Review: Der Rosenkavalier at Teatro alla Scala

Richard Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ epitomises the passage from youth to adulthood, sentimental changeability, and the soul’s sunset and rebirth. The human comedy is depicted exceptionally with both irony and seriousness, and is contextualised in the nostalgic melancholy of finis Austriæ.


The opera in three acts revolves around four main characters: the Princess Marschallin (Krassimira Stoyanova), her very young lover Count Octavian Rofrano (Sophie Koch), her coarse cousin Baron Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Ochs’ prospective fiancée Sophie von Faninal (Christiane Karg).


Die Feldmarschallin Fürstin Werdenberg suggests Der Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau to have Octavian act as his Rose-Bearer and present the ceremonial silver rose to Sophie. But when the young Quinquin meets Sophie they fall in love at first sight. Through an amusing intrigue they get rid of Ochs with the help of the Marschallin, who then yields Octavian to the younger woman.


This apparently comedic opera, works on a more profound level, where the twilight atmosphere and the sophistication of music get lost in a whirlwind of Hegelian enquiries. In this way the characters traverse an Aufhebung, with every emotion and gesture, that repeats itself with vivid expressiveness.


This emotional vortex — given by the refined direction of Harry Kupfer — is combined with the solemn baton of Zubin Mehta. Kupfer moves the affair in line with the librettist’s Weltanschauung. If Hugo von Hofmannsthal wanted art to inspire or inflame the instinct, and for the artist to be a man of the world, this contemporary mise-en-scène succeeds in welding politics, art and the foudroyante fusion des âmes des cousins.


The large set design by Hans Schavernoch, and video projections by Thomas Reimer — that predominantly use black and white—allow the evocation of a crepuscular Vienna with deceptive rococo reflections, where each character is donning a mask, whether out of vainglory, candidness or coquetry.


The Austrian capital is clear and bright, but also fleeting and indefinite. The imperial palaces of the Belle Époque are taken from the bottom up to express the helplessness of the characters, as they embody the Anschluss. The sophisticated Feldmarschallin speaks as the Felix Austria, contrasting with the freshness of the new century, represented by the young and tenacious Sophie.


The suave lights by Jurgen Hoffmann, and delicate Yan Tax costumes, are glorified in the third act: colours paint an exceedingly flamboyant Prater that becomes the stage of the pranks against Ochs. Gradually the Austrian countryside becomes the lieu where the existential doubts of the Feldmarschallin float in the indefinite rural landscape contemplation, as she pushes the two young lovers to crown their romance.


Zubin Mehta’s orchestral contribution, along with Bruno Casoni’s choir, reinforce the vigorous architectural scaffold of the complex Strauss elegiac momentum. As for the voice cast, Krassimira Stoyanova’s Marschallin is epic, as she muses in bittersweet fashion over the passing of time and men’s inconstancy in love — especially as she acknowledges the difference in age between herself and Octavian. The Bulgarian soprano, gives a display of technical safety and expressive finesse, whilst adopting an aristocratic posture.


Sophie Koch — in her veteran breeches role of Octavian — embodies a spontaneous and wide-eyed Knight of the Rose, delivering a celestial vocal performance en travesti. Refinement and taste in music also for Christiane Karg, who gives life to an energetic character and stubborn Sophie, through a high tessitura of soft pitches.


For the male voices, Günther Groissböck makes a credible interpretation of Baron Ochs. The voice is smooth, soft and supple in the high register, although the volume and tone quality dims down considerably throughout the opera. However he fulfils expectation, abiding by Hofmannstahl’s wishes to utilise the Viennese dialect. His Baron has a Boccaccio-esque manner, without becoming a caricature.


Benjamin Bernheim comes on stage wrapped in a precious damask and sings the aria “Di rigori armato il seno” (“With severity my breast was armed…”). The graceful serenade of the Italian singer — who performs to Feldmarschallin on behalf of one of her admirers — evokes Molière’s pièce, that partly inspired  Hofmannstahl’s libretto. The interpretation of this short but demanding part is utterly overwhelming.


Adrian Eröd makes an excellent contribution as Herr von Faninal; supporting but just as effective are Kresimir Spicer as Valzacchi, Janina Baechle as Annina,  and Silvana Dussman as Marianne.


All in all, the poetry pertaining to Der Rosenkavalier’s “remembrances of situations that are no more” are exquisitely represented. The sentimental shadows are depicted as they insatiably seek a soul, through the delicate reflections that it leaves upon others. Thus, Strauss’ Knight of the Rose returns to Teatro alla Scala waltzing us through the nostalgia and evanescence of his sonderbar’ Ding.