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Renée Fleming as the Marschallin
18 Jul 2010

Star Power in Zürich’s Rosenkavalier

The annual Zürcher Festspiel banked on a heavy hitter to generate excitement for its revival of Der Rosenkavalier.

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Marschallin: Renée Fleming; Octavian: Michelle Breedt; Sophie: Eva Liebau; Baron Ochs von Lerchenau: Alfred Muff; Annina: Wiebke Lehmkuhl; Faninal: Martin Gantner; Marianne: Liuba Chuchrova; Valzacchi: Rudolf Schasching; Notary: Tomasz Slawinski; Italian Singer: Boiko Zvetanov; Innkeeper: Volker Vogel; Police Comissioner: Reinhard Mayr; Faninal’s Major-Domo: Andreas Winkler; Marschallin’s Major Domo: Martin Zysset. Conductor: Peter Schneider. Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf. Set Design: Rolf Glittenberg. Costume Design: Marianne Glittenberg. Lighting Design: Jürgen Hoffmann.

Above: Renée Fleming as the Marschallin


Their faith was certainly well placed in Renée Fleming who contributed a memorable, glamorous star turn as the Marschallin. Ms. Fleming is one of the world’s most celebrated divas to be sure, and happily for all of us, one of the most recorded. With her vocal gifts so well documented (and reported), it risks cliche to refer once more to the uncommonly beautiful sheen of her timbre, the melting tone she produces throughout the range, the savvy musical instincts she brings to the score, the heft and fire power that she wields in well-calculated moderation, and the easy stage presence she commands. This is arguably one of Renée’s finest roles, and over various productions she has fine-tuned it to a fare-thee-well.

The Marschallin is a part that can negatively invite precious introspection, over-interpretation, mewing and cooing, self-victimization. Not for me the Lieder singer approach, coaxing each utterance out of some buried corner of the psyche, handling each tortured syllable like it might break, shifting moods and colors with each punctuation, by turns pleasantly audible and then. . .(not). . .blending into the orchestral (fabric). . .

On occasion in other roles, Ms. Fleming has been accused (unjustly or not) of somewhat that kind of interpretive over-reaching. Not so with her definitive Marschallin. She just sings the damn thing as exquisitely as you will ever hear. Her great monologue is magnificently realized, being supremely touching without being maudlin, winning without whining, self-examining without wallowing. In short, it was a perfectly judged portrayal by a great artist in total command of her justifiably acclaimed vocal resources. While her top voice is especially celebrated (and was thrilling in the trio), I also think her use of chest and lower middle registers has ripened and mellowed over the years to a very fine estate. And Ms. Fleming is just the right age and look for the role, seeming to grow more beautiful with each year, sleek and fabulously gowned, with a face that could launch a thousand Rolex sales. The Swiss public rewarded her with a chorus of ringing cheers.

As Octavian, Michelle Breedt sports a ringing top voice and an awesome technique. She is especially proficient at hitting a rock solid high note and then scaling it back to wondrous effect. Ms. Breedt’s lower voice gets a bit diffuse, however, and in a number of the chatty dialogue phrases, I found her hard to understand. And it has to be said that in Act I’s loosely fitted boudoir attire, she did come off as looking like a handsome middle-aged woman, rather than the strapping young man that was preferred. Ah well, suspension of disbelief is de rigeur for opera lovers, so what the hell? Her dramatic performance was detailed, enthusiastic, and focused. Eva Liebau’s perky Sophie was very winning, and her silvery, light soprano stood in good contrast to Mmes Breedt and Fleming. When Ms. Liebau pressed the voice for volume in the upper reaches, there was a tendency to go sharp and a bit edgy, but overall she acquitted herself with a fine interpretation.

Baron Ochs is always a tough sell, having to be blunt and boorish without completely turning the audience off along with Sophie. Alfred Muff draws on his ample experience with the part to pretty much pull off that balancing act. His bass voice is dark and imposing, and has a good bite in the tone that rides the orchestra with ease. He also relishes the role’s lower extremes and luxuriates in the long held tones that Strauss gave him. While he can certainly boom out the high notes, here the tone gets rather straight and dry, losing the resonance of his natural core. Muff’s bearing is more aristocratic than some who essay this role and he admirably controls the temptation to descend too far into the flummoxing lummox ham-bone mode.

Martin Gantner was an exceptionally fine Faninal never once blustering his outbursts, rather singing them securely with burnished tone. Liuba Chuchrova’s Marianne was too often hindered by placement too far upstage, and her excitable exclamations fought a bit stridently to be heard. Not so Wiebke Lehmkuhl, who put her plummy voice at the disposal of an animated and winning traversal as Annina. Rudolf Schasching was secure and polished in the less grateful role of Valzacchi. The minor roles were cast from strength with accomplished artists on the roster. Tomasz Slawinski and Volker Vogel merit special mention for their successful turns as the Notary and Innkeeper, respectively. Boiko Zvetanov nailed all the notes as the Italian Singer, with ‘nailed’ being the operative word. We can hear you, Boiko! Were the volume knob turned down a bit, Mr. Svetanov’s solid, steely tenor might make an even better impression.

I so admire the house orchestra and conductor Peter Schneider that I wish I could report more delight in their music-making. Perhaps because of the extreme heat wave that had been going on, the instrumental playing too often seemed earth-bound, languid. This greatly benefited the lush string passages which oozed like rich creme fraiche, but the heady exuberance Strauss calls for was too little in evidence. Too, Maestro Schneider did not always seem to be considerate of his singers with the massed orchestral forces allowed to challenge the soloists at best, overwhelm them at worst. On this occasion at least I did not find this fine band as well-calibrated or as joyous as is their usual standard.

The singers were also not always helped by Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s elusive, quirky direction within Rolf Glittenberg’s handsome but puzzling sets. Both Act I and III are conducted in a playing space defined by a semi-circle of light gray walls extending from down right to up left with floor to ceiling windows and slatted shutters. An ill-defined entrance point is up left and a solid wall with a fireplace opening forms stage left. It is adorned with mounted birds (ceramic? stuffed?) on little shelves. Curiously there are three denuded trees standing in this space. For the bedroom, a writing table with two chairs was draped in white down right, a matching chair was between the trees down left, and a few pillows and a comforter (white, of course) were the ‘bed’ on the floor. For Act III, a tent is erected by skeleton-costumed extras as the private dining room. The fireplace is oddly used as an entrance/exit and characters stoop over and use it as such with no explanation, the first being a ‘huh?’ moment as Octavian rushes out of the boudoir to disguise himself as a girl.

While I can’t say I understood this environment, I didn’t find it off-putting. Act II, however, while structurally realistic and pleasing enough, was set in Faninal’s basement kitchen. Beautiful cabinets with china displayed filled the upper wall, and a realistic window revealed people outside on the street above. The same gray walls (they must have gotten a discount on the paint) sided the 6 large work tables, and a big cupboard filled stage left.

Is there a less elegant place you would ‘receive’ an official visitor than in a kitchen filled with working servants? The toilet, perhaps? And what was that stuff the ladies were putting through the meat grinders? It looked like blue Play-Doh. To continue the bird motif, dead feathered fowl were strung up overhead. Given these odd design choices, there is much that was good about Mr. Bechtolf’s staging, most of all the character relationships he developed with his principals.

That said, however, there was an odd, cool cast to the beginning of this opera that should start in the after-glow of really hot sex. With the thick reading of the prelude, the curtain rose to reveal strange, guarded interactions for about the first half of the Act. It was as though the soloists had one eye on the conductor and the other on their Festival fee. Or maybe they were thinking how hot it was and this thing was going to be four and a half hours long. Everyone was behaving very professionally and singing very well and executing the well-considered staging very conscientiously but it was not until Ms. Fleming launched into her superb account of the monologue that a real dramatic fire took over. From then onwards Rosenkavalier pulsed with real theatrical life. It must be said that the director utilized the stage space with great variety of movement, and he created intimate moments of specificity and occasionally, revelation.

He also misfired a few times, like with the presentation of the rose. I had thought that was a no-fail-moment but here Sophie runs up a couple of steps and then hides in the stage left cupboard. Yes, hides. Octavian’s clumsy entrance was covered by the servants, then he can’t find Sophie and is directed to the hiding place. She cracks open the door, and one of the most sublime moments in lyric theatre is reduced to a game of pass-the-rose, with the two people who should be falling in love at first sight not even in sight of each other. Does this even sound like it could be viable? Dude, Strauss has done all the work for you! Those glorious off stage cries of Rofrano, Rofrano, the orchestral build-up, the unbearable tension under that deceptively serene music. Just stay out of the way and it works!

However, Bechtolf does make amends when they later start giggling and cooing with real spontaneity and strike some comic and romantic sparks. And he did get the three ladies (okay, one is supposed to be a guy) to be the smoochiest bunch of Straussians I have ever seen, verging on a veritable L-Word episode. The Inn Scene was quite inventive indeed, although I am not sure I liked the SNL insect costumes as well as I did the tricorn-hatted skeletons. But they were fanciful and in fact all of the luxurious period attire was well-designed by Marianne Glittenberg. The entrance of the Marschallin at opera’s end was rather perfunctory, but then the set-up to the trio that had preceded it was a beautifully realized piece of staging with the simplest of re-groupings proving highly effective. Jürgen Hoffmann’s competent lighting was at times more than that, such as the lovely back-lit effect at the end of I, when the shutters were closed one by one to black out the backdrop as the music wanes, a perfect pairing of musical and lighting effects.

At the end of the night this Der Rosenkavalier was a bit more basic Bauernbrot than succulent Sacher Torte, but as served up by one of today’s most sought after divas in tandem with a talented group of colleagues, its many staging inventions were more often than not freshly, surprisingly engaging.

James Sohre

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