[Early summer Vienna street scene/Early summer Vienna sheet scene: “Rosenkavalier” at the Staatsoper. – Daniela Sindram (Octavian) and Dorothea Röschmann (Marschallin) in Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier”, Vienna/Staatsoper, 2016.]
I’m having a very Marschallin week: old favorites in old favorites, and acutely feeling the passage of time, despite still feeling so close to the person I was twenty years ago: wo ich doch immer die gleiche bin.
The current revival of the old, old, old Schenk production of the “Rosenkavalier” is a mere three nights, grouped around Dorothea Röschmann’s Vienna debut as Marschallin. And the strong points of the evening are indeed the Marschallin, and the Octavian.
There could have, should have, been more strong points. And I am taking issue in general with the Vienna Staatsoper attitude of not taking care that well of repertory, or only of selected parts of repertory.
The evening – both in the pit and on stage – had bits that were unnecessarily lackluster, like flower beds that lack weeding. It’s a complacent negligence that annoys me to no end. And the infuriating thing is that you are acutely aware that this *could* have been much better. I am guessing that there was little to no rehearsal time, again, and I know that the Philharmoniker can likely play “Rosenkavalier” in their sleep, but it came out a mixed bag. Some parts of the evening shimmered – the trio was outstanding, as was the floating piano quality of the final duet, and there were a few nice touches with rubati and orchestral color throughout. The Presentation of the Rose could have used some more ooomph and some more aaaaah from the pit (Adam Fischer conducted; far better than the recent “Tito” we will never speak of again, but still, if you’ve heard this season’s incredible “Jenufa” under Metzmacher, where everything was tight and alert and sharp and so incredibly alive, it simply won’t cut it). And there were two or three glissandi where I thought, “Okay, we *are* in Vienna, but even for Vienna, this is a bit much.”
I continue to be highly aggravated by the house politics of “Let’s cater to the stars traveling through and make sure no one can upstage them”. That is a disservice to everyone involved, including the “stars” (if you want to set apart singer colleagues that way) because people work off each other’s energy and inspire and challenge each other. That is how growth happens. That is how art moves from a pleasant thing to look at or listen to to a breathtaking experience shared. And how is that supposed to happen if you purposefully dim the lights? It will always be less bright than it could have been that way. And that, to me, is detrimental to what art is about.
I don’t mean “buy all-stars casts”. I mean “moderately sufficient rehearsal time” and “support and challenges for ensemble singers” and an attitude of “let’s create something magical together”. — Being in the arts is one of the toughest jobs imaginable. It is also one of the the greatest gifts, to the self and to others, and we all have a responsibility to respect this space, from those who open their mouths to sing to those who should not open them to cough or whisper.
For me – not necessarily linked to an increasingly secular culture, although it is interesting how that singles out art as transformative, in the absence of religion – this space is sacred. Performance, at the core, stems from the realm of the sacred, and it requires humbleness (which doesn’t mean I don’t condone mad pride on the performers’s side – crush me underneath the boot of your abilities, by all means, but kneel before your art!). And if that dedication is lacking anywhere, I am miffed.
(And, yes, I am also thinking of the upcoming Vienna “Alcina”, and I cross my fingers for sufficient rehearsal time and for Minkowski bringing his own band, because what’s the point of hiring a stellar singer-actress as the lead if you don’t give her, and everyone else involved, a matching environment? It’s like saying “nah, we’re happy with 70%, why go for a 100%?” and I find that to be an insult for people who give a 120% to their craft and to their audiences.)
Back to this “Rosenkavalier”: The Otto Schenk production is, by now, legendary for its datedness and I was greatful for a seat on the balcony as to not end up in a dust cloud when the curtain rose. The cutesy and uncontrolled overacting in the léver and at the Beisl was enough to make me wince, but overall, the staging is more unobtrusive than the pretty much parallel one by Rose in Munich (which looks even more dated in comparison) and didn’t cause much jarring. The production has – and this links back to the recent singing-acting post – mellowed out over the years, and now lives from the people traveling through and filling it with life to their abilities.
Of course this carries the risk of people being self-complacent, often not even really due to a lack of abilities, but due to not being challenged. And in that sense, I’d like to single out last night’s Annina (Ulrike Helzel), who stood out among the smaller parts. Helzel’s portrayal was fresh, engaging, sharp and a pleasure to watch.
Among the leads, the strongest performances came from Dorothea Röschmann (Marschallin) and Daniela Sindram (Octavian), which is perhaps why the beginning and the end of the First Act worked particularly well and offered the most layered and intriguing takes.
This is, as mentioned above, Röschmann’s Vienna debut as Marschallin. I don’t know how much she has sung the Marschallin overall already, but her handling of the score still feels very fresh, a performer woundrously and joyfully walking through the many facets of this role and trying them out to see what will fit her best. From her energy, Röschmann is as far away from Schwarzkopf as one can get, and I mean that – although I do enjoy Schwarzkopf, most of the time – as a compliment: Röschmann does not have an elegant uniform color, nor does she strive for it. She throws herself into different aspects, into a whole palette of colors. There is no elegiac melancholy here: this is a Marschallin with her sleeves rolled up, not hiding behind a smooth wall of poise, but feeling passionately and acutely.
At some moments, it shows that Röschmann is only getting started on her Marschallin career. E.g. one would wish for more acting around Ochs’ ‘seduction’ tales in Act 1 because if one character on stage has game in that moment, it is Marie-Theres’ Werdenberg
(you can keep your verteidigende Erfahrungen, thank you very much, that bed right over there has seen more quality last night than your barns ever will, Bichette out.). And I am looking forward to seeing Röschmann explore more facets of this character in the future. Already, her Marschallin is very human, one who will laugh out loud and without reserve at Octavian’s antics, who will visibly wrestle with herself faced with Sophie, and who will not gently withdraw her hand in that famous last moment with Octavian after the trio, but pull it away with a bit more drive.
In the first scene, when birds and daylight threaten to interrupt, you don’t have a tepid Marschallin draped across the bed in passivity: When Octavian first lifts his head at the twittering birds, a hand comes up around his neck, deftly pulling him back down to things that matter. It is small moments like this one that make this particular Marschallin come to live vibrantly.
Röschmann delivers a well-rounded, three-dimensional performance and in the end steps out for her solo curtain with relief and exhaustion, radiating joy. And after last night, I want to hear her sing this again.
The same holds true for Daniela Sindram, though I do not know how many more times I will have the pleasure of listening to her Octavian. She first sang the part in Vienna in 2006; she has sung it everywhere in recent years from Munich to the MET and Paris. And while Sindram is not terribly famous, this might well be her core piece, and she would deserve far more fame for it.
Sindram and Röschmann play off each other well, which is starkly highlighted by the final Third Act duet between Sophie and Octavian, which was beautifully sung, but scenically reserved (e.g. if you compare it to the 1994 filming of this production, where we all swoon along with Bonney). I do not lay this on Sindram, who is a committed actress and delivers a very touching First Act. There is not awkward or delicate skirting of issues (or skirts) there, as so often happens in stagings of The First Scene. In between Röschmann and Sindram, the action flows with such unapologetic ease that one can actually focus on the age that is discussed here, and not on gender.
Sindram’s Octavian is young, impulsive, yet tender – not really an abrasive hothead, and I found her portrayal imbued with more sensitivity than I remembered.
To frame this, we need to head back 17 years (and two months, give or take), when, by chance, I heard Sindram’s first Octavian. Or perhaps we need to head back a full twenty years, to an awkward teenager, visiting relatives away from home and catching some lesser-known work at a lesser-known opera house with a not-yet-at-all known singer whose diploma ink hadn’t even dried yet.
That teenager hadn’t read La vita nuova yet: after that night, there was no more need for it. That young singer didn’t really think much of Strauss yet, but that night already pointed ahead.
And here we are, in Vienna, twenty years later. Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.
Sindram’s Octavian has a gentleness that is very becoming; she keeps it remarkably free of self-indulgence. Vocally, she is at the top of her game. The lower middle range shows perhaps a bit less sheer suppleness than a decade or two ago, and there is a tad more heaviness, more brocade than silk, that corresponds with her expansion into Wagner repertory in the last few years. The richest palette of colors remains at display in the upper middle range “i” sounds – looking at you, wie du bist! – that are burnished, velvety, of radiant warmth: moments in which all the mezzo stars align. Her timbre blends well with the earthier tones of Röschmann, but also with the Sophie of Chen Reiss, who remained somewhat diffuse in color in comparison.
Sindram also acts very well, without put-on swagger (save for the moments in Mariandel’s skirts). Her Octavian comes across relatable and natural in his motivations, with an effortless kind of grace that makes the dusty set appear far fresher than it is. Her experience in the part shows, also when she is delivering a hilariously overdone Beisl sequence together with Kurt Rydl’s utterly seasoned Ochs (who moves through the evening with remarkable presence, though more on experience than on material): Here we have singers with a wealth of knowledge in these very parts who push at those characters’ seams, which is far more interesting to watch than self-contended restriction.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Sindram continues to inhabit the part with dashing good looks. She does not come across as boyish as much as with an easy upper-class masculinity, youthful in a timeless manner. And apropos timeless: When she walks in after the time monologue in that brown-frocked riding costume, my heart still skips a beat.
Last night, I was seated among a school class of actual 17-year-olds, pimples and prebound bowties and prom dresses, who nervously slid around in their seats and then were all atwitter when, during the first scene, Octavian climbed back onto the bed, astride its soprano inhabitant, no holds barred.
And I remembered myself, twenty years ago, agape, and it was another very Marschallin moment.
I would say Sindram’s Octavian has gotten even better with age (and at some points, I still swoon just the same. – Well, I *do* have a pulse. Though likely I could be dead and would rise from the grave at the sight of that late First Act riding costume and “will sie sich traurig machen mit Gewalt” because hot damn).
Only in the Second Act, at seeing Octavian march up the stairs, silver rose in hand, I realized that the last time I saw this very silver frock, it had been on Anne Sofie von Otter, in 1994 (later committed to DVD). My favorites are coalescing into one another this week… And has is really been more than 20 years since that legendary Kleiber performance? But it cannot be, it is still so fresh in my mind! But it is so, for I also see all the years lived since then (I heard current-day von Otter two days before this!).
There was surprisingly lively applause from a packed house at the end last night, likely mostly due to two very engaging lead portrayals. And, of course, the local champions were duly celebrated.
In walking out, I found myself sighing along with Röschmann, smiling with a tear in my eye and turning a precious memory in my grasp: that of twenty years ago, and that of mere minutes ago, devastated by the knowledge that a moment has irrevocably passed and is slipping away, yet so immensely grateful for having lived it.