Stopping the Clocks: Der Rosenkavalier from the Bayerische Staatsoper

Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier

Die Feldmarschallin – Marlis Petersen
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Christof Fischesser
Octavian – Samantha Hankey
Herr von Faninal – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Sophie – Katharina Konradi
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Daniela Köhler
Valzacchi – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Annina – Ursula Hesse von den Steinen
Ein Polizeikommissar – Martin Snell
Der Haushofmeister bei der Feldmarschallin / Ein Wirt – Manuel Günther
Der Haushofmeister bei Faninal – Caspar Singh
Ein Notar – Christian Rieger
Ein Sänger – Galeano Salas
Drei adelige Waisen / Kinder – Juliana Zara, Sarah Gilford, Daria Proszek
Eine Modistin / Ein Kind – Eliza Boom
Ein Tierhändler / Ein Kind – George Vîrban

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Vladimir Jurowski.
Stage director – Barrie Kosky.  Video director – Henning Kasten.  

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, Germany.  Sunday, March 21st, 2021.  Streamed via staatsoper.tv

This new production of Der Rosenkavalier is the first at the venerable Bayerische Staatsoper in fifty years, replacing the antique Otto Schenk staging which, over the past half-century, has seen pretty much every major interpreter of this opera make magic happen on the stage of the Nationaltheater.  I was fortunate to see it on two occasions, with Soile Isokoski and Anja Harteros as the Marschallin.  But, as we’re even more conscious of than ever with this piece, time really doesn’t stand still and after fifty years it really is time for the new.  I must admit to surprise, and a healthy dose of skepticism, with the choice of Barrie Kosky as stage director.  Kosky has repeatedly demonstrated over the past few years his ability to really give us a good ‘show’.  But I’ve felt less confident in his ability to mine the emotions of a piece and make us feel.  If there’s a work that makes us feel, that makes us look within and reflect on the passage of time, it’s this one.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

The first impression of this Rosenkavalier is that it looks like absolutely no expense has been spared in the set or costume designs (Rufus Didwiszus and Victoria Behr, respectively).  Octavian and his entourage enter in Act 2 in a highly ornate coach led by silver horses (clearly people dressed up as horses rather than actual equines).  Similarly, Act 3 takes place on the stage of a theatre, with a 1970s-looking auditorium offering a contrast to the intricate Nationaltheater.  The passage of time is clearly an important element to Kosky – whether in the Marschallin and Octavian appearing in Act 1 from inside a large clock, to the alarm clock that kicks off the opening of Act 2.  The costumes similarly traverse the eras, whether the ornate rococo of the Italian Singer, or the more mundane 1970s detective outfit of the Polizeikommissar.  Of course, Kosky isn’t the first to explore the passage of time in this work (one need only think of Homoki at the Komische or Fuchs in Wales).  Kosky also makes use of a cupid figure, in the shape of a 94-year-old member of the house’s Statisterie, who is a constant presence on stage – whether throwing glitter of the Marschallin and Octavian in Act 1, or guiding the horses in Act 2, or sitting in the prompter’s box in Act 3.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Yet, Kosky left me once again with a sense of a show that looks great, but that didn’t plumb the deep emotional range of this piece.  However, this was certainly not the case with Marlis Petersen’s Marschallin.  From her first appearance in a see-through nightdress, to her heart-rending monologue, Petersen became the emotional glue that held this performance together.  Her face is so expressive and, thanks to Henning Kasten’s video direction, we were able to see all of the detail that Petersen brought to her assumption of the role.  She truly sang off the text, using it to colour the tone and bring out so much emotion, the beauty of her peaches and cream soprano utterly ravishing to listen to.  Hers was a human Marschallin of deep complexity, using the text to guide the emotions whether regret, unwilling desire, or a recognition in her closing ‘ja, ja’ that there may be another Octavian around the corner, and that the act of stopping the clocks was one of routine and not of exception.  Indeed, her relationship with Octavian was less chaste and much more sexual than was the case in the Schenk staging, with the Marschallin unable to resist the temptation of grabbing Mariandel’s buttocks while chatting with Ochs in Act 1.  There was a goodness to Petersen’s stage presence in Act 3, a realization that she could do nothing to stop losing Octavian to Sophie, but that she could make it easier for them – an idea I found extremely compelling.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

