Feldmarschallin: Renée Fleming
Octavian: Sophie Koch
Sophie: Diana Damrau
Baron Ochs: Franz Hawlata
Faninal: Franz Grundheber
Italian Singer: Jonas Kaufmann
Annina: Jane Herschel
Valzacchi: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Marianne Leitmetzinen: Irmgard Vilsmaier
Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Direction, set, costumes: Herbert Wernicke
Herbert Wernicke's production of Der Rosenkavalier is updated but not to a specific historical time, which saves it from the pedantry and overload of so many "traditional" Rosenkavalier productions. It is however also relatively uninterventionist in terms of presenting the opera, so there's no Regie theatre excesses to worry about either - the adjective "timeless" for once seems a reasonable word to use. The revival direction is surprisingly good, with lots of lovely details of characterisation, and most of the principals seem totally physically and vocally at ease with their roles, giving them a real freedom and immediacy on stage. Christoph von Bernuth is listed as director's assistant but considering that Wernicke had long been dead when this was filmed can we assume that this is a synonym for revival director?
The set is comprised of enormous mirrors which reflect different backgrounds (mostly of ultra opulent 18th century interiors) and can be quickly rotated to produce different atmospheres and settings. A smaller mirrored screen demarcates a more intimate area for the opening bedroom scene (and subsequently also the seamier bedroom in Act III); the floor is also a mirror. Costumes and hairstyles do not anchor anything down and come from a mix of eras - the lackeys look 18th century, the rest 20th century. It doesn't feel like a mishmash because these questions of style are never the point of the production. I have expressed my reservations before about totally "traditional" 18th century Rosenkavaliers - I simply don't think that the glutinous beauty and frenetic nervosity of Strauss' score reflects that era at all, and the excuse for clutter, fussiness and ahistorical kitsch that Der Rosenkavalier seems to bring out of directors of a certain bent is happily sidestepped if it's updated in some way. (I think Strauss' own time of composition works wonderfully with the music and makes sense dramatically too - the fading upper classes, rising middle classes, the feeling that old Vienna was on the way out, the coming of the Great War - we are dealing with a Feldmarschal remember, and it's oft forgotten that Faninal has made his millions as an arms dealer...) Non-historical settings can sometimes be bland and characterless, but somehow this production does manage to conjure a sort of fictional society that is reasonably believable, if not quite as meticulously detailed as what Hoffmannsthal and Strauss intended. We can however imagine these characters out of their immediate context, which for me is a decent measure of how believable the story telling is.
The Act II duet is a coup de theatre and time stands still: Octavian arrives on a huge flight of stairs, the couple in a curious suspension above the main stage, only descending down the steps and back to earth at the end. The servants have disappeared, making it a more intimate scene than is normally the case. The lederhosen donning Ochs turns out to be not just unbearably impolite, but in fact totally outrageous to Sophie, and her anger is very real and wholly justified, much as she tries to make the best of it at first. When he sings his waltz song she is sobbing on the floor, and he leers over her, clearly enjoying his power. Grim. The Act III farce is only intermittently funny, acceptably choreographed to the music, but relies a little too much on Hawlata's improvisational ingenuity - if he didn't know the role so well I think it would be very dry indeed and many actions are expanded far too much in time. I've never seen the masquerade totally convincingly staged I have to say, and like in most productions, things focus again at the re-entrance of the Marschallin.
This Marschallin has an iron fist inside the velvet glove and her dismissal of Ochs is extremely firm (and therefore satisfying). The final trio and its preceding scene are beautifully handled. Sophie's costume subtly mirrors the Marschallin's, underlining the hinted at similarity between the two women from the first act, which is of course the reason for the Marschallin's vexation with Ochs. The young couple's blissful love is for once as believable and stirring as the Marschallin's sighing resignation, making the conflict and eventual resolution bittersweet yet tolerable, when so often there's the suspicion that the new relationship is flimsy and only skin deep. At the final curtain Mohammed, here a Pierrot (presumably for reasons of political correctness), appears and replaces the silver rose with a real one - a symbol of nature and true love triumphing over formalised, arranged, economically prudent courtship.
