Der Rosenkavalier in Munich: Die schöne Musi!

The Marschallin seems like a role that the elegant, meticulous soprano Anja Harteros was born to sing. She finally did it at the Bayerische Staatsoper this season, and repeated it with the fabulous Octavian of Sophie Koch at their Festspiele this Saturday (the July “Festspiele” consists of a few new productions plus a retrospective of the season with most of the same casting, fancier audience members, fewer rehearsals, and higher prices–fun but a little unpredictable). While Otto Schenk’s production would benefit from a good fumigation and energy injection, the all-star cast made this worth it.

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier. Bayerische Staatsoper/Münchner Operfestspiele, 7/23/2011. Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Constantin Trinks with Anja Harteros (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), Lucy Crowe (Sophie), Peter Rose (Ochs), Piotr Beczala (Tenor).

This Rosenkavalier is an Otto Schenk extravaganza, similar but more opulent than Vienna’s Schenk. This run was originally planned as a new production this season, but intendant Nikolaus Bachler decided to keep the Schenk at the last minute, supposedly a bone thrown to staging conservatives. While the sets and costumes are in fine physical shape, age is still a problem. Most seriously, the Personenregie has gaps: there are many points where the singers simply stand still while the music cries out for stage action. As the Marschallin would point out, you can’t stop time.

Visually, the cluttered aesthetic is not to my taste–the von Faninals seem to gunning for a record for the largest china collection outside the Hofburg. But the level of detail (such as the inclusion of visible and detailed antechambers behind the main set) is impressive if you like that kind of thing. The Act 3 inn is more convincingly seedy than some other productions’, though the action in the opening was not as clearly laid out as it could have been. If you want to see this production in action back in its glory days, such as they were, you can do so on this excellent DVD conducted by Carlos Kleiber with Gwyneth Jones as the Marschallin.

I can’t really comment on many of the acting details of this performance, because, as is often the case at the Nationaltheater, my view of the stage was hopelessly bad. I could see the set and, once in a while, the singers, but as for most of what they were doing beyond the big rote blocking action you get in a standard issue Rosenkavalier (which is what this was), I’m not too sure.

Late replacement conductor Constantin Trinks (GMD in Darmstadt) seems like a good find, particularly when you allow for the limited rehearsal time of these festival productions. It wasn’t the most precise Rosenkavalier I have ever heard, and both stage-orchestra coordination and the faster orchestral business were off at times. But the light spirit, indulgently slow ending, and general sense of shape and dramatic timing worked really well, with a clear path through a score that can meander. Balance was something of an issue in Act 1, when the orchestra overpowered the singers, but improved over the course of the evening.

Anja Harteros has a wonderful way with the text, with beautiful diction and wit, and a conversational musicality that sounds both natural and graceful. Her voice is a little smoky and grainy, in a good way that makes her sound unique, and her middle voice has the strength needed for this role. Most notable is the detail and musicality she puts into every phrase, which is particularly good for Straussian style. Once or twice she sounded studious, but she is already my pick for the Marschallin of today.

Sophie Koch is an experienced Octavian. Like Harteros, she tends towards the aristocratic side of her role, welcome after too many slap-happy, excessively hormonal productions. But she is still convincingly youthful and masculine, funny in Act 3 without being over-the-top, and sings with expansive, lustrous tone, only sometimes sounding a little thin on the very top notes (Octavian did, after all, start as a soprano role).

The rest of the cast was perhaps not quite their match, though Lucy Crowe’s Sophie was very good, sung with richer, fuller sound than the thin twitterers you sometimes get, and acted with confidence but never brattiness. Unfortunately the pitch of her high notes wavered occasionally. Peter Rose’s Ochs is one of the better ones out there, more bumpkin than lecher and sung with style and fluidity, but his voice is rather hollow at both top and bottom. Supporting roles were universally solid and well-rehearsed.

In a delightful bit of luxury casting, Piotr Beczala appeared and knocked the Italian Tenor aria out of the park. Sure, it’s a kitschy bit of music, but given such a luscious rendition, it’s the best two minutes of tenorial bliss you could ask for.

Despite the boring production (which I couldn’t see too well anyway), a festival-worthy performance.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.

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  1. Sehr sehr interessant. Eine Aktiualisierung des vorzügliche bayerische Opernabenteuer Zerbinettas!!

    I saw several of the June series of performances (different conductor, different Octavian, neue Einstudierung – two weeks or so of rehersals) but your description of the common elements (Crowe, Rose, Harteros) is consistent with what I saw and wonderfully perceptive and fastidiously and accurately descriptive in the typical Zerbinettian fashion. Specifically with respect to Harteros, the grace, naturalness and conversational musicality were quite striking. These qualities, in combination with the gorgeous tone and the ease with which she managed all the technical challenges of the role almost made one forget that she was actually "singing" and one would have to think that this is something Strauss himself would have appreciated. I also think you're correct to point out that her interpretation did, indeed, seem a bit "studied" at times but it was a more than superb first attempt.

    I do think the June performances were a little more dramatically dynamic than what you seem to suggest was the case here but this can probably be accounted for by the longer rehearsal period. The sets were a bit worn in spots but it is still overall an attractive traditional production
    and, as you say, more opulent than the roughly contemporaneous Schenk effort in Vienna. On balance I think there is enough updating currently taking place in Munich and Bachler was right to withdraw the NI and leave well enough alone. (Perhaps a bit more on the overall "updating of the Bachler Era spater).

    In any case, I'm glad you got a chance to see Harteros' Marschallin. I hope you enjoyed Meistersinger and Tristan and certainly look forward to the reviews.