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.
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.