion, I routinely stifle a sensation close to ambivalence. Moods happen—yet this tepidity is different. It’s not a case of out-and-out dislike. As someone who studies opera production history, Rosenkavalier is one of the central case studies, and for good reason. Apart from the joy that is the work of designer Alfred Roller, the circumstances of the premiere (Strauss’s contractual battles, wounded feelings at Dresden, Max Reinhardt’s involvement), no matter how many times retold, still yield forth fresh gems. Beyond this, Der Rosenkavalier is central to the Strauss canon, the wider operatic repertoire, and the course of art music in the twentieth century. Yet in putting these thoughts down, I find the same sensation surfacing again. Whence this dissatisfaction?

In this regard, I am not alone. Though this was the first original collaboration of Strauss and Hofmannsthal (Elektra already existing as a stage text) and easily their most successful (at least commercially), at certain points they themselves perceived personal qualms. Strauss later admitted the work was hampered by longeurs of his own making. More bitingly, before the ink on the score was dry, Hofmannsthal was venting his distaste of Strauss’s efforts to Count Harry Kessler with one hand while dashing off praise to the composer with the other. Despite these misgivings, no attempt was made to revise the work as with Ariadne auf Naxos, though Strauss did eventually sanction cuts. (Myself, I prefer the work without them.) One could look to Arabella, so often described (both positively and negatively) as a “second Rosenkavalier,” as an attempt to respond to the earlier work, but such a tack soon runs into a slough of its own.

It may be, simply, just Rosenkavalier fatigue on my part. Some of this fatigue, however, is relief. The hackneyed critical line about Rosenkavalier as a threshold of regression has been soundly obliterated, though it occasionally resurrects itself. Furthermore, the work has been the center of valuable attention in the last decade. Michael Reynolds has offered a probing study of the contributions of Count Harry Kessler and the origins of the scenario in the 1907 operetta L’Ingenu libertin. The press response to Glyndebourne’s production in 2014 exposed and incited a valuable dialogue about body-shaming in opera criticism. There also was a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times online, which I shall address at a later date. These latter two instances point to the greatest challenge facing the work, indeed the entirety of Strauss’s output: how do (and how will) these works speak—through performance—to the concerns of our century? What answers can a “comedy” so inexorably and problematically tied up with questions of gender and power provide to #metoo? Opera’s not-impalpable undercurrent of misogyny has drawn our comfort with numerous works of the nineteenth century into question, along with how they appear in the hands of contemporary directors, designers, and performers. The rest of the repertory faces similar scrutiny.

These criticisms are in no way new; indeed, they are if anything long overdue for response, as well as action. Ultimately, criticism and exegesis on the web or on paper only reach so far. These are dramatic works and answers to their questions are (and must) be found in performance. It may be that once Strauss’s works fall completely into the public domain across the globe, much will be done in the way of reinvention, reinterpretation, and recasting, both literal and figurative. This is a sensitive nerve with Rosenkavalier, since its stage history is so inexorably bound with attempts to preserve a particular vision of the work—as the creators “intended” it to be. I am tempted to say that “traditional” Rosenkavaliers will always be with us, but really, what does “traditional” mean, and what is a “traditional” Rosenkavalier? Is it merely rigid adherence to the original designs and prompt book? The complete score with the complete forces dictated by the composer? Or is it more a vision of what will placate opera’s Achilles heel: the ever-feared but always necessary audience that may provide that fatal rejection of not buying tickets or donating money if what they see fails to entertain or holds up too brutal a mirror.

I frequently quip, with much seriousness, that someday someone will produce a version of the Ring with a dozen performers, two pianos, two chairs, and a stick, and it will be the greatest revelation in Wagnerian history. Strauss could do with the same. If the works are strong enough, rich enough, and powerful enough, they will survive being adapted, being challenged, being put into dialogue with what was once done, and what could be done the next time around. We may wring hands that the creator’s wishes are being violated, disgraced, or some other melodramatic participle. No doubt, Strauss and his librettists would have strong and resolute opinions on what they would see on the stages of today’s opera houses, but these acts of supposition are just that. I don’t mean to give carte blanche to interpretations that take little of the dramatic and musical substances of the work into account. The informed is always the enemy of the reckless. And we must hold the unaccounted for accountable in what we see onstage. If, like the Marschallin, we have sworn to love these works to the point that we can appreciate attractions to them from other corners, then we too can support a plurality of approaches to them.

A Coda. We must not forget that Strauss took his own “liberties” in bringing Gluck (Iphigenie auf Tauris), Beethoven (Die Ruinen von Athen), and Mozart (Idomeneo) to the stage in his own era. January 26 also marks the anniversary of the premiere of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a clear ancestor of Rosenkavalier and one of Strauss’s specialties as a conductor. It is also the eve of Mozart’s birthday. Strauss’s reverence for the composer was nigh on absolute, but even he abjured pedantic adherence to tradition. I’m reminded too of Strauss’s epithet “the divine Mozart,” and how, in a late philosophical fragment on his forebear, Strauss considered his melodies to be “primal types” (Urbilder) to be experienced by emotion, breathed in by the ear. If Strauss could still breathe a different sense into Mozart a century and a half after his death, we should be able to do the same for Strauss in our own century.

(c) Ryan M. Prendergast, 27 January 2018.