I’ll admit to have been less moved by Samantha Hankey’s Octavian and Katharina Konradi’s Sophie.  Having them float off into the ether both vocally and physically in their closing scene felt a bit de trop.  The effect was impressive, but it didn’t leave me with a sense of that overwhelming feeling of burgeoning love.  Similarly, the presentation of the rose fell flat because they barely looked at each other, that coup de foudre moment, that should really stop time, barely registered.  Hankey is the owner of a bright, sunny mezzo with an easy top.  She had clearly worked hard on the clarity of the words, but I did miss a sense of her working with them to make them mean something.  She attempted some Viennese diphthongs as Mariandel.  Konradi’s Sophie was sung in a similarly bright, crystalline soprano with easy reach in those soaring lines.  It’s definitely an attractive sound but here again, I longed for her to do something with the text, to use it as the starting point for her character.  She’s definitely an expressive physical actress and her disgust with Ochs was palpable.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Christof Fischesser sang an extrovert Ochs.  His bass was well dispatched in the role, the bottom D full and even, and the voice, even through the small screen, enveloped this listener in its liquid warmth.  He threw himself into all that was asked of him in the staging – cradling his bleeding finger, or disappearing inside a bed as he descended to the sepulchral depths of his register.  Again, I wish he had done more with the text – surprising, as he’s a singer I have found to be extremely textually aware in the past.  He made a decent attempt at the Viennese diphthongs, but I did long for them to be sharper.  The remainder of the cast reflected the standards of this, one of the world’s greatest lyric theatres.  Johannes Martin Kränzle sang Faninal in a firm baritone, never succumbing to the urge to hector.  Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Ursula Hesse von den Steinen sang Valzacchi and Anina with wit and clarity of diction – I’m still wondering why they and Faninal had horns on their heads in Act 2.  Galeano Salas sang his arietta as the Italian Singer with ardent generosity and impressive ease on high.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Vladimir Jurowski conducted an arrangement of the score by Eberhard Kloke.  This was presumably due to the current sanitary situation that necessitated a reduced orchestration.  Kloke scored the work for the same orchestral forces as Ariadne auf Naxos and it must be said, that during the course of the evening, the orchestration was redolent of that work.  The presence of the piano in the texture, gave the piece more of a chamber, conversational quality than one normally hears.  Interestingly, as the Marschallin sang about stopping the clocks, she was accompanied only by the piano, which reinforced that sense of loneliness inherent in the music.  Jurowski led a reading that was delightfully quicksilver, fleet of foot, and flexible to the constant changes in the music – whether easing into a waltz, or relaxing to encourage introspection.  The trio was taken at a nicely flowing tempo, mercifully far from the dirge it’s so often subjected to.  The orchestra was a on good form, a few brass fluffs here and there notwithstanding.

Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

Today felt like watching the start of a new era.  Perhaps due to the sense of a cast, with a number making role debuts, or the idea of watching this new production replacing one that has been around for five decades.  My initial impression of Kosky’s staging is that it is eminently revivable, doesn’t especially add any particularly new insights, but can provide a framework for some compelling individual performances.  Perhaps, in a future season with a more experienced cast, it may actually trigger the waterworks in a way that today didn’t.  It left me with admiration for the fluency with which it was dispatched, but also unmoved in a work that has moved me, and so many others, countless times over the years.  It’s definitely worth seeing for Petersen’s Marschallin and Jurowski’s conducting gives a great deal of pleasure.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to return to the Nationaltheater very soon to see it in the flesh.  Many thanks, as always, to the Bayerische Staatsoper for giving us the chance to see it.

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