Der Rosenkavalier in Stuttgart: Ist ein Traum…

The Marschallin of Stefan Herheim’s virtuosic Staatsoper Stuttgart Rosenkavalier is a sad woman with a lot on her mind. In her unconscious, she struggles between restraint and abandon, the ugliness of reality and the lush comfort of backwards-looking art. Backwards-looking art? Yes, this is a deconstructive production. But while Herheim doesn’t let Strauss off the hook for his sentimentality and conservatism, he also creates something with genuine beauty in the big moments and wit in the small ones. If it sounds overstuffed, well, it is, but so is the opera.

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier. Staatsoper Stuttgart 1/9/2011. Production by Stefan Herheim, conducted by Manfred Honeck with Christiane Iven (Marshallin), Marina Prudenskaja (Octavian), Mandred Hemm (Ochs), Jutta Böhnert (Sophie), Karl-Friedrich Dürr (Faninal), Bogdan Mihai (Italian Singer), full cast listed here

There’s a lot going on in this production. I suspect I didn’t understand or perhaps even note half of it (it was the end of a busy week, I was tired, and also this was actually my first-ever Herheim production). If Calixto Bieito’s Fidelio is a hedgehog (it knows one big thing) Herheim’s Rosenkavalier is most definitely a fox (it knows many things). As soon as it was over, I wanted to see it again so I could catch more of what was going on, which says how challenging it was, but also how how AWESOME.

The staged prelude not only unerringly follows the music but sets up the entire production to come. The Marschallin contemplates herself in the mirror to strains not of Strauss but of some misty Muzak, sitting in the midst of a timeless night sky, surrounded by fog (I recently said to be wary of scenes in front of starry firmaments, but this one is entirely aware of its own kitschiness–well played). Then she pushes her fist through the mirror and the overture takes off in all its violence. Out of the mists appear a Hans Makart-esque mural depicting the rape of Europa, which comes to life, and she is beset by enthusiastic satyrs. One, the figure of Pan, makes a silver rose out of the shards of the mirror. Finally, the Marschallin is plucked from their grasp by the silver figure of Octavian.

Note: photos from premiere cast (different Ochs and Sophie)

The production takes place entirely in the Marschallin’s dream world, which is Freudian and Jungian with a side of Nietzsche. Images of myth and history swim in and out parallel to the plot. The panopticon-like set is nothing more than a giant version of the Marschallin’s giant blue skirt. She is an unfulfilled woman, finally giving way to a distant retreat into the social respectability of sentimentality and kitsch. Representing the Dionysian forces of unrestrained lust are not only the satyrs but Ochs, a Jupiter figure (partway through he acquires horns–Ochs means ox, a castrated bull–Jupiter as a bull is the rapist of Europa, remember). Pan appears not only in the prelude but also as the flutist, Ochs’s doctor, and even as his son. On the Apollonian side is Octavian, restraint, and sentimentality, and in a larger sense, Strauss’s score itself, represented here by a wandering ostrich (“Strauss” means ostrich in German, groan). The waltzes are greeted onstage by blissful swaying. “Glücklich ist, wer vergisst,” indeed.

On a still larger scale, the Marschallin (Europa)’s dream traces the path of modern European history itself. Old-school aristocrat Ochs’s Act 2 downfall comes by way of a small army of cliché citizens of the French Revolution, who menacingly erect a scaffold. In Act 3, the Third Estate continues to scare him with bewigged heads on pikes, but by this point we have gotten to 1911, the year of the opera’s composition. Ochs’s final defeat corresponds with the death of the Habsburg Empire, World War I, and the fall of Europe. His supposed offspring are a group of soldiers of various nationalities and eras, and the chicly-dressed guests of the Viennese-style café that replaces the usual tavern are wearing gas masks.

Then we escape into art.  Mariandel drunkenly proclaims the beauty of music, sobbing into a giant handkerchief (remember the end of the opera, people), her long-winded incoherence making even the conductor and prompter get lost. It’s a knowing nod to the work’s overblown, oversized sentiment, the narcissistic mise en abîme of music about music, and even the notorious longeurs of Act 3 (by the way, if I’m not mistaken, there were some cuts in the police commissioner scene). Finally, Ochs fails to strangle the ostrich and the forces of Strauss, Apollo, and sentiment emerge victorious.  The Marschallin enters Act 3 as the embodiment of the European Union, assuring the triumph of Octavian and the Marschallin’s younger double, Sophie. Ochs, rendered superfluous, blasts off into space in a shower of sparks.

