Salzburg Festival opera productions in the last few years have been infected with some of the worst of the Regietheater mystique and one comes to this DVD of a live performance at the 2004 production with some trepidation. But any concerns about how this opera could be Eurotrashed by the stage director are mostly set aside in the first two acts which, although updated to pre-World War I Vienna, have little to shock or unsettle the traditional opera fan. In the third act, though, we encounter some things that will upset some, amuse others. Instead of being set in the libretto's called-for 'inn', the act occurs in a brothel and there is a fair amount of frontal nudity and lascivious behavior to behold, although in fairness it is played for laughs and that mostly comes off. It certainly doesn't strike one as particularly erotic. However, the final scene is grievously miscalculated. After the Marschallin's noble gesture in which she urges Octavian leave her, follow his heart and go to Sophie, in the scene that includes the justly admired Trio, Octavian and Sophie follow with their Schubertian Duet by making out rather graphically on a huge bed (which, interestingly, recalls the bed in the Marschallin's boudoir in Act I) so that when the Marschallin and Sophie's father return (between the two verses of the duet) they walk past the grappling couple with nary a comment except the libretto's 'young people are like that' (Faninal) and 'ja, ja' (the Marschallin). Give me a break. Even in the decadence of pre-war Vienna it wouldn't have occurred that way. Robert Carsen's stage direction up to that point had generally been effective, but one's reaction to this is astonishment, not gentle bemusement as librettist Hoffmannsthal surely intended. One also hoped that Carsen, unlike earlier stage directors, could have come up with a reasonable explanation for how the Marschallin came to make her entrance at the low-down inn (or, in this case, brothel). But no explanation is indicated. Ah, well.
Musically, this is a good 'Rosenkavalier.' Semyon Bychkov leads an energetic, skillful performance. The Vienna Philharmonic is absolutely world-class in this complex score -- which surely they have played more than any other opera orchestra in the world. Only rarely are the singers' voices covered by the orchestra. Bychkov catches the echt-Viennese waltz rhythms perfectly in that string of waltzes that surely account for much of this opera's popularity.
The three leading female singers are excellent and well-matched. Adrianne Pieczonka is a noble yet intense Feldmarschallin. Her Act I monolog is moving, and beautifully sung. Angelika Kirchschlager's Octavian is suitably impetuous and passionate. She is particularly effective in the Act II presentation of the rose scene. And in her Mariandel impersonation, she gulls the Baron with comic style. Miah Persson, a beautiful woman (who looks a lot like Renée Fleming), manages the treacherous tessitura of the part of Sophie with grace and delicacy, yet she is not a chocolate box figure; she has spunk and fire. In both the Presentation of the Rose and the final Trio and Duet her high notes are pure and ethereally beautiful.
Franz Hawlata's Baron is only moderately good. His bass voice is not sonorous enough for the part, especially in its lower reaches. But he acts the part without resorting to hammy stereotypes and he even imparts some humanity to the role. Franz Grundheber makes the most of his Faninal but the voice sounds a bit worn at times. The minor roles are reasonably well-taken, and one must make special mention of the Police Commissar, sung by Florian Boesch. The cameo appearance of the Italian Singer, in the levee scene, is sung by tenor Piotr Beczala with both good voice and style and more than a touch of humor.
Sets are excellent, stage movement is relatively minimal. Particularly impressive is the huge banquet table in Act II and Carsen's choreography of the hordes of servants who attend the Faninal establishment.
There are numerous Rosenkavaliers on DVD. For me the best of the lot is still the Carlos Kleiber/Vienna/Lott/Bonney/Von Otter DVD from 1994.