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The perfect Bavarian Viennese

By Pablo Bardin
For the Herald

Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is simply the best 20th-Century comedy in German

Ask any knowledgeable opera- goer about the best 20th-Century comedy in German and the almost unanimous answer will be Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier; even the British won’t translate it, for “The Rose Cavalier”, or “Knight”, somehow doesn’t work out. And as a whole, the opera has such a variety of Austrian dialects that it is quite impervious to translation.

The Bavarian bourgeois, Richard Strauss, somehow made a fine team with the refined and sensitive Viennese poet and playwright Hugo Von Hoffmannsthal: their first collaboration, Elektra, 1911, was sheer genius: the composer going to the very extreme of chromaticism in music of immense intensity, the librettist seeing Sophocles with a Freudian approach of terrifying impact. But Strauss knew that he had gone to the very limit of tonal music, and wanted a comedy of charm and substance: Der Rosenkavalier.

It is a Rococo comedy that happens in Vienna during the long reign of Maria Theresa (1740-80), and the libretto calls the Marschallin (marshal’s wife) precisely with those names. She is 32 and has a bad relationship with her husband, the Field Marshal, frequently absent; currently her lover is the Count Octavian Rofrano, aged only 17. She receives the visit of the uncouth rural Baron Ochs von Lerchenau (Ox of the Larks Prairie), 35, libidinous and impoverished, who wants to marry 15-year-old Sophie Faninal, the daughter of a wealthy provider of weapons to the Empire; Ochs wants money from him, and Faninal is a bourgeois who aspires to social climbing by marrying his daughter to a nobleman. For the Marschallin the problem of elapsed time is essential and she feels that her liaison with Octavian will soon end even if the teenager is so much in love with her, and she provokes intuitively something that will change matters utterly: she sends Octavian as the Rosenkavalier, bringing to Sophie a beautiful silver rose as a messenger of Ochs. It’s love at first sight between the youngsters and Ochs is as boorish as possible; the proposed marriage is destroyed. And in the Third Act an elaborate masquerade makes a fool of Ochs and the Marschallin subtly brings together the adolescents in a moving act of renunciation.

This comedy, where the buffo is Ochs but the other principals go through many dramatic emotions, is written with vast ingenuity by Hoffmannsthal, who adds a lot of subsidiary characters in this long but almost always fascinating opera (about three hours and 20 minutes, if there are no cuts). Two anachronisms must be faced and accepted: Octavian isn’t a tenor but a mezzo (like Mozart’s Cherubino) for a musical reason: the eerie beauty of the three female voices in the marvellous Trio justifies it, and there’s also the need for a lithe singer who looks young and is agile; and furthermore, Octavian disguises himself as Mariandel, a young maid from the country, both in the first and the Third Acts (fooling Ochs). The other, much-discussed matter is that the whole score is permeated by wonderful waltzes, which evoke the 19th Century; the “right” dance would be the minuet. Again, it may be “wrong” but I for one don’t care, the magic is there.

Admirable attempts

Buenos Aires has seen admirable Rosenkavaliers: now, after 19 years (too long a time) we had a bad though very costly production, that of the overvalued Robert Carsen, shared with New York, London and Turin; also, for the first time, there was a second cast — all Argentine except the Ochs.

The best way is to deal with both casts by comparing them. Octavian is the Kavalier and has the longest and most difficult part, for the singer has to convey the feeling of a vehement lad, his hesitations, and his skill travestied as Mariandel: a lot of character singing but also of fragments where line and style prevail. Jennifer Holloway was the star of the evening in the first cast: an attractive personality, a beautiful firm voice and great musical gifts. But what astonished me was our Guadalupe Barrientos, in full control of text and music, with a big voice and notable physical agility, though over-the-top in the Third Act (her fault or Carsen’s?).

The Marschallin is a peach of a role and was Schwarzkopf’s specialty for decades. She is sensual but contained, has the best lines of the libretto, exudes true nobility and moves us to tears. I expected more from Manuela Uhl, who had been a fine Empress here in Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten; this time she was too cool and some notes sounded metallic when they should be melting; I liked her better in the Third Act but she wasn’t quite the ticket. Beforehand I thought that our Carla Filipcic Holm would be right for the part in the Crespin matronly mold, and she was: the voice warm, the line clean and empathic, the acting sincere and communicative. And the two Sophies were positive, for they are young and charming, with a brilliant and tasteful high range: Oriana Favaro and Marina Silva.

But... we didn’t have a satisfactory Ochs, and without it the work is fatally maimed. Kurt Rydl is now too old: he was good 25 years ago, now the voice is terribly spread and unpleasant, and not even his experienced acting compensates. Julian Close (début) was very different although equally unsatisfactory; the voice is grey, he has no lows and the acting isn’t funny; he replaced Lucas Debevec Mayer, certainly a poor choice.

Faninal is an ungrateful character part; the towering John Hancock (debut) gave it some entity and was better than Héctor Guedes, too shouty and overdone. We had two fine Italian Singers: Darío Schmunck and Santiago Ballerini. The Italian intriguers, Valzacchi and Annina, were skilfully done by Sergio Spina and Iván Maier, María Luisa Merino Ronda and particularly Mariana Rewerski. Mario De Salvo (Notary), Alejandro Meerapfel (Commissaire) and Duilio Smiriglia (Daninal’s majordomo) did well. It wasn’t poor Fernando Chalabe’s fault to be converted by Carsen into a brothel’s Madam

instead of an Innkeeper. Victoria Gaeta was much better than Rocío Giordano as Marianne.

Viennese understanding

Alejo Pérez met the enormous challenge of conducting the gorgeous score with flying colours, a Viennese understanding of the right waltzing pulse coupled with control of the various pandemoniums but also the sensitivity for the Presentation of the Rose or the Trio.

The Orchestra proved that it can be admirable under the right hands, and I was impressed by the perfect offstage band. The choirs were OK.

Carsen changes the Rococo original and places the opera in 1911, close to World War I; he stresses the militaristic side to ridiculous extremes: the cannon in Faninal’s nouveau riche Palace, the uniforms even of Ochs and his retainers (he is the antithesis of an officer). But there’s worse: the Third Act inn with just one private room is converted into a vast bordello of indescribably bad taste, and Mariandel acts like a whore instead of being an innocent girl. And the very end is horrible: instead of a comedy rococo episode, a drunk moor of sorts and a line of soldiers. Too many people where they shouldn’t be and unnecessary choreography.

For the record, Bruno Ravella was Carsen’s revivalist, Paul Steinberg did the stage designs, Brigitte Reiffenstuel the costumes, Carsen and Peter Van Praet the lighting and Philippe Giraudeau the choreography.

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