The Marschallin and Faninal watch Octavian and Sophie from the audience in modern dress (in Sophie, the Marschallin is watching a young version of herself). “Sind halt also, die junge Leut’,” asks Faninal, as he and the Marschallin now exists in the world of the opera house and onstage is a comfortable temple of conservative art (and with Rosenkavalier, Strauss did not compose another Elektra). It recalls the moment when the Marschallin kisses the feet of the tenor in Act 1. Pan weeps and attempts a bloody death with the shards of the broken mirror rose, finally smothered by another giant handkerchief (or is he?).

The production moves dizzyingly but seamlessly between these symbolic levels. It’s dense but tremendously rich. It might not make any sense in a logical way, but it is not meant to, and the resonances are striking at every moment. The chaotic workings follow the drama and details of the music in such a natural and compelling way that it feels remarkably whole even through the busiest staging moments. And the shifting set, elaborate costumes, and sheer amount of stagecraft on display doesn’t skimp on spectacle.

There’s tons more that I didn’t mention above: the supporting characters are characterized as animals: the police inspector a poodle, Valzacchi and Annina a beetle and a moth, Faninal a rooster, the orphans as cats, and so on. And while Herheim is quite critical of Strauss, he doesn’t deprive us of the glory that is the big set pieces, presenting them directly and minimally, absent roving ostriches and beetles. The Marschallin’s monologue, the Presentation of the Rose, and the trio are all left to stand for themselves.  Their minimalist presentation helps them acquire a dramatic intensity rarely achieved by the wide opulence of a traditional Rosenkavalier. But even the beauty of the escapist art is an integral part of the production, not a pause from it.

There’s something a little redundant about a deconstruction of a work that arguably already deconstructs itself, that contains its own built-in irony valve. But the way that Herheim broadens his context, which probably sounds confusing as I have described it, saves it from mean-spiritedness or the very self-absorption that he condemns.  It is unerringly smart and well-paced.

I liked Manfred Honeck’s conducting a lot. It was fast, loud (yet did not overpower the singers), extreme in dynamics, and dramatic. This was not a delicate or exquisite or even a Viennese Rosenkavalier, but it was exciting and had a point of view. The orchestra is not Vienna in sound but they are excellent and followed Honeck’s direction better than the Staatsoper group can usually muster.

The singing was perhaps not glamorous, but made up for this in commitment and interpretative intelligence. Christiane Iven couldn’t really float high notes and her tone was harsh, but her Marschallin was endlessly fascinating. Marina Prudenskaja made a violently acted, androgynous Octavian, sung with large, sometimes throaty tone and an exceptionally whiny white-tone Mariandel. Manfred Hemm’s well-sung if not cavernous Ochs was a new experience for me–for once, he was under-played. This is the first time I’ve ever thought Ochs could possibly be more, but it was an interesting shift in the balance of the production. Jutta Böhnert was a secure and smooth Sophie, if not quite an angelically-toned one. Bogdan Mihai’s Italian Tenor was sweet-toned but stretched. Supporting roles were admirably solid and well-rehearsed down to the servants and such.

I have been around the block with this opera recently, this was my fifth Rosenkavalier in the last year and a half (two Met [one reviewed], one Budapest, one Wien) but it was, needless to say, completely different from any of the previous ones. Is it too much? “Ist bereits zu stark, als dass man ertragen kann”? It’s not dessert, but you don’t get work this rich and intelligent very often, so you’re probably safe from having to think this much too frequently. And enjoy the opportunity when you can get it.

You can read a very interesting interview with Herheim about this production here (in German).

No more Herheim or Bieito for a while, please! They take too damn long to think and blog about! I need a good Wiener Staatsoper rep night where the set is a bunch of battlements and a wrinkly painting of a mountain, everyone bumbles around in front of it like SNL rejects, one or two people sing pretty, the conductor does something crazy in the Act 3 prelude, and I polish off my review in 20 minutes. Speaking of, Lucia di Lammermoor on Friday!  Also, it may seem that I am slacking off on my Schenk-related promises but I am merely gearing up for a big conclusion post.


Photos copyright Martin Sigmund/Staatsoper Stuttgart.

