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Recordings

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
20 Jan 2008

STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier

Of Rosenkavaliers on DVD, the classics tend to be lovingly detailed productions, going back to the film of Herbert von Karajan leading an exemplary cast, with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's iconic Marschallin.

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Adrianne Pieczonka, Angelika Kirchschlager, Franz Hawlata, Franz Grundheber, Miah Persson, Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Semyon Bychkov, conductor. Robert Carsen, stage director, Recorded during the 2004 Salzburger Festspiele.

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Carlos Kleiber, in a live stage recording, fronts a top-notch ensemble in a gorgeous staging that seamlessly weds the rollicking humor to misty-eyed sentimentality and romance.

The 2004 Salzburg Festival Rosenkavalier, directed by Robert Carsen, takes its place at a very distant and frigid polar extreme from the warmth of those earlier incarnations. Sets and costumes boast as much expensive extravagance, but in the service of a concept that seems to originate in a loathing of the characters and the story. As Gottfried Kraus's excellent booklet essay relates (as translated by Stewart Spencer), Carsen and set designer Peter Pabst place the opera in "the decadent, valedictory atmosphere of the dying Hapsburg monarchy."

For act one, the long Salzburg stage is split into three rooms, with servants traipsing through. The realization impresses visually, but it also puts a distance between the characters. Act two takes place in the Faninal's dining hall, with most of the action played before an extended table that could seat dozens and dozens of guests. In a touch more out of a Zefferelli production, Octavian makes his entrance on a steed. After that equine interpolation, the setting quickly returns to its austere dictates. Act three is not just a disreputable inn, but a house of prostitution, with much nudity and even simulated copulation. The innkeeper is a drag queen. Now, why would Baron Ochs's proposed seduction of a maidservant, before his marriage, so shock people who cavort in such an establishment? No matter. By this point, the staging is not about the characters anymore, and more a picture of a dissolute, arrogant society. Carsen caps this off by using an adult Mohammed, then finishing the evening with the appearance of a severe man in military get-up - the Field Marshall himself? The luscious haze of the trio and sparkle of Mohammed's music is poisonously clouded by the image.

Act two, somewhat surprisingly, comes off best, with Franz Hawlata really hitting his comic stride. Adrianne Pieczonka never really gets to settle into the regal self-involvement of the Marschallin. Angelika Kirchshlager remains a mostly feminine Octavian throughout, especially in her reverse "drag" appearance in act three, where she is directed to act as a slut whose prim objections to the Baron's seduction are clearly only perfunctory. Miah Perrson, even in this unconventional staging, remains a conventional Sophie. In his brief appearance, Piotr Beczala brings handsome tone even to the high-lying passages of the Italian Singer's aria.

Semyon Bychkov leads the orchestra in a sharp, if unsubtle, reading of the score. Carsen's Rosenkavalier, then, turns the opera's chuckles into grim snorts, and its romance into transparent delusion. While stunning to look at it many ways, the production is very far from a pretty one. If that is the kind of Rosenkavalier any Opera Today reader has been awaiting - the wait is over.

Chris Mullins

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