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Thursday, February 21, 2008

DVD Review: Der Rosenkavalier By Any Other Name

In these two Austrian productions, (one from Vienna and one from Salzburg), Otto Schenk and Robert Carsen take very different approaches to Strauss' evergreen comedy of sex and manners.


Manners is the focus of this beautiful 1994 Wiener Staatsoper production, conducted by the late Carlos Kleiber. Director Otto Schenk emphasizes tradition, with gorgeous rococo sets, elaborate wigs, and every detail of the libretto depicted with painstaking accuracy. The cast features Strauss specialist Felicity Lott, radiant and yet introspective as the Marschallin. Anne Sofie Von Otter is a boyish, enthusiastic Octavian. The Swedish mezzo brings all of her lieder skills to bear on Strauss' long vocal lines. Barbara Bonney is an equal vocal talent--her voice blends beautifully with Von Otter's. The Act II Rose Duet is glorious, as is the final trio and love duet.

Kurt Moll is both charming and creepy in his fatherly approach to Baron Ochs. The veteran bass has great comic timing and resounding bass notes. His Act II waltz scene is both funny and beautifully sung. The fine supporting cast features tenor Heinz Zednik as Valzacchi, Keith Ikea-Purdy as the Italian Tenor, and Gottfried van Hornik as Faninal.

Carlos Kleiber conducts a benchmark performance of the score. Unfortunately, at two climactic moments, the camera cuts away from the onstage comic action to show the tuxedoed Kleiber gesticulating in the pit. This moment of brainless egotism does much to spoil an otherwise excellent performance. However, this is a solid traditional Rosenkavalier and a mid-price bargain. It was one of the first operas released on DVD by Deutsche Grammophon.

Canadian director Robert Carsen moved Der Rosenkavalier from its 18th-century setting to 1911 Vienna. In some ways, this 2004 Salzburg production benefits from this dramatic update. Carsen's production reeks of pre-war sleaze. In Act I, the direction implies that the Marschallin may be um...self-employed while her husband (pimp?) is away. This changes her opening love scenes with Octavian to something much darker. Act II deposits Ochs and his retinue of drunken soldiers at the gaming tables in the middle of Faninal's house. Act III is set not in a country inn, but in a bordello with full frontal nudity of both genders.


The brothel scene caused a firestorm in Salzburg, but there is no controversy about the superb cast. All three female leads sing beautifully, both seperately and together, and the acting is excellent. Pieczonka is a ravishing Marschallin. (The updated setting makes dramatic sense of her Act I monologue, not to mention her sudden entrance in Act III.) Angelika Kirkschlager sings and acts well as the brash young Octavian, putting on a marvelously thick Viennese accent when disguised as the maid "Mariendel." She and Sophie (Mia Persson) make an attractive couple, but as they writhe on the bed in the finale of the opera (mirroring the opening sex scene between Octavian and the Marschallin) one wonders if it is going to last.

Franz Hawlata and Franz Grundheber are both fine baritones, perfectly cast as Ochs and Faninal. Ochs and Octavian are self-important military officers, which lends an air of "don't ask, don't tell" to the Baron's flirtations with the cross-dressed "Mariendel." Semyon Bychkov conducts a muscular performance, not delicate but most effective. This two-DVD set (released on TDK) has excellent stereo sound.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.