You may also like


  1. Yes, the technical aspects are impressive.
    But I can't help but feeling resentful of directors, clever though they may be, who take it upon themselves to chastise the audience for an ounce of enjoyment. One pays ones hard earned money to attend the opera and then must endure being scolded for having done so. It seems Herr Herheim wants to accept our money and then shame us for having paid him so handsomely, since according to him the only valid way to appreciate Rosenkavalier is to at the same time revile it. I think intelligent audiences have been well aware of the excesses and "sentimentality" of Rosenkavalier and found much to appreciate in it regardless…or not, in which case I assume they don't attend.
    It's not that I think we should insist on realistic or "traditional" productions or reject thoughtful ones. It's just that I balk at the implication that somehow the lurid excesses of something like "Elektra" are true art but that the concerns of Rosenkavalier can be seen only as kitsch.
    I think audiences have been aware of the darkness and light in Rosenkavalier for some time. I would propose that Herheim has taken some fairly obvious points,exploded them to absurd proportions and then felt smug about doing so.
    There's something so adolescent and self-congratulatory about it. And, of course, there's no way really to criticize it, because the way it's set up, anyone who finds fault will immediately be branded as a reactionary traditionalist…so not one of the kewl kids.

  2. I strongly doubt that Herheim reviles Rosenkavalier. My impression was that he totally loves it. The Presentation of the Rose, the trio, and the Marschallin's monologue all revel in the music in a very immediate way, and much of the goofier stuff (like the animals) does the same with humor. Herheim doesn't swallow the opera whole, but like you suggest most audiences can, he finds a lot to appreciate in it. And I don't think he offers any judgment on Elektra's value as true art either (that was more me extrapolating). We'll have to see his Salome in Salzburg in April to find out about that.

    I'm not sure why you think it's smug. I guess the ostrich could be called too cute, but I don't think anything else could. The way he follows the music is pretty amazing.

    I'm probably not doing it justice. I hope you keep an open mind and see it for yourself.

  3. Everything is carefully studied in Herheim's productions. No detail is included gratuitously.

    There is nothing Strauss-bashing in what Stefan is saying. Everybody knows that Elektra was a groundbreaking opera — the one that opened a whole new world of modernity. Rosenkavalier was composed 2 years after Elektra and that was clearly a step back towards traditional operatic language. At that time some accused Strauss of becoming conservative [ostrich is a cartoon of "the Strauss-dynasty" that his detractors used very often], others saw it as his way to describe the era he lived in. That later aspect is brilliantly brought to light in this production: it's the time of "la belle époque", Europe is tired – postrevolutionary enthusiasm disappeared, Vienna lives its last moments of glory (with heavy burden of tradition), and is increasingly aware of it [European ambition seemed utopia!] — worse, in such a decadent world (the fall of Empire is imminent) the war seemed unavoidable…

    When you look at everything happening on stage from that perspective, the whole show becomes a giant kaleidoscope with a tremendous amount of little references, little details, little episodes — but every and each one of them is chosen carefully to fit the whole picture. Extra reasons to see it more than once…

    Feldmarschallin = Vienna of la belle époque and that parallel is so magnificently mirrored in this production, without diminishing impact of personal drama that was hitting that mighty but aging lady.

    I saw the premiere of that show and is still live in my head. Iven struggles with the top notes, but compensates with her remarkable scenic presence (her Kundry is smashing btw!) Prudenskaya rocked my world in that production and Mojca Erdmann (Sophie in the previous run of that show). Keep an eye on Mihai — sounds different but likely to become the best of'em all.

    Today there are so many productions of Der Rosenkavalier presented in theaters across Europe and they are (almost) all traditionally staged/narrated/produced. This production is not only brilliant per se, it is also refreshing in terms of revitalizing this opera.

    Sorry for a long post [and typos – no time to proofread]

  4. (^^^ what he said)

    Thanks for the very insightful comment, M. Cake, and no need to apologize. You explained it much more clearly and succinctly than I could.

    This production made me think soooo much more about the opera than the umpteenth all-silver Act 2 and Sophie spinning around in the exact same place in the Presentation of the Rose scene every single time…

    And you're totally right about Herheim putting this opera in its proper historical context. I think he actually IS quite skeptical of some of the score and what it says about culture, but it's an interpretive point, not an assessment. Saying this production is killing or bashing Strauss or Rosenkavalier comes from an attitude where each opera production has to be a definitive statement measured against every other Rosenkavalier ever produced. This is just *a* Rosenkavalier, not *the* Rosenkavalier, and it's a really interesting one.