Rosenkavalier on the brink

Robert Carsen’s 2004 production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival was apparently enormously controversial at the time.  In many ways that says more about the iconic status of the piece in Salzburg tradition than about Carsen’s production.  There are a few controversial elements.  He has updated the period to 1914 and the third act is set in a brothel with a fair amount of nudity.  Beyond that, the production is pretty faithful to the libretto and has, I think characteristic Carsen touches like long lines of tables and chairs and a certain geometric elegance.  He seems to be using the sides of the stage to comment on the action which tends to be fixed centre stage.  I say seems because the video direction (by Brian Large) is utterly perverse and makes it extraordinarily difficult to see what Carsen is doing, let alone decode it.  We see the whole stage, maybe, for three seconds in the whole piece.  Otherwise 99% of what we get is either close up and even closer up or apparently shot from the restricted view seats high up and close to the side of the stage.  The other 1% is just plain nuts and includes a section of the Sophie/Octavian duet in Act 2 where, on stage, Octavian is maybe twenty feet to Sophie’s right but on camera he’s standing right up close on her left hand side.  I could go on but I won’t.  Suffice it to say the video direction comes close to wrecking an otherwise excellent DVD.

So back to the production.  There are lots of things to like.  The heavy make out action between the Marschallin of Adrienne Pieczonka and Angelika Kirschlager’s Octavian in Act 1 is nicely handled.  The splendid Franz Hawlata plays Ochs, here an army officer with a military entourage, as less buffoonish than usual which makes his utterly clueless behaviour in Act 2 all the funnier.  There’s a cameo appearance by Piotr Beczala as the Singer (serious luxury casting that!).  The Marschallin’s bedroom is very red and prefigures the equally red brothel in Act 3 in a typical act of Carsen symmetry and lighting design.  There seems to be a lot going on at the ends of the stage all through this act but we see very little of it on the DVD which is a shame as it seems quite interesting.  Kirschlager’s translation into the maid, Mariandel, is all the funnier as she seems to be wearing a novelty shop slutty French Maid outfit.  To be fair this is nothing on her outfit and performance in the brothel scene though.  I think most of us are probably more familiar with Zeitgeist of the run up to WW1 (and if you aren’t, go read Ecksteins) than with that of the court of Maria Theresa so it feels more real and less like a fairy tale than some productions of Rosenkavalier.

Act 2 takes us into the Faninal palace where Faninal (played by Franz Grundheber), here a prosperous arms dealer, is surrounded by military figures carrying all the latest ordnance.  Oddly, his home is rather restrained and tasteful in a monochrome sort of way rather than nouveau riche and excessive.  Inevitably there are also long lines of monochrome tables and chairs!  Of course in Act 2 we meet Sophie, here played by Miah Persson, in a suitably monochrome dress, which does look a bit like a black and white meringue but still can’t stop her looking fabulous.  This Sophie is no doormat straight from the convent.  She’s actually rather a handful and a very gorgeous handful at that.  Hawlata’s boorish cluelessness is very funny as is the scene where his drunken entourage attempts to molest the female servants.  They end up getting chased out with their own rifles.

In Act 3 we are in a not very well organised brothel.  The lighting reminds us of the Marschallin’s bedroom as does the bed that drops out of the wall mid scene.  Throughout the scene people of both sexes, in various states of undress, wander though the scene.  The innkeeper of the libretto is replaced by a transvestite “madam”, archly played by Markus Petsch.  Presumably there’s also more stuff going on at the edges of the stage but we rarely see it.  Octavian as Mariandel in her slutty outfit; bustier, fishnets etc, is hilarious but it does make me wonder whether young Austrian army officers in 1914 routinely shaved their legs!  There’s plenty of low comedy when Och’s wife shows up and the Marschallin’s final appearance to sort things out is suitably dignified but perhaps not as poignant as it might be.  Instead we have more enthusiastic make out action on the big red bed; this time between Octavian and Sophie before a final prefiguring of the disaster to come.  The final thought must be that the odds of this relationship lasting for any length of time are not good.  All in all, it’s satisfying in a typically Carsen sort of way.

Musically this is top notch.  The singers are uniformly excellent.  Perhaps Ochs lies a little low for Hawlata but this has to be one of Pieczonka’s best roles.  Personally I’d much rather hear her sing Strauss than Puccini (but then I’d much rather hear most people sing Strauss than Puccini!)  The Wiener Philharmoniker probably don’t need a conductor for this score but Semyon Bychkov gets an idiomatic but rather red blooded performance out of them which fits well with the time shift.  The music seems more 20th century than it sometimes does! The chorus is also excellent in both the vocal and acting departments.  This production keeps them busy.

Video direction aside the disk package is very good.  The piece is spread across two disks with unusually high picture resolution for DVD (960×540 pixels).  The sound is very crisp DTS 5.1 with lots of presence.  The voices sometimes seem balanced a little far back but that’s probably realistic.  The subtitle options are English, German, French, Italian and Spanish and the booklet contains track listings and a short essay.  There are no extras on the disk.  All in all, it’s as good as it gets technically short of Blu-ray.

Annoying as the video direction on this disk is it doesn’t manage to completely spoil an otherwise excellent and interesting disk.


8 thoughts on “Rosenkavalier on the brink

  1. “It does make me wonder whether young Austrian army officers in 1914 routinely shaved their legs”

    See this ( and particularly this (, staged in Vienna some forty years ago but which I hope the Burgtheater will revive some day with a heavily Regie production. It was our national day yesterday and while it’s not too often I get super patriotic about my adopted homeland, few countries can rival us for repressed perversion.

    Nice review as always, can’t imagine how this production ever shocked, but that’s Salzburg for you…

    • I think the controversy was rooted in a particular idea of Rosenkavalier and Salzburg. It, in the most traditional of traditional productions, was an essential element of the festival for some patrons. Mucking with it was sort of like a Regie version of The Nutcracker. For an idea of what kind of production I mean take a look at the 1961 version with Schwarzkopf which is fabulous but as literal as all heck.

  2. Pingback: Time is a funny thing | operaramblings

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