Time to Say Goodbye: Der Rosenkavalier from the Staatsoper Berlin

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier

Feldmarschallin – Camilla Nylund
Baron Ochs – Günther Groissböck
Octavian – Michèle Losier
Faninal – Roman Trekel
Sophie – Nadine Sierra
Marianne Leitmetzerin – Anna Samuil
Valzacchi – Karl-Michael Ebner
Annina – Katharina Kammerloher
Sänger – Atalla Ayan
Ein Polizeikommissar – Erik Rosenius
Der Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin – Florian Hoffmann
Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal – Linard Vrielink
Ein Notar – Jaka Mihelač
Ein Wirt – Andrés Moreno García
Eine Modistin – Victoria Randem

Staatsopernchor Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin / Zubin Mehta.
Stage director – André Heller.  Video director – Felix Breisach.

Staatsoper, Berlin, Germany.  February 2020.  Streamed via 3sat-Mediathek. 

Is there a difference between lust and love?  Can human relationships be a way to cope with the passage of time?  These questions sit at the heart of André Heller’s new staging of Der Rosenkavalier, his first ever production for the lyric stage.  The Staatsoper has assembled a seriously promising cast of experienced Strauss singers and notable debutants, under the baton of the venerable Zubin Mehta.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Heller takes an interesting view of the work – one that provokes reflection.  Camilla Nylund’s Marschallin clearly sees her relationship with Octavian as very much a physical fling from the start.  This idea that she sees in their relationship a limited temporality is undoubtedly an interesting one, and leaves one convinced that she must say goodbye to him.  Heller leaves us with no doubt that Octavian is just one of many, and with Mohammed visibly seen listening to their farewell on the other side of the door, there is a sense that this is just a pattern of repeated behaviour, a way of escaping the boredom of daily life while her husband is away.  Interesting, certainly, but it’s hard not to feel that Heller loses something by following this line of thought.  We’re left with dry eyes at the end of Act 1 simply because the staging fails to dig out the heartbreak at the core of the work.  There’s little sense of wanting to hold on to something, even though temporary, just to stop the clocks from ticking.  Instead, Heller brings out a sense of power from the Marschallin, of knowing sexuality and ability to seduce.  Even going so far as to have the Marschallin provide the fragrant oil onto the rose that helps Sophie fall for Octavian, as if finding another way to move him along.  This makes for an interesting approach, but by the same token, fails to draw out the humanity, replacing it with a cynical view of human relationships which might be closer to real life, but deprives us of the catharsis of feeling.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Particularly so in the final scene where Michèle Losier’s Octavian and Nadine Sierra’s Sophie can barely keep their hands off each other, so that when the Marschallin walks off into the darkness, she’s clearly been forgotten about.  It’s hard not to feel a tinge of regret at this sight, this idea that relationships can be so easily given up – even if, again, for a young man perhaps this is truer to life.  Heller definitely seems to have an extremely negative view of male sexuality – Günther Gröissbock’s Ochs is an even bigger sex pest than usual, completely unable to keep his hands off any female flesh, constantly pawing over all the women (and Mariandel), leaving one with a somewhat un-nuanced view of his character.  The staging undeniably looks great, with bright colourful costumes (Arthur Arbesser) and imposing Jugendstil-inspired sets (Xenia Hausner), with the presentation of the rose providing a blockbuster visual.   Heller’s staging unquestionably provokes reflection, it provides a cogent and interesting evening based in a reading of the text, yet ultimately left me unmoved.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

An impression heighted by Mehta’s leaden conducting.  The Staatsoper gave us the score uncut, which meant that unfortunately Act 1 dragged somewhat, particularly in the long conversation between the Marschallin and Ochs.  While later, in Act 2 there was a sense of the dances flowing into each other, it did seem rather heavy-footed.  As so often, Mehta chose a languid tempo for the trio, though it didn’t come to a complete halt.  Hard to judge over a streaming but it did sound like the Staatskapelle was making a big, bold, theatre-filling sound with big voices riding over the texture.  The quality of the orchestral playing was as one would expect from the house, even if it felt perhaps lacking in individuality.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

In the title role, Losier gave us a commanding, aristocratic assumption which, in the sheer beauty of line, reminded us of Octavian’s noble origins.  She had clearly worked exceptionally hard on the text, filling the words with meaning and pulling out the diphthongs as Mariandel, with a sense that this was an aristocrat impersonating a working class maid.  The voice soared thrillingly over the orchestra in ruby red ardour, the tessitura holding no terrors.  An impressive prise de rôle from a singer going from strength to strength.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Nylund threw herself fully into Heller’s concept, incarnating a Marschallin who was fully aware of her power over men, who also had a clear escape plan from Octavian.  The voice has silky steel at its core, with a hint of hardness higher up – not completely inappropriate for this reading of the character.  She floated her ‘silberne Ros’n’ with great beauty, and soared over the trio with ecstatic ease.  Sierra’s Sophie I found rather problematic.  The voice is undeniably glamourous, an instrument of great pulchritude with sheer ease on high.  Yet, it felt that she made little of the text, the diction cloudy, and her intonation was woozy – at times sharp, at others flat.  It is, without doubt, a fabulous instrument and one I would love to hear more of, but I’m not convinced this role showed Sierra at her best.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

Gröissbock brought his now familiar Ochs to the staging.  This was a man in this prime of his life who felt that he could get away with anything.  Gröissbock coloured the text with those typical Austrian diphthongs and his handsome bass is in terrific shape.  He also has stage presence to spare, the sheer size of his performance emerging through the TV screen, bringing us as spectators in.  Perhaps the very bottom of the voice lacks the resonance of the middle, but Strauss does make some extreme demands on it.  Roman Trekel was a rather grey-toned Faninal but he had worked hard on the accent, also colouring the text with those Viennese diphthongs.  Atalla Ayan gave us a full-blooded account of the Tenor’s music, singing with extrovert tone.  The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards of the house.

Photo: © Ruth Walz

This is a Rosenkavalier that does provoke reflection, one that creates an interesting reading of the work that is logical and fluid.  And yet, I must admit to not being convinced by it.  It lacks the humanity, the beauty at the core, instead replacing it with a view of human relationships that feels more cynical – though perhaps actually more true to life.  It had obviously been fluently rehearsed and clearly consisted of characters who related to each other.  Vocally there was much that gave pleasure – in the singing of the ensemble and in the commanding assumptions of Losier, Nylund and Gröissbock.  An evening worthy of exploration if not one for the ages.

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