Saturday 24 December 2016

The Ghost of Rosenkavaliers past

Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Theatr Magdeburg, director Olivia Fuchs. Photo by Nilz Böhme.
Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Theatr Magdeburg, director Olivia Fuchs. Photo by Nilz Böhme.
There seem to be a lot of Rosenkavaliers around at the moment. This Autumn Opera North revived its David McVicar production (with Ylva Kihlberg as the Marschallin, see my review) the Royal Opera has mounted a new production by Robert Carsen (with Renee Fleming and Rachel Willis-Sørensen singing the Marschallin, see my review), to replace the 1984 John Schlesinger production (which itself replaced the 1966 Visconti one), and Welsh National Opera is mounting a production in June 2017 for the first time in 15 years, presenting Olivia Fuchs production first seen in Magdeburg, with Rebecca Evans as the Marschallin.

Valerie Masterson as Sophie and Sandra Browne as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at ENO in 1975 (Photograph © Sarah Quill, 1975)
Valerie Masterson as Sophie and Sandra Browne as Octavian
in Der Rosenkavalier at ENO in 1975
Photograph © Sarah Quill, 1975
It is fascinating to see how easy it is to refer to the productions via a single member of the cast, the Marschallin. The opera is really about the triangle of Ochs, Sophie and Octavian; Strauss was after all thinking of calling it Ochs von Lerchenau. But somehow it is the Marschallin we remember, even though she is absent from the stage for all of Act Two and much of Act Three. The role has managed to capture both the imagination of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and the paying public.

The shadow of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf hangs heavily over the role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for people of my generation. Even though she had stopped singing the role before I started going to opera (I saw her in recital), she was the Marschallin par excellence. I have, however, been lucky enough to see some very fine Marschallin's indeed. At English National Opera there was Ava June and Valerie Masterson both in the pre-Jonathan Miller production, Yvonne Kenny, Janice Watson and Anne Evans in the Jonathan Miller production, Joan Rogers and Amanda Roocroft in the David McVicar production. Ava June was in fact my first Marschallin (at ENO in the late 1970s with Josephine Barstow as Octavian), but another early one was Catherine Wilson at Scottish Opera in 1979 in Anthony Besch's production. Whilst at Covent Garden, Marschallins have included Gwyneth Jones in the last revival of the Visconti production (which debuted in 1966), Kiri Te Kanawa, Anna Tomowa Sintow, Felicity Lott, Lucia Popp and Renee Fleming in the John Schlesinger production.

Gwyneth Jones
Gwyneth Jones
A quick glance at this list reveals a wide variety of voice types; that lyric sopranos like Valerie Masterson and Felicity Lott have a major role in common with dramatic sopranos like Gwyneth Jones and Anne Evans speaks volumes for the flexibility and fascination of the role. Nowadays we are used to the idea of larger voiced sopranos singing the role. When I told a friend recently that Valerie Masterson's performance at the London Coliseum had been one of the most memorable I had seen, he first of all wondered whether Masterson might not have been too light voiced, but then recalled that the first Marschallin had been Margarethe Siems who also created the role of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos the year after Der Rosenkavalier. A pairing of role that we would rarely consider for a singer nowadays.

In the 1970s a friend attended a performance at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with Elisabeth Södeström as the Marschallin. After Act One, the Octavian was taken ill so Södeström changed costumes and went on in Act Two as Octavian. Meanwhile the management phoned round and finally after a larger than usual second interval Act Three went on still with Södeström as Octavian and a new Marschallin, Kerstin Meyer. My friend said it was one of the most satisfying performances he had heard. And incidentally Södeström was one of the few sopranos in modern times to have performed all three roles, the Marschallin, Sophie and Octavian (another was Sena Jurinac). You can hear So's Octavian on a lovely highlights disc from Decca with Regine Crespin as the Marschallin and Hilda Gueden as Sophie, with Silvio Varviso conducting (available from Amazon).

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal intended the character to be relatively young, late 30s or so; her protests of age are a little too much and we anticipate her taking further lovers after Octavian (Something which Robert Carsen's production at Covent Garden brings out well). But the role lends itself to older singers too, not just the scope of the drama but the benefits which arise from an increase in artistry, so this has almost become the norm.

Montserrat Caballe (as the Marschallinn), Otto Edelmann (as Ochs) in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne in 1965
Montserrat Caballe (as the Marschallinn), Otto Edelmann (as Ochs)
in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne in 1965
There are other changes in the way we perceive the casting of the opera. The role of Ochs is often regarded as a prime buffo bass role, but Strauss and Hoffmanstal did not want Ochs to be either too old or too boorish, after all he should know how to behave with correctness so that he would not get refused entry to the Feldmarschall's palace. I have always thought that Mandryka (in Arabella) and Ochs are rather closer than we think. When John Schlesinger's production was new at Covent Garden, Ochs was played by Aage Haugland who was around 40 at the time, far closer to Strauss's intentions, and in Robert Carsen's new production Matthew Rose's Ochs is a full rounded (albeit almost entirely serious) character of around the correct age.

Octavian too has changed somewhat over the years. The role is now almost exclusively given to mezzo-sopranos (the only soprano I recall in the role was Josephine Barstow), yet the great Sena Jurinac sang the role (she appeared at Covent Garden in 1959 with Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin) as did Södeström, Gwyneth Jones sang it in the late 1960s (though it has to be admitted that the soprano made her operatic debut as a mezzo-soprano) and Montserrat Caballe's Octavian at Glyndebourne in 1965 was soprano Teresa Zylis-Gara (a recording of the performance is available from Amazon).

As an opera, Der Rosenkavalier is a complex machine and directors meddle with the basic structure at their peril. Both Jonathan Miller and Robert Carsen have moved it to Vienna of the early 20th century with little violence, with Carsen's production (based on ideas from his 2004 Salzburg production) depicting a decadent society in decay. But most other productions I have seen have kept to the same essential structure. From photographs, Olivia Fuchs take in the opera looks intriguing and I look forward to the WNO production in the New Year. Perhaps the most intriguing was one which I never got to see. In the late 1980s WNO invited the Swedish director Göran Järvefelt to direct a new production (it featured Amanda Roocroft singing her first Sophie), but Järvefelt died before he could direct it though the set intended for his production was used for a new one by another director. What we saw was a quite traditional account, yet the set had a bright red floor which hinted at other possibilities, never to be achieved.

I do have a fantasy cast for the opera, one which would never have been realised in practice - Jessye Norman as the Marschallin (I heard her as in the title role of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at Covent Garden), Montserrat Caballe as Sophie (she made her UK debut singing the Marschallin at Glyndebourne) and Rita Hunter as Octavian.

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