Der Rosenkavalier - Staatsoper Stuttgart, 27 November 2009
You might think the last thing the lengthy Der Rosenkavalier needs is even more music, but Stefan Herheim cheekily pre-empts its prelude with disorientating electronica. In a star-pricked, lavishly draped boudoir, a fading Diana Dors figure contemplates her vanished looks in a dressing table mirror.
Just when I wondered if I'd come on the wrong night by mistake, she furiously thrust her fist through its mirror and Strauss's music began. Horned and hairy priapic satyrs erupt from a giant frieze depicting the rape of Europa. One Pan-like creature fashions a silver rose from the broken mirror shards. They ravish the Marschallin to the famous brassy calls until an Apollonian Octavian descends from the skies to rescue her from the clutches of Dionysian abandon.
This is, needless to say, not the usual comedy of manners - the opulent rococo costuming is deceptive. Herheim's Rosenkavalier employs the primal forms of myth and symbol to explore the Freudian world of unconscious desire revealed by dreams. The unfulfilled Marschallin, tied by social etiquette, seeks satisfaction of her innermost desires in the unbound and illogical realm of fantasy. In this ideal world, she doesn't even have to choose between sex and chocolate - the page boy Mohammed, revealed as another randy satyr, takes her from behind as he delivers her breakfast.
The action is played out beneath a giant version of the Marschallin's blue crinoline, and just to make that clear it's doubled in miniature puppet form in the first act. Sophie is the Marschallin's younger self, and Mariandel yet another side. The bull-horned and horny Ochs (Ochs is German for ox/bull) wreaks Dionysian disruption with his satyr servants and their flapping rubber genitals. The court too have an animal side, establishing character instantly and brilliantly. Faninal and Sophie's maid are preening poultry, the notary a poodle, Valzacchi and Annina a cockroach and a moth, and the servants turn round to reveal sheep's heads behind. The only creature which doesn't quite work is the occasionally interposed pun-too-far of Strauss himself as a pantomime ostrich (Strauss is German for ostrich).
Of course the opera is about more than the Marschallin. Strauss and Hofmannsthal viewed a Europe at the end of an era, on the brink of decay, mirrored in Ochs's unbridled excesses. The painting of the Rape of Europa hanging behind is a constant reminder. Can his third act lesson teach Ochs anything? Guillotined heads on poles and Annina's uniformed gas-masked children bear witness to the savageries of Europe's past and the still worse carnage yet to come. Ochs tries and fails to strangle 'Strauss' the panto ostrich like Rod Hull grappling with Emu (the mostly German audience sat straight faced, enraptured; I was dying). But he is ultimately defeated - the golden stars beneath the Marschallin's blue skirt are echoed in her triumphant final deus-ex-machina entry as the incarnation of Europa and the end of the panto nonsense. Ochs disappears into the skies, rocket-propelled, discharged to outer space.
As Sophie and Octavian are finally united, the Marschallin and Faninal join the audience in the boxes wearing everyday costume. Now it's Pan who's weeping as he stuffs his face with the mirror-rose he made, expiring bloody and writhing as the reactionary and sentimental emerge victorious. Herheim may love the opera, but he's disappointed in Strauss.
If all this makes it sound as if Herheim has replaced Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier with something of his own invention, nothing could be further from the truth. The action respects every turn of the music, and in many cases mimics it structurally. The most overt parody-waltzes are accompanied by knowing unison swaying. When it's time for the big numbers - the presentation of the rose, the final trio - he clears the stage and there's nothing to detract from clearly-presented motive and devastating emotional impact. The libretto may be used ingeniously, but it's never ignored. Neither is the emotional or physical direction that the music implies. Quite simply, it all rings true.
If there's one criticism which could be fairly levelled, it's that some of the smaller moments are not as touching as they might be. That's because Herheim chooses to expose the sentimentality rather than wallow in it - and it could be argued that because Strauss's sentimentality in Rosenkavalier is both conscious and intentional, it should be swallowed whole.
Manfred Honeck whipped up his excellent orchestra with an equal lack of saccharine fluff and a driving pace. Fantastically bold colouring, confidently varied dynamics and daring rubato complemented the hallucinