Of life, love and loss: Der Rosenkavalier at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier

Feldmarschallin – Anja Harteros
Baron Ochs – Günther Groissböck
Octavian – Angela Brower
Faninal – Markus Eiche
Sophie – Golda Schultz
Marianne Leitmetzerin – Christiane Kohl
Valzacchi – Ulrich Reß
Annina – Heike Grötzinger
Sänger – Andrej Dunaev
Ein Polizeikommissar – Peter Lobert
Der Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin – Matthew Grills
Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal – Kevin Conners
Ein Notar – Christian Rieger
Ein Wirt – Dean Power
Eine Modistin – Selene Zanetti
Ein Tierhändler – Joshua Owen Mills

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Kirill Petrenko.
Stage direction – Otto Schenk.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Saturday, February 11th, 2017.

The Bayerische Staatsoper does not usually make photographs available of repertoire evenings such as this.  Apologies for the lack of photos with this review. 

The winter illnesses that beset last night’s Otello in Vienna also led to some cast changes for tonight’s Rosenkavalier here in Munich.  In common with the Wiener Staatsoper, the Bayerische Staatsoper was able to call upon a very fine replacement for Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s Sophie in their ensemble member, the South African, Golda Schultz.  Even more remarkably, they were also able to call up one of the very greatest exponents of the role of the Marschallin today, Anja Harteros, as a replacement for the originally-cast Anne Schwanewilms.  That the house was able to do so in both cases is testament to the extremely high standards maintained by the theatre.

Otto Schenk’s staging dates from 1972 and it has hosted over the years many of the most illustrious exponents of the work on stage and in the pit.  What struck me about tonight’s performance, is how much the singers worked to create real, believable characters that genuinely engaged with each other.  This contrasted strongly with the ornate sets (the Act 2 one received applause from the audience) and fusty costumes.  This was very much the case for Anja Harteros’ Marschallin.  She raised the temperature whenever she appeared on stage.  Her Marschallin was a very complex creation – a lady who had regrets, who was flirtatious, and who knew that her life was undergoing inevitable change with the passage of time.  So much was communicated with a glace over a shared cup with Octavian, or her resigned stance on stage, or in her final ‘ja, ja’ where she said so much with so little.  Likewise, Angela Brower’s Octavian and Schultz’ Sophie didn’t make eye contact until quite a few minutes into the Presentation of the Rose;  when they did, one witnessed in just a few fleeting seconds that coup de foudre take place right in front of us.  It would be wrong to say that that the sets are not looking their age.  That of Act 3 looked particularly geriatric.  Yet there was an intimacy to the relationships between the characters here that was entirely lacking from Robert Carsen’s recent Royal Opera production for example.

So much, of course, of the creation of a character happens through that union of voice and physicality.  I found Brower’s Octavian interesting.  Her bright, soprano-ish mezzo is ideal for the role.  It blooms wonderfully at the top where many Octavians before her have come to grief.  She had clearly mastered the text and the notes and was an eager, puppyish stage presence.  And yet, she didn’t quite win me over and I think that it was a question of her not using the words to shade the tone.  There seemed to be one consistent vocal colour throughout the evening and I longed for her to experiment and draw more colours into the voice.  She is young, however, and hopefully this is something that will come with time.  The public adored her, granting her a generous ovation.

Schultz was a delightful Sophie.  Her soprano has unblemished sheen and her gravity-defying support meant that she floated those high-lying lines miraculously.  The voice is a good size and she had undeniable chemistry with Brower’s Octavian.  Her diction was also extremely clear, the role fully sung off the text.  Certainly a singer I would very much like to see again.

Günther Groissböck also won a most considerable ovation from the public.  His was an energetic Ochs, clearly with a very high sex drive, unable to resist anything in a skirt.  He moved nimbly around the stage with diphthongs from the very heart of Niederösterreich and he wasn’t afraid to resort to camp.  The voice is in good shape, firm and even, though it does tend to taper off towards the bottom.  That said that bottom D was most certainly there.  He was joined by Markus Eiche’s Faninal who blustered splendidly without a hint of strain and Heike Grötzinger’s fruity and warm-toned Annina.  Ulrich Reß was a surprisingly Italianate Valzacchi.  I was also struck by Peter Lobert’s generous bass at the Polizeikommisar.

Then there was Harteros.  Everything she does in her singing is based in the text and through that, as I mentioned at the top, she gives a fully lived-in portrayal.  Her aristocratic demeanour on stage is matched by her elegantly aristocratic vocal line.  Her claret-toned soprano can turn to velvety warmth as she shades the tone and she also opens up fabulously at the top.  She is such a positive stage presence – engaging with her colleagues and raising the temperature on stage exponentially every time she appears.  Her reflections on the passage of time were heart wrenching and in the trio, as it built up to her glorious (but slightly flat) high B, one could feel the warmth of her vocalism filling the ensemble with generous humanity.  This was something very special indeed.

I must say that it felt like Kirill Petrenko’s conducting took a little while to settle.  Act 1 felt nervy and tempi didn’t feel organically linked until Harteros was alone ruminating and then the magic started.  The trio was sadly, as always it seems, taken far too slowly although we did get to admire Harteros’ impressive breath control.  Partly, I think it was due to the fact that Petrenko didn’t quite ease into the dances – they felt flat and needed to swing more.  Perhaps this is a personal impression.  The band could clearly play this score in their sleep.  There was good depth of string tone, the winds had real personality and the horns were deliciously raucous.

On paper, perhaps, this production of Rosenkavalier might seem like the epitome of museum opera.  In reality it was much more than that thanks to the charisma of the leads.  In many respects this was a good, solid house ensemble performance.  Yet it was raised above that by the sheer humanity of Harteros’ Marschallin whose willingness to reflect on life and loss was unbearably moving.  Yes there were issues with the conducting and some of the singing but what matters is the cumulative impact and thanks to the presence of one of the greatest artists of today, tonight became something very special indeed.

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The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

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