Hab’ mir’s gelobt: Der Rosenkavalier at the Osterfestspiele Baden-Baden

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier. 

Feldmarschallin – Anja Harteros

Baron Ochs – Peter Rose

Octavian – Magdalena Kožená

Faninal – Clemens Unterreiner

Sophie – Anna Prohaska

Marianne Leitmetzerin – Irmgard Vilsmaier

Valzacchi – Stefan Margita

Annina – Carole Wilson

Sänger – Lawrence Brownlee

Mädchen des Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe, Philharmonia Chor Wien, Berliner Philharmoniker / Simon Rattle

Stage director – Brigitte Fassbaender

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden.  Monday, March 30th, 2015.

Der Rosenkavalier is a work that I have been very lucky with in the theatre and tonight’s cast promised so much.  It is sometimes the case that the starrier the cast, the higher the expectations and the more bitter the disappointments.  Tonight featured some of the world’s leading singers, one of the world’s greatest orchestras in the pit and one of the last generation’s finest Octavians directing and it promised so much.  Did it actually deliver?

Magdalena Kožená & Anja Harteros Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Magdalena Kožená & Anja Harteros Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

I’m afraid to say that tonight was one of those evenings where the singing was absolutely superb but the staging was really more than disappointing.  Brigitte Fassbaender is certainly not new to stage directing having run the Landestheater in Innsbruck for a number of years.  Indeed, I saw her direct a very admirable Troyens there a few years ago.  However, this Rosenkavlier really will not go down as one of the finest presentations of the piece.  There were a number of very nice ideas – at the very end, the chorus appears and applauds Octavian and Sophie as the curtain closes; Ochs’ servant brings him and Mariandel take-out pizza for their dinner.  At the same time there are quite a few things that simply don’t work.  Costumes (Dietrich von Grebner) are a mishmash of periods with characters even changing periods in their dress as the evening goes along.  Perhaps there was a point to be made about how the customs such as the presentation of the rose are old fashioned but Andreas Homoki made this in a much more effective way in his Komische Oper staging.  The sets were minimal with just a table or a chair and this could have worked quite well.  However, the back of the stage was illustrated by changing images, such as an urban scene for the Marschallin’s boudoir which turned into a country cottage when Ochs showed up.  The background for the third act was a disused swimming pool which turned into mountain vistas with what seemed to be shark fins sticking out.  Valzacchi and Anina first appeared in drag, then they switched, then they reappeared as two ladies to no apparent purpose.  Perhaps Fassbaender was making a point about gender relations but any point was lost because there was no clear development to the ideas that were present.  This was a real shame because musically, it was a deeply satisfying evening.

Magdalena Kožená & Anja Harteros Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Magdalena Kožená & Anja Harteros Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Anja Harteros was a truly exceptional Marschallin.  Perhaps this is to be expected with this incomparable artist but the total identification with words and music was absolutely complete.  The way she sang the words ‘ich hab’ dich lieb’ in the opening scene were absolutely heartbreaking.  The voice has a creaminess and warmth that is absolutely glorious to listen to and she rode that fabulous orchestra with the utmost ease.  This is the first time that I’ve actually heard Harteros sing live in her native tongue and it really is an exceptional experience.  The end of Act 1 was absolutely heartbreaking.  As she sang about uncle Greifenklau one really had a sense of a woman looking for purpose in her life.  The trio was simply glorious, the voices blending and intertwining in the most wonderful way with Harteros capping it with a full and radiant high B.

Magdalena Kožená Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Magdalena Kožená Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Magdalena Kožená was a very satisfying Octavian.  The voice has a youthful ardour that is fully appropriate to the role.  It stretches her to her limits at the very top and her diction could be slightly clearer but she sang with wonderfully rounded and youthful tone.  She was a highly energetic stage presence and gave us some wonderful Viennese dipthongs as Mariandel.  She sang with real generosity and feeling and blended wonderfully with her colleagues.

Anna Prohaska & Magdalena Kožená Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Anna Prohaska & Magdalena Kožená Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

Anna Prohaska’s Sophie offered bright tone and impeccable diction.  The top was a little on the brittle side and it sounded that she would have appreciated some swifter tempi as breath control wasn’t quite sustained as well as it could have been.  She was a highly watchable stage presence.  As her suitor, Peter Rose brought his wonderfully Viennese-accented Ochs to the staging. The voice has phenomenal ease throughout the massive range with theatre-filling low notes.  While he doesn’t quite make Ochs a sympathetic character – who can? – he does impress with his immaculate vocalism and total command of the work.

Peter Rose & Magdalena Kožená Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Peter Rose & Magdalena Kožená Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The supporting cast had some very notable singers.  Austrian baritone Clemens Unterreiner brought a solid and effortlessly-produced baritone to Faninal.  This is a voice that has real potential, the ease of production was most impressive, even in the highest range, the quality of sound was never compromised.  Irmgard Vilsmaier brought her massive voice to Marianne even if she undershot quite a few times at the top.  Carole Wilson and Stefan Margita made an impression as Annina and Valzacchi and the remainder of the very large cast was of the quality that one would expect at this address.  The luxury was Lawrence Brownlee’s cameo as the Italian singer, sung with glorious golden tone, absolutely effortless at the very top and real generosity of phrasing.

Philharmonia Chor, Wien Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Philharmonia Chor, Wien Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

The chorus, both adult and the very well-trained children, were excellent in their brief interjections singing with great blend and water-tight ensemble.  It might go without saying that the Berliner Philharmoniker played like heroes tonight but they really did.  They played with a highly impressive depth of tone and warmth and a genuine, unforced virtuosity that was revelatory.  To hear this miraculous score played with such precision and weight is a real privilege.  Simon Rattle conducted a generally swift reading that was very much light on its feet.  The waltz rhythms were beautifully present though I wish he had taken the very end of act 1 a notch or two slower.  Often the trio turns into this endless dirge but tonight Rattle did something very special.  He took the opening incredibly slowly, with Harteros sustaining ‘hab’ mir’s gelobt’ perfectly at a daringly slow tempo, but gradually, almost imperceptibly, the tempo picked up as the trio progressed, building up to that glorious climax.  It was deeply impressive and unbearably moving to listen to.

Magdalena Kožená, Anna Prohaska & Anja Harteros Photo: © Monika Rittershaus
Magdalena Kožená, Anna Prohaska & Anja Harteros Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

This was one of those evenings where, if this site had a star rating, the singing would get 5 but the staging 1.  There was so much musically that was deeply satisfying.  Yet it was let down by a staging that was confused and lacked a clear narrative and setting.  Despite this, there is so much in the vocal and orchestral performances tonight that will stay with me for a very long time.

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