Friday 19 December 2014

Der Rosenkavalier, Semperoper Dresden, 14 December 2014


Die Feldmarschallin, Fürstin Werdenberg – Anja Harteros
Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Peter Rose
Octavian – Sophie Koch
Herr von Faninal – Adrian Erőd
Sophie – Christiane Karg
Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin – Christiane Kohl
Valzacchi – Thomas Ebenstein
Annina – Christa Mayer
Police Officer – Peter Lobert
The Marschallin’s Major-domo – Simeon Esper
Faninal’s Major-domo – Tom Martinsen
A Notary – Matthias Henneberg
A Landlord – Dan Karlström
A Singer – Yosep Kang
A Milliner – Nadja Mchantaf
A Vendor of Pets – Mert Süngü
Leopold – Dirk Wolter
Lackeys – Ingolf Stollberg, Andreas Keinze, Jun-Seok Bang, Matthias Beutlich
Waiters – Rafael Harnisch, Torsten Schäpan Norbert Klesse, Thomas Müller
Three noble orphans – Jennifer Porto, Emily Dorn, Christel Loetzsch
Lerchenauschen – Alexander Födisch, Michael Wettin, Thomas Müller, Mirko Tuma, Werner Harke, Holger Steinert
Mohammed (‘The little Moor’) – Amala Boashie

Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director)
Christoph Schubiger (set designs)
Jessica Karge (costumes)

Chorus of the Saxon State Opera (chorus master: Wolfram Tetzner)
Members of the Children’s Chorus of the Saxon State Opera
Staatskapelle Dresden
Christian Thielemann (conductor) 

A superlative evening! Above all on the musical side, Christian Thielemann’s conducting having been the initial attraction for me in the first place, but with an intelligent staging too, which quite belied its years. Uwe Eric Laufenberg was announced as director of the new Bayreuth Parsifal after I had arranged to attend this performance, but since I was unfamiliar with his work, this proved a subsequent attraction. What, if anything, this 2000 staging might tell us about a 2015 Parsifal remains to be seen, but, quite in contrast to reports I had heard (‘boring’, ‘conventional’, etc.), this proved, if not the equal of Harry Kupfer’s Salzburg production this summer, then a more than acceptable alternative. When one recalls in horror Munich’s perpetual ‘revival’, if only in name, of an Otto Schenk production long past its sell-by-date, now at long last set to be pensioned off, Laufenberg offers almost the height of radicalism.


The staging of the Prelude seems to me a miscalculation, and an embarrassing one at that. Strauss makes it perfectly clear the sort of thing that is going on. We have little need to see the Marschallin and Octavian gingerly undressing each other (though not very far) and disappearing under the sheets. It certainly is not raunchy; instead, we appear stranded in a no-man’s-land – literally, I suppose – between ‘tastefulness’ and The Benny Hill Show. Things improve thereafter, however. Perhaps the most impressive developmental aspect is the way in which the sense of time, or better of times, creeps upon us, becomes more complicated – just as in the work itself. The Marschallin and Octavian might well be where they ‘should’ be, in Maria Theresa’s Vienna, or rather in Hofmannsthal’s intricate construction thereof, which is not to be confused, nor is it intended to be, with the ‘real thing’, or Ranke’s wie es eigentlich gewesen. As the first act progresses, however, it gradually becomes clearer that we are, or have progressed, some time later than we had suspected. Is it the nineteenth century, the period of those Johann Strauss waltzes Richard sublimated? It seems as though it might be, and then, through costumes and actions, we realise that we are actually a little later. The time of composition? Yes, perhaps. Ah no, in the second act, in Faninal’s strenuously ‘beautiful’, up-to-date palace, we realise that we are probably a little later still. The Marschallin, of course, lives in a more well-worn establishment, with truer, or at least more ancient, pedigree, still living, more or less, though perhaps not entirely, the life she imagines, we imagine, her eighteenth-century self having lived. At least when at home; the third act deepens historical understanding further. Octavian seems to understand his life similarly when with her, but proves more likely, aristocratic pride notwithstanding, to be influenced by his surroundings; after all, he is young and easily swayed.


