Opera Australia’s Der Rosenkavalier

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The Marschallin (Cheryl Barker) and Octavian (Catherine Carby) face the dawn. Photo: Opera Australia.

Der Rosenkavalier
Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
Sydney Opera House: 26 October 2010

Feldmarschallin – Cheryl Barker
Octavian – Catherine Carby
Baron Ochs – Manfred Hemm
Sophie – Emma Pearson
Faninal – Warwick Fyfe
Marianne Leitmetzerin, Sophie’s duenna – Teresa La Rocca
Annina – Jacqueline Dark
Police Commissioner/Attorney – David Parkin
Faninal Major-Domo – Edmond Choo
Landlord/Struhan – Graeme Macfarlane
Italian Tenor – Henry Choo
Valzacchi – Andrew Brunsdon
1st Orphan – Emma Castelli
2nd Orphan – Jodie McGuren
3rd Orphan – Margaret Plummer
Milliner – Chloris Bath
Animal Seller – Dean Bassett
Footman 1 – Jin Tea Kim
Footman 2 – James Roser
Footman 3 – Gregory Brown
Footman 4 – Sam Roberts-Smith

Opera Australia Chorus
Opera Australia Children’s Chorus
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Andrew Litton

Director – Brian FitzGerald
Revival Director – Roger Press
Designer – Carl Friedrich Oberle
Lighting Designer – Nigel Levings

Though one hundred years old and a comedy set in 1740’s Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier is still fresh. This is partly because the opera is timeless: as Robert Gibson and Andrew Riemer’s interesting program notes point out, it is an anachronistic mixture of different bits of Viennese culture. For instance one can nitpick the fact the romantic waltzes Richard Strauss incorporated into the opera’s music and plot wouldn’t exist until the 19th Century (they were barely dancing l’Allemande with linked hands in the mid 18th Century). Thus the opera is about as logical and historically accurate as a myth is — it is a rich Dobos torte (whose recipe Dobos donated to the Budapest Pastry and Honey-bread Makers’ Guild five years before the opera’s première, for what it’s worth) of many integrated layers, some chocolate, some nutty, some sugary, and some disturbing, ashy and mawkish. Present also is something of Sigmund Freud’s contemporaneous Vienna, not just in the way we see how his patients’ inherited neuroses manifested themselves some generations prior, but also as psychology as one of the last frontiers of the enlightenment. The famous final duet is to be sung “träumerisch“: the young hero Octavian sings “Ist ein Traum…” just as the “secret of his dream is revealed” (see photo of tablet below). He wakes up from the intense love affair with the Marschallin and realises the true nature of his feelings. This happens only after he has convinced his rival the Baron Ochs of his insanity by simulating hallucinations in a kind of upside down abreaction in the form of a Viennese masked ball. Octavian awakens to the realisation that his love for the Marschallin is “mere” warm friendship and discovers true love for the young Sophie who is fresh from the convent. He had refused to face the dawn in Act I, but by Act III he comes to act on the dreams, or at least the strange events, of the intervening scenes in which he undergoes two transformations to the opposite sex, encounters a symbolic silver rose, tries to duel Ochs and sets up said masked ball, before fixing his and Sophie’s lives. Octavian, knightly and hot headed though he is, has a manly grace. He forsakes brute force in the end to find a third alternative to his problems, which should be relevant today when the beastly Baron Ochs’ style of greed of is often valued over character, civility and proper thinking. Or at least relevant to those who more reasonably mistake romantic love for friendship or believe one necessarily precludes the other for all time.

Viennese humour: a tablet at the end of Sigmund Freud's favourite walk in the Wienerwald. Photo: Andrew Miller.

From the overture it sounded as if the orchestra was going to play the music as spikily and modern as Strauss’ score could allow. The music is of course not modern in style in the way Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (composed two years later) or Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (composed the same year) but it is not purely romantic either. Strauss sounds as if he enjoys beginning a mellifluous melody or a rich sweeping motion in the huge orchestra and just as the listener is convinced they are hearing a grand romantic piece, it loses its key in a spiky transition or the “wrong” kind of dissonance or a surprising jazzy chord progression. This, as well as his often wacky subject matter gives him a unique sense of humour and playful style. Though some of this was lost in the theatre’s acoustics — up in the circle, the sound was muddy and the instruments a little more tangled than was intended — conductor Andrew Litton gave the music a 20th Century edge and a fine brisk pace. This was an interesting way to play it, especially when they came to Ochs’ idée fixe — a “sugary” waltz, tempered in its last phrase with odd chords which fray the edges of the melody, making it clear it’s not purely ironic, mocking sentimentality — and also Octavian and Sophie’s leitmotif with its odd dented harmonies.

The curtain rose, very slowly, in Act I on the Marschallin’s bedroom under very low grey lighting: it is dawn. She lies next to her lover Octavian the wrong way around in bed. Her husband the Feldmarschal never appears and is barely felt in the whole opera. As Octavian rises with the light level we see a large room, perhaps even taller than it is wide, the walls painted with a romantic landscape, almost eastern in style with the huge trees towering over the singers. The floor is mahogany red, a similar shade to the bed sheets. The birds’ morning song in the woodwinds sounded clear and natural despite the chaotic overlapping polyphony, so perhaps the Opera House acoustics sound better for smaller ensembles than the large romantic orchestra. Catherine Corby as Octavian sounded suitably strong though tender as her character tried to figuratively spin back the Earth to keep back the new day. In a similar way, the Marschallin wants to turn back years. She sings of getting up in the middle of the night to stop all the clocks in the house as if aware not just of ageing or losing her youth’s beauty, but that the ticking seconds are all significant and she is aware of each of the accumulated millions of seconds embodied in the passing years. Corby’s and Cheryl Baker’s voices got a little bit drowned in the orchestra in the first exchange but this was not a problem in later scenes.

Baron Ochs (Manfred Hemm), the Marschallin, and "Mariandel". Photo: Opera Australia.

By the time the obnoxious Baron Ochs comes in to herald the unwanted day, the scene is very brightly lit. Octavian, now dressed as the girl “Mariandel”, acts mostly silently, expressively showing frustration and disgust at Ochs’ interruption and harassment in a sometimes funny way, ironically bowing as he serve the Baron coffee. The semi-chaos which follows, as sundry callers of the day all show up at once, suggests the Marschallin’s life isn’t all that uneventful, but it does comes across routine and stressful and lonely. It is she who has to deal with the Feldmarschal’s politics and she is a liberated woman in this sense, which Cheryl Barker’s definite tone of voice confirms, even if she is not free. As the hairdresser does her hair and the Italian Tenor sings his lovely song (Henry Choo was restrained and not at all ironical), Ochs borrows her attorney to ask if he can legally take his fiancée’s property but ends up yelling at the attorney when he doesn’t get his way. Not unlike certain rude people in the audience who whisper during the music, so Ochs’ shouting interrupts the Tenor causing all to take offence. Manfred Hemm’s voice sounded hollow in tone in these scenes but is quite powerful, which would seem to suit the overweening character.

The Marschallin has her hair done. Photo: Opera Australia.

To finish the scene, the Marschallin sends everyone away when she thinks her new hairstyle makes her look old and falls into a funk. Cheryl Barker sings touchingly the prophetic song about losing Octavian’s love. The curtain falls on this tone of depression and apprehension.

Octavian delivers the silver rose. Photo: Opera Australia.

Act II is set in the nouveau-riche Herr von Faninal’s McPalace where Octavian must present the traditional silver rose to Ochs’ fiancée, Faninal’s daughter Sophie. The room is a massive hallway devoid of furniture except for a few stiff chairs where Faninal apparently does his entertaining too. The floor is black marble and the walls are blood red with the front halves of gilt ionic columns either side of the doorways. Octavian enters resplendent in his silver suit. Emma Pearson had a loud strong voice but it sounded a little harsh on one or two of the loudest notes. She clearly conveyed Sophie’s anticipation of the ceremony and first meeting with her fiancé, and deliberate piousness. In her conversation with Octavian after she receives the rose but before Ochs’ arrival, which is private except for the Duenna’s presence, Sophie’s stiff piousness, which seemed more a form of social nervousness, disappeared and she had chemistry with Octavian.

Ochs then interrupts again as just as Octavian realises he’s falling in love. Ochs’ boorishness is softened only by his vile rabble of lackeys, all his illegitimate sons, who chase the household’s maids across the stage. Octavian tries to force them out, but after Ochs manages to prick himself on Octavian’s sword, the Baron finally shows himself as a really pathetic character behind his lecherous persona. He is a ridiculous, blubbering, neurasthenic lump, nursing his minor wound while his lackeys hinder more than help the doctor who tries to give aid. Octavian, though at first he seems he would rather finish off Ochs for good in one fell swoop, decides to try a more deft solution.

This solution is brought off in Act III and shows Octavian at his most knightly. As Mariandel, he agrees to a secret tryst with Ochs in a private room at an inn outside the city. The confusion in Ochs’ mind through the first two acts — his homophobic fear of seeing “Mariandel’s” face, an object of his lust, in Octavian’s and vice versa, his wounding by Octavian’s sword and his own clumsiness, his frustration with the Marschallin’s lawyer all comes to a head when he is confronted by Octavian’s simulated delirium tremens. As Ochs tries to insinuate himself into Mariandel’s affections, a little impish boy in a doublet, wig and waistcoat appears out of nowhere. Eventually more imps run out to surround Ochs, making thrusting motions with their arms, then Annina storms in pretending to be Ochs’ wife with a crowd of his fictitious children piping “papa! papa!” Then a window opposite the bed opens to reveal a crowd of strangers wearing creepy Viennese masks, not out of place in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Sophie and Faninal arrive with the police to witness Ochs’ behaviour. This charade doesn’t really drive repentance out of Ochs but it does serve to scare him into leaving our heroes alone, presumably for a good long time. In fact, the Baron retains some confidence and doesn’t really become afraid until the policeman threatens to arrest him.

The scene ends when the Marschallin herself enters, serene and dignified, though not invited since her entrance surprises Octavian as much as anyone. He is a little embarrassed too, since he refused to believe the Marschallin’s prophecy in Act I, and this comes across in a touching way in Corby’s acting. In this way, Octavian unexpectedly catches himself out by his own charade and shows he still has affection for the Marschallin even while he is deeply in love with Sophie. Perhaps he realises love is not finite and linear to be divvied out between a certain number of people like a birthday cake. Pearson here is rather stiff, as she was in the beginning of Act II, and Carby and Barker take on rather stiff poses too, though they sing the lovely trio and duet well. The scenery for these ensembles is very stark, the innkeeper having cleared away dinner, the bed and all the furnishings in the room leaving a plain grey box lit with a cold bright white light.

The three leave together in the Marschallin’s carriage, which appears behind the folding back wall of the set. the Marschallin is resigned to the situation which she foresaw and her conflict is never really resolved. On the other hand, Sophie and Octavian leave with some feeling of a happy future.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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