A Strauss opera in a dress?

Yesterday in Stuttgart, I saw Der Rosenkavalier for the first time. It was very confusing. Musically, it was my favorite Richard Strauss opera so far, but Herheim’s very psychological production was probably not the best choice for the previously uninitiated. I’m not even going to try to make this a proper review—that would imply that I had some clue what was going on. I didn’t. Even the (in retrospect) most obvious part of the conceit—that the entire opera was happening inside the Marschallin’s dress—wasn’t clear to me until some kind Twitter opera-goers answered my plea for help. Intermezzo has the best description and analysis of the production I could find, so read that post if you want an understandable account of what I saw. (And go there regardless for more photos!) What follows will be extremely speculative.

I speculatively offer you... a mirror-rose. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer
I speculatively offer you… a silver rose. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer

As the dress setting (which we were really hit over the head with; I’m kind of embarrassed not have grasped that sooner, on my own) implies, this whole production is a sensual fantasy of the Marschallin’s. You get the sense that it’s a regretful fantasy—Sophie (whose costumes match hers) is her younger self, whom she wishes an Octavian had rescued from a marriage of convenience, just as he ultimately rescues Sophie. And “rescue” is the right word: to emphasize the drama of salvation, Octavian fights off a herd of lustful satyrs who attack the Marschallin in the overture. The satyrs will be back, though, as the attendants of Baron Ochs (and sometimes also the Marschallin). I’m still fuzzy about exactly what function they’re fulfilling; traditionally, satyrs onstage underscored (and allowed for) the nobility of the other characters because they were the separately embodied base aspects of human nature. Here, they (with in-your-face rubber genitals always hanging out) seem to merely contribute to a world that is full of debauchery and cupidity wherever you look.

The setting for Ochs's and Mariandel's Act III rendezvous
The setting for Ochs’s and Mariandel’s Act III rendezvous. Photo: A.T. Schaeffer

Other animals appear, too, as predictable instantiations of various characters’ personalities. There’s even an ostrich (Strauss) to represent the composer. Ochs nearly strangles him, trying to prevent the end of the opera in which youth and innocence triumph (and the satyrs retreat). But, of course, the opera must end. The Marschallin (who is also Europe) descends from the skies, wielding the opera’s famed silver rose as a magic wand with which she sets all to rights. At one point, Pan (who is on the also-horned-like-an-ox Baron Ochs’s side) steals the rose, replaces it with a version he has made from the shards of the Marschallin’s smashed mirror, and hands it to Ochs. It seems like debauchery might triumph. But Ochs has been discouraged by his recent humiliation. He smashes the rose and shoots off the stage in a shower of sparks. Octavian and Sophie help the crying Pan gather up the pieces of the rose, and Octavian tosses them into the skies to form the stars. He and Sophie sing their final duet in a beautiful, starry dreamscape, while the Marschallin and Faninal comment from the side boxes of the opera house (where they sit wearing modern opera-going outfits) that youth is thus. Pan upstages the ending by eating a remaining shard of broken glass and dying bloodily. Presumably, this is Herheim’s rather tasteless comment on the opera’s outcome.

Ochs's dramatic exit. Photo: A.T. Schaefer, via @oper_stuttgart
Ochs’s dramatic exit. Photo: A.T. Schaefer, via @oper_stuttgart

I really disliked the staging during the first act, when I thought the Marschallin’s generic sensuality (she has a tumble with Ochs, for instance) detracted from the strength of her relationship with Octavian. Certain other aspects, like her association of the figurine of the Italian singer with her husband or the consumption of (chocolate?) figurines for breakfast, were downright confusing. And the relatively empty circular design of the stage had the singers walking in circles a lot, which was not terribly exciting. I warmed up to it in later acts, though. I don’t know whether this is because it actually got less in the way of the action, or whether I just got more willing to sit back and accept the craziness. I suspect the latter.

Figurines for breakfast! Photo: A.T. Shaefer, via @oper_stuttgart
Figurines for breakfast! Photo: A.T. Schaefer, via @oper_stuttgart

I could have wished for a more dramatically traditional first Rosenkavalier. But I couldn’t possibly have wished for a muically better one. The Stuttgart Opera has 1400 seats to Munich’s 2100, and the difference is clearly audible. The resonance in the smaller space is wonderful, and it reminded me that I need to get to more small(er) opera houses. But I don’t want to take credit away from the singers! Sophie Marriley’s Octavian stood out to me the most. Marriley is rail-thin, with boyish features that make Mariandel seem like more of a travesty than Octavian (always a good thing!). But her voice is large and piercing, while staying smooth and melodius (except as Mariandel, when she intentionally adopts a painfully harsh, pushed tone). She was a perfect match for Simone Schneider’s majestic and mysterious Marschallin, whose flawless legato and sensitive phrasing fit the dreamy sensuality of the staging as a whole. Ana Durlovski sang Sophie with a good mix of resignation and defiance, comfortably floating and growing the role’s many stratospheric notes. The final trio of these three women was a definite highlight of the show: all share a purity and resonance of tone that enabled their voices to blend, while each has a distinctive texture. As Ochs, Friedemann Röhlig quite appropriately used his solid bass voice in a way that was more full of character than beauty. As this was my first Rosenkavalier, I don’t have much of a basis of comparison by which to judge Marc Soustrot’s conducting of the Staatsorchester. But after the initial bit of electronica (that was Herheim, not Strauss or Soustrot, to be sure), the sections sounded balanced and the pacing generally seemed suited to the action.

What was that action? I’m honestly not entirely sure. But the music sounded gorgeous.