The latest – that is, for the interwar years – ‘media’ techniques are employed in Faninal’s Faustian bargain: cameramen record the event, but have to be prevented, with limited success, by his Major-domo, the characterful Tom Martinsen. It is not as if the years have actually passed; this is not Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal. However, we appreciate the construction of past and present, so long as we pay attention both to the general and the specifically scenic. Moreover, we are certainly made aware, without having the point unduly hammered home, that the media attention paid to Sophie is very much an aspect of that heterosexual male gaze which excites itself with the cavorting of three women in the first place. That is not, of course, to say that others cannot find much to interest them too in those relationships, but rather to remind ourselves of the ‘norm’ on which both work and production seem predicated. The special prominence granted Mohammed, listed in the programme as ‘der kleine Mohr’ seems odd, though. He is kept as something akin to the Marschallin’s pet, and the racial overtones – especially when all the other children were so clearly of ‘Germanic’ appearance – unsettle without evident reason.


It is an impressive but far from obtrusive frame, then, in which the specific action unfolds. The success of that action is doubtless, especially at this remove from the original production, to be attributed more to the efforts of those on stage than to the production ‘itself’, but the latter does no harm. Anja Harteros proved well-nigh perfect as the Marschallin. Her grace and conviction were married to an alluring tone that yet did not preclude subtle verbal nuance. One believed in her – and felt with her. Sophie Koch’s Octavian is of course a very well-known quantity, but seemed reinvented for the occasion, keenly responsive to others on stage, eminently plausible in his/her various guises. Christiane Karg’s Sophie was a far more interesting character than one generally encounters; normally, my reaction is likely to tend towards irritation at least at her vacuity. Not so in Karg’s case; there was clearly ambition here, on the part of both singer and character. There was also clearly instant attraction – perhaps the production overdoes this? – between her and the rose-bearing count. Adrian Erőd’s Faninal was dry-toned to start with, but gained in vocal lustre thereafter, offering throughout a detailed portrayal, whether musically, verbally, or on stage. Peter Rose’s Ochs was simply wonderful: a buffo portrayal, yes, but a portrayal born of deep musico-dramatic intelligence, evidently gauging and creating the moment as it presented itself. His way with Hofmannsthal’s text lay beyond reproach. His impatience during the resumption of the Italian Singer’s aria offered a masterclass in silent stage presence. No one disappointed and most of the ‘minor’ roles strongly impressed, not least Yosep Kang’s ardent Singer and Thomas Ebenstein and Christa Mayer as the other ‘Italians’, both more obviously characters than caricatures.


Thielemann’s conducting was perhaps the finest I have ever heard in this work; so was the playing of that great Strauss ensemble, the Staatskapelle Dresden. The openings to the first two acts were perhaps surprisingly, though far from inappropriately, vigorous, Octavian’s – and Sophie’s – youthful impetuosity to the fore. But the flexibility with which Thielemann held and developed Strauss’s line was something truly to savour. Likewise the colour, depth, and allure of the orchestra, which Thielemann played with virtuosity and understanding that respected the score and yet beyond it into the truest of performative ‘interpretation’. Caesuras that might on paper sound as if they would disrupt instead increased our anticipation, the longer line somehow maintained. There was doubtless an element of theatricality, even of showmanship, but born of a deep knowledge of ‘what works’; to steal from Strauss’s operatic future, La Roche himself might have approved. Strauss’s materialistic development-cum-rejection of Wagner’s orchestral metaphysics was demonstrated, experienced far better than words could ever hope to do. This was a Greek Chorus that answered, perhaps after Goethe as much as Nietzsche, to no gods above. Our life, as the opera and its performance made clear, was here on earth, in the present – and yet it was also somewhere else and in the past that had made that present, even if that past had never actually been present. Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding