Der Rosenkavalier / Stemme, Kasarova, Hartelius et al. / Zurich Opera 2004 (1)

This DVD turned out to be a good idea. Both because it’s a very enjoyable performance, and also because watching this production made me realize a few things about Der Rosenkavalier that I hadn’t thought about before.

Let me start with the production itself. The Marschallin’s bedroom in Act I is a large, chilly, atrium-like space. The bed is a pile of pillows on the floor (the Marschallin and Philip II shop at the same furniture boutique). There are a table and chairs covered with white cloth, and on the wall a series of little ornamental birds. Ochs’s son/valet steals a few of them later on in the act. It’s winter. The trees visible through the row of tall windows are bare. The day outside is misty and still.

But let me return to the bed. I may have mischaracterized it — it may be that the Marschallin sleeps on a futon. I say this because there is more than a little orientalism hanging about this production. This is in the opera to begin with, of course, with the Marschallin’s pageboy Mohammed. This character is sometimes a young man and sometimes a child, as he is here. He’s dressed in red, and kisses the Marschallin awake when he trots in with her breakfast.

But the references to ‘the East’ do not end with this young boy. The Marschallin’s kimono-sleeved robe picks up this motif, as do the Indian outfits of her servants, the elaborate hairstyle and dress of her hairdresser, and the way that the Singer is presented. He is a Chinese clockwork toy in a box which is delivered to the Marschallin as a present.

What is going on with this? I think it is actually fairly subtle, and it is a way of making a point about people like the Marschallin, and to a certain extent Octavian as well. All these ‘orientalist’ motifs have to do with pleasure, amusement and decoration. And they are from all different parts of Asia, suggesting that it’s less about any individual place or country but the sum total of all of them. This is not a heavily political version of this opera in any way, but when I see images of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century Europeans fooling around with ‘Eastern’ motifs without any substantive engagement with the cultures that produced them, I think of colonialism, in the sense of one set of people using others for pleasure or gain without caring really about the consequences, or caring only in a very limited sense. Because of who she is the Marschallin has the privilege of making use of other people. She can toy with ‘the exotic east’ in the same way she can toy with Octavian.

And this makes the Marschallin’s reaction to the singer sort of interesting. She walks around the man in a box, intrigued and ultimately moved – she sinks to the floor, overcome, with her hand resting against the box. The toy is a toy, but the emotion evoked by the song is real. Even when something or someone cannot really ever respond to you, the experience of it can be no less intense. This has to do with Octavian as well as the singer in a box, but I’ll get to that later.

Act II is the kitchen of the Faninal house. Sophie is helping out with the cooking, which includes something blue being put through a mincer. (And here you thought it was the rows of expensive china on the wall that signified new money and conspicuous consumption! Oh no. It’s the fact that the Faninals are eating Smurfs out of season. Minced Smurfs, no less – do you have any idea how hard those little things are to debone?)

Anyway. Sophie is helping out with the cooking. There is no Orient here, just a lot of busy people at work. But that oriental motif is back again in Act III, for Ochs’s dinner with ‘Mariandel.’ The inn itself is the same set as Act I, the Marschallin’s room. And Ochs and Octavian are sitting in front of a screen with an Asian-style painting on it. Ochs is trying to make use of Mariandel — as a nobleman, he has the privilege of doing so — but as we know, he doesn’t, or rather can’t, succeed.

What this production does, then, is to really place front and center the parts of this story that are about the privilege of being able to make use of others. This is closely related to what Kasarova’s performance of Octavian revealed to me about that character, but I have enough to say about Kasarova (and Nina Stemme – what a voice that woman has!) that I’ll leave it for tomorrow.