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More than worth it for Renée Fleming's Marschallin
on 25 March 2011
The staging for this Festspiele Baden-Baden production, directed by Herbert Wernicke and conducted by Christian Thielemann, is as sumptuous as Richard Strauss's score and, surrounded by mirrors that amplify the stage, it's as languidly self-reflective as Hugo von Hofmannsthal's original libretto. The choice not to stage it as strictly period in the setting of Marie-Therese's Vienna around 1740 is somewhat contrary to the composers' desire to recreate a sense of the light indulgence of the period (and in the process break away from the dark dissonance of Strauss's previous operas Salome and Elektra), but the libretto and score are, in most sections, strong enough on their own, and so well thematically constructed that Der Rosenkavalier can stand up to a modern, or, in this case, an almost fairy-tale pantomime-like setting.
There is a richness of means by which to enjoy Strauss's most popular opera, which flits from moment to moment, slipping from happiness into despair, from love into comedy, but principally, it is indeed about being in the moment, living in the moment, but that even within the moment there are many contradictory thoughts and emotions pulling at one. All this is contained within the playful storyline and within the music that underscores it. Like all Strauss's work, Der Rosenkavalier takes the language of post-Wagner late-Romanticism opera another stage further into modernity, not just accompanying the voice, not just heightening the emotional tone of the drama or just using leitmotifs to form a musical coherency and symbolism, but presenting the phrasing with an infinite number of meanings and inflections, hinting at deeper underlying psychology and richness of character, living in the moment and crystallising it in melody, but with a deeper consideration for the personality of the characters and particularly in the intricate web that is created through human interaction.
Consequently, nothing is straightforward in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is fully aware of the buffa conventions he is playing with, all of which are complementary to the period in opera terms - not least in the Cherubino-style cross-dressing of a travesti female singer playing a male character who dresses up as a female - and he approaches the scoring of the farce with no less detail and underlying thoughtfulness than anywhere else, knowing that - as Ariadne auf Naxos made explicit - that the strength of the work is in how the diparate elements work off each other. Personally, I feel that it's often rather too clever for its own good and, like much of Strauss's work, it's rather distanced, controlled and too precise - much like Thielemann's conducting of the Munich Philharmonic - allowing in little real human feeling or ambiguity, creating a perfect semblance of life like the crystallised silver rose that this production rather ambitiously replaces with a real one at the end.
A sympathetic presentation can nonetheless do wonders with the work, but I'm not entirely convinced by Herbert Wernicke's production, created for Salzburg and played here at the Festspiele Baden-Baden in 2009 with the Munich Philharmonic under Thielemann, but it does at least create a productive environment for the singers. The 1962 film version of Der Rosenkavalier starring Elisabeth Swharzkopf casts a long shadow over the work, but no opera work should ever be considered definitive. Every one of the main performers here - an exceptional cast that includes some beautiful singing and subtle acting from the wonderful, self-possessed and appropriately regal Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, with impressive touches also from Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann - brings something interesting to their characters, as does the always interesting Thielemann when interpreting Strauss.
The Blu-ray edition from Decca/Unitel Classica looks and sounds marvellous, the performance directed for the screen by the ever reliable Brian Large. Audio tracks are the usual LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. The Blu-ray also contains a 32 minute look at the opera from the perspective of the conductor and the main singers, who all provide interesting views on the piece, and a booklet with synopsis and a superb essay on the opera by Bryan Gilmore.