I very nearly missed seeing this. It was broadcast on the same day as Röschmann’s Wigmore Hall recital, and that pushed it out of first place on the operatic priority list, and then despite knowing that Glyndebourne had put the video up for a week, I managed to forget about it for about six and a half days. But fortunately I remembered late on Saturday night. Anyway.
I like this opera, but experience has taught me that a little bit of it goes a long way. One of the reasons that I enjoy baroque and classical opera is that the orchestras are small and there are as many or more solo numbers as ensembles or bigger numbers – plenty of space for characters to be introspective via little variations in ornaments and all those kinds of fun things like that. (This is probably the same reason I like song recitals.) With Strauss, I often find myself overwhelmed. All those different things going on at once! It’s exhausting. My favorite bits of Der Rosenkavalier are the smaller ensembles and solo parts – the middle section of Act I, where all those people come flooding into the Marschallin’s room, and large portions of Act III often feel to me like too much to follow at once. And yet they can be effective. One of the things that struck me as I was watching this – specifically during a trio moment for Octavian, the Marschallin and Ochs in Act I – was that with Strauss so often it’s either a slightly overwhelming puzzle that I can’t quite put together or a full on immersion experience that one has no interest in taking apart. I tend to bounce back between the one and the other with this opera, depending on who is singing it and how it’s being done. (Also, I will soon have a copy of the score – I think I might try listening and following along, to see if it’s different when I can see as well as hear what is going on.)
As explained in one of the brief interviews with the set and costume designers, the production is intended to play with anachronism in the same way as the opera itself does (all those definitely not eighteenth-century waltz tunes, for example). So there are visual gestures at the 1700s, but alongside the Marschallin’s coloring-book-style ancien regime gowns and Octavian’s similarly 18th-century-ish suits, we see Ochs stroll in in Act I in an alpine hiking ensemble complete with rucksack; we also endure (twice) his collection of early twentieth century girly pictures; his son, Leopold, appears to have roughed up Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder, not Johnny Depp) and stolen his suit coat. Sophie (Teodora Gheorghiu) sports a pair of charmingly dorky glasses when we first see her in Act II – but she is forced to take them of before being dressed up in a pink gauzy gown and examined, livestock-show-style, by Ochs.
The sets are bright and playful, occasionally in a way that gestures at some of the darker themes in the opera, but not in a way that comes off as heavy-handed. Act I begins with the Marschallin in the shower (i.e. nude under a sort of glitter-spigot; this moment caused me to pause and consider whether more productions of Der Rosenkavalier ought not to begin with glitter spigots; I concluded that on balance, probably not, because if they did, we would never have Der Rosenkavalier at the Met ever again, and that would be a shame.) But anyway. Glitter spigot aside, the Marschallin’s room is covered, walls floor and (eventually) sofa with the same pattern of elongated diamonds and fleurs-de-lis, which creates a mildly claustrophobia-inducing hall of mirrors effect. There are no windows, just two portraits on the wall (the Marschallin and her husband) and up above, a round clock. At the end of the act, as the Marschallin curls up in sadness on the sofa with her back to the audience, the stage darkens except for the portraits and clock, which continue to glow softly like little planets. (This moment with her on the sofa is one of several visual details that are repeated through the production – the wounded Baron Ochs flops onto a sofa at Faninal’s house at the end of Act II in a sort of farce version of the same gesture; along similar lines, we see Ochs in Act II forcing Sophie to stand on a table so he can look her over and in Act III he himself is on a table looking rather silly while she tells him off.)
The Faninal house shares the heavily patterned no-windows vibe of the Marschallin’s room. Sophie is dressed to meet Ochs (and later hides out with Octavian) in a narrow, high-walled room with very busy wallpaper; the space has no windows, and the only thing breaking up the mildly terrifying expanse of wallpaper is a painting of a woman, presumably Sophie’s mother, though the style of the painting suggests something called “woman looking sick on bed” rather than a conventional portrait. The main room of the Faninal house is definitely that: above the early twentieth-century style modern lighting and hotel-ballroom like carpet is the word FANINAL in white neon. The inn in Act III has a similar feel of bright colors and no windows. IN general, the effect is to remind you that the entire opera is itself a concoction of anachronisms – it’s fake and a little silly, but with this opera, the artificiality and deliberate anachronism give the story itself, which taken alone might be a bit much, some room to breathe.
There are a few odd visual touches. Around the time the Marschallin began “da geht er hin” in Act I, I noticed that there was a man in the back with glasses and a notepad who looked a bit like Sigmund Freud; he pops up again in Act III as everyone assembles on rows of chairs to literally point accusatory fingers at Ochs. I suppose if you are going to have an analyst in an opera, it might as well be this one. In addition, Octavian and the Marschallin’s playing around with the bowl of fruit in Act I was a bit cringe-inducing. I am not against a bit of food-related innuendo, but having seen this sort of thing done in several different versions of this opera, I think I prefer a good honest half-eaten dish of pie left obviously on the floor.
As I was watching this, I had the distinct impression that I had seen Kate Royal (the Marschallin) in something else before, but I cannot for the life of me remember what. (According to the woman doing the intro for the broadcast, Royal “has got a lot to be grateful for, singing here at Glyndebourne.” What, is she out of the slammer on parole or something? But this does not really address the question.) I have heard this role song by sopranos with slightly more bowl-you-over style voices, e.g. Nina Stemme or Adrienne Pieczonka and I think that colored my reaction to Royal. For example, during the part in Act I where the Marschallin is talking about getting up at night and stopping all the clocks, I have in my notes that I want this to sound richer than it does. But this puts me back in a familiar situation: thanks to streaming shows like this and DVDs and all that, one has access to a lot of high quality performances pretty much all the time, and a result, 90% of what you hear is pretty good – sometimes a very good performance gets lost amid a welter of other very good performances. (I can’t remember the last time I went to a performance of anything and came away thinking “well, that SUCKED.” Then again, I am not particularly precious as a listener – I have never fled a concert at halftime for stylistic reasons or anything like that.)
And there was certainly nothing wrong with this performance that I could tell. I didn’t come away with the sense that Royal had shown me something about the character or music that I had not understood before, but I didn’t dislike it. Although I admit, after the recent dust-up over a critic’s boneheaded comments, my primary reason for watching this was to hear what Tara Erraught (Octavian) sounded like. Erraught nailed Octavian’s youthful not-quite-getting-it in Act I; the effective thing about the performance was the combination of communicating the character’s limitations but doing so with a winning solidness of sound and interpretation – the singing was more self-aware than Octavian himself, which is pretty much what needs to happen with this role. And Erraught herself looks charmingly young – despite the slightly ludicrous paste-on sideburns, the impression one gets of young Rofrano is a kind of bubbly sincerity punctuated by moments of forthrightness that are sometimes silly (when he attempts to box Ochs in Act II and ultimately settles for stabbing him in the rear with the non-business end of the rose*) and sometimes quite sweet.
*I am assuming that the business end of a rose is the petally part you stick your face in, but I’ve actually never considered the matter before just now.