The Weight of Entertainment

Jesse Simon
lunes, 2 de marzo de 2020
Heller, Der Rosenkavalier © 2020 by Ruth Walz Heller, Der Rosenkavalier © 2020 by Ruth Walz
Berlín, domingo, 9 de febrero de 2020. Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier. André Heller, director. Camilla Nylund (Marschallin), Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs), Michèle Losier (Octavian), Roman Trekel (Faninal), Nadine Sierra (Sophie), Anna Samuil (Marianne Leitmetzerin), Karl-Michael Ebner (Valzacchi), Katharina Kammerloher (Annina), Erik Rosenius (Police Commissioner), Florian Hoffmann (Marschallin’s Major-Domo), Linard Vrielink (Faninal’s Major-Domo). Staatskapelle Berlin. Zubin Mehta, conductor

It has been just over seven years since the Staatsoper gave a final revival to their old production of Der Rosenkavalier, a long absence for such a popular work. In that time they have introduced new productions of three of the six von Hofmannsthal collaborations – Ariadne, Elektra, and Die Frau ohne Schatten – all of which are, in many ways, more interesting works, even if none enjoy quite the same level of public adoration. Yet with great popularity comes great responsibility, a fact which André Heller’s new Rosenkavalier for the Staatsoper seemed unable to forget. It was undoubtedly a production of the highest quality, beautiful to look at and directed with tasteful subtlety; yet despite towering performances from Camilla Nylund and Günther Groissböck, it could never quite dispel its own sense of dutiful entertainment. 

The idea of setting an opera in the era of its composer is certainly nothing new, but transplanting Rosenkavalier to the early twentieth century seemed to have provided exactly the right inspiration for set designer Xenia Hausner, whose conspicuously elegant sets were among the productions great strengths. With the exception of Faninal’s house, with its Secession-inspired gold-patterned columns and Klimt-esque fresco on the back wall, the visual style was marked by a strain of orientalism: the Marschallin’s bedroom was done up in a loosely Japanese style – which didn’t quite explain why the serving staff appeared to have been on secondment from a Sultan’s palace – while there was a south-seas feel to the Palm Room in which the final act unfolded. Between Ms Hausner’s sets and the costumes of Arthur Arbesser there emerged a hidden commentary on faddishness and cultural appropriation that Mr Heller’s staging seemed content to ignore. 

Indeed the production made few attempts to justify its updated setting, which came to feel increasingly disconnected from the action. There were some flickers of promise in the first act. Octavian, in the opening scene, was shown feverishly sketching the Marschallin, and his wild forelock, forever being brushed back, gave him the appearance of a young tortured artist; when the Marschallin found the sketch at the end of the act it almost led to a poignant moment, but couldn’t quite get there. By the second act, all memories of Octavian as artist had vanished and we would not be reminded of them again. (The production might almost have redeemed itself had the Marschallin, instead of dropping a handkerchief near the end of the third act, dropped Octavian’s sketch on the ground as her parting gesture; alas it was not to be). 

Elsewhere in the first act, a group of actual Staatsoper stage-hands appeared from the wings to listen to the Italian tenor before being ordered back to their posts by an irate stage manager; the idea of a meta-theatrical world-beyond-the-world might have had some potential, but was abandoned as soon as it appeared. By the end of the first act interesting things had stopped happening, and when Octavian appeared in the second act dressed in a silver costume apparently lifted from a far more traditional production, it seemed a tacit acknowledgement that Mr Heller had given up on trying to do anything out of the ordinary. 

There is, of course, something to be said for a staging in which the director is able to conceal his vision beneath a nominal adherence to the libretto, but here one was left with a sense that the production team were terrified of doing anything that might upend the traditional pleasures of the opera. The busiest and most farcical scenes – the Marschallin’s visitors, the ‘duel’ in the second act, and the Baron’s thwarted seduction of Mariandl – seemed smothered by an abundance of caution, as if no one quite knew what to do with so many people on stage. Large sections of the first and second acts were carried solely by the charisma of the singers. After a certain point everything proceeded with a careful rigour; where there should have been the sense of a story edging steadily towards its bittersweet denouement, we were left only with the sense of a familiar script, followed with reasonable precision but without much joy. 

Günther Groissböck, however, worked tirelessly to bring energy to the stage, and his Baron Ochs was perhaps the evening’s greatest creation. The Baron, when played well, is one of opera’s truly despicable figures, but where some singers might try to obscure his malice beneath a veneer of bluster and oafish ineptitude, Mr Groissböck doubled down on his worst aspects, relishing every innuendo and stating his evil ambitions with a gleeful lack of morality. The Baron that emerged was all the more dangerous for his vitality. And more than anyone else on stage, Mr Groissböck seemed to have a direct line to the orchestra, who reacted to his lewd comments and foul behaviour with an animation not heard elsewhere. The shape of the second act – which he carried almost single-handedly – seemed dictated solely by his whim. The character may have been irredeemable, but there was no one in the production who seemed more alive. 

Camilla Nylund’s Marschallin was the evening’s other great strength. If Mr Groissböck was able to get the orchestra fired up, Ms Nylund’s skill was to slow the passage of time, allowing us to luxuriate in the opera’s rich undercurrents of sadness. She seemed withdrawn in the opening scene with Octavian, and grew lost among the carnival of hair-stylists, magicians and noble orphans; but when the stage had cleared and she began to reflect on time and age, her words emerged with a nobility that cut directly through the contrived prettiness of everything around her. In the final twenty minutes of the first act, most notably the Marschallin’s resigned dismissal of Octavian, Ms Nylund summoned an emotional clarity far more immediate than anything the staging might have allowed. 


Although Nadine Sierra wasted no opportunity to demonstrate her mastery of the rapturous high note, one was left with a sense that Sophie herself had been abandoned by the director; all too often she was forced to wait patiently on the sidelines of the action. A similar sense of underdevelopment was present in Roman Trekel’s Faninal, who seemed torn between restrained fury and comedic exaggeration. It was unfortunate that the production abandoned its idea of Octavian as tortured artist: the volatile passion in Michèle Losier’s voice would have suited it well. Her Octavian was most engaging in the first act, where her youthful certainty played nicely against the Marschallin’s resignation, yet she also seemed to relish the Mariandl scenes, during which the manner of Octavian seemed to disappear entirely. 

It takes the Marschallin nearly three quarters of an hour to draw our attention to the pathos that lies beneath the opera’s effervescent surface, but conductor Zubin Mehta seemed aware of it from the opening bars. Although due attention was paid to the illustrative romping of the horns, that brief exuberance was soon replaced by a wistfulness that carried through much of the first act. Mr Mehta’s recent Strauss performances at the Staatsoper (Salome in 2014, Die Frau in 2017) have favoured unhurried tempi matched with orchestral profundity, and his reading on this evening had a similar approach. If the first act was the most leisurely of the three, it was also the most tightly focussed, allowing the Baron’s energy and the chaos of the morning visitors to exist alongside the prevailing melancholy but never to replace it. If there were passages in the third act that demanded a more pronounced dramatic thrust, the mood of heightened emotion in the final scenes was undeniably striking. 

If Rosenkavalier has remained popular throughout the years, it is perhaps because its pleasures are so easily accessible: a selfless Marschallin, a vigorous Baron, and a soaring final trio can ground an outlandish staging or invigorate a lacklustre one. While the new Staatsoper production was too beautiful to be lacklustre, there were too many moments where it felt paralysed before its source material, wanting to go in interesting directions but ultimately unwilling to take any major risks. It shouldn’t have been so worried. Between Mr Groissböck and Ms Nylund, the resilience of von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and the opulence of Strauss’ score, the production could have afforded to take far more liberties.

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