I've noted before on this blog that Renée Fleming is not at her best as an actress in light comedy mode, so despite some nice moments from her in the opening scene, she comes across as a bit artificial (though nothing like as bad as in the Met production, see below). But at "Mein lieber Hippolyte" and then from "Da geht er hin" to the end of the first act she suddenly focuses vocally and acting wise to give one of the best performances of her career. For that glorious half hour scene and indeed the rest of the opera she fully becomes the Marschallin and in this exceptionally pained portrayal she takes the role further than any of her colleagues on DVD. Catching every subtle play of emotion in the score, she channels it through the myriad colours of her voice, and her superb attention to the text combined with her perfect legato gives full thrift to Strauss' inspired vocal writing. Physically too the embodiment becomes completely natural, and her interactions with Octavian are heartrending as he struggles to understand why she is pushing him away. What is so impressive is how specific and improvisatory everything feels: there is no question that this is coming from a place of very genuine emotion.
[As an aside: anyone who saw the Met Rosenkavalier HD Broadcast that Fleming did in early 2010 will be very surprised with this DVD. In fact, I'm staggered at the difference in quality between that broadcast and the present DVD. Filmed in 2009 (in my opinion the last year of her vocal prime) her voice is in much better shape in Baden Baden: a better supported line, unexaggerated, and simply more beautiful, (listen for instance to her unbelievable opening phrase in the trio) but what differs most markedly is her physical and emotional portrayal of the Marschallin. Whereas in the Met production she is completely self indulgent, mugging and swanning about, and as a result is not very likeable, in Baden Baden she gives one of the most compelling performances of the Marschallin that I have ever seen. The only explanation I can proffer is the different direction that she's responding to. It doesn't help of course that the Met one is filmed like a soap opera and is in the Met's mega kitsch, tackily costumed and now dated looking production (demonstrating so much of what is wrong artistically with the Met).]
Initially I didn't at all like Sophie Koch as Octavian, finding her vibrato too wide, her acting overdone, and her ultra mobile mouth too distracting with all the closeups. But having seen this DVD several times now, I think she makes an excellent casting choice in being so contrasted with Fleming's precision and vocal beauty - in the latter half of Act I, the difference between Octavian's youthful ardour and unsophisticated bluff and the Marschallin's philosophical wistfulness has never seemed so irreconcilable or poignant. This alone is worth the price of admission and makes it one of the moving versions on DVD.
Diana Damrau's Sophie is not an unqualified success - there are some good things vocally, but the phrasing frequently bulges unmusically (explosions of vibrato after straight tones), and she doesn't have that crystalline purity of tone that one associates with the greatest Sophies. However, I like her minxy acting and that in this production she's not an air headed ditz - we know that she's a proud, slightly spoiled brat, but she's clever and sympathetic too, and her joy in the final scene is palpable. Her final conversation with the Marschallin is another lovely piece of characterisation.
Franz Hawlata's Ochs is brilliantly horrible: his half closed, inward looking, plaice-like eyes and unflagging sense of entitlement perfectly produce a portrait of insuperable egocentricity and supreme self satisfaction. He is in no way a manipulator or intriguer: he genuinely believes in his own superiority and irresistibility, the real world merely bouncing off his unassailable self belief. Vocally Hawlata is far from opulent, but his experience with the part makes this demanding and not particularly grateful role seem like a walk in the park.
Franz Grundheber is vocally far past his best, but he makes more of Faninal than we often see. Jonas Kaufmann is a very unitalian Italian tenor, but oh my what a delicious cameo - certainly the best sung I've heard this infamously difficult aria.
Christian Thielemann conducts the Munchner Philharmoniker and the sound is glorious - full and rich, the orchestral picture always detailed, with superb phrasing and large contrasts of weight and character. It's not quite as subtle or ravishing as Eschenbach is with the Wiener Philharmoniker on the wonderful Fleming Strauss Heroines disc, but Thielemann is sprightly and driven, and supports the singers just as well.
A very worthwhile DVD, absolutely essential for anyone who loves this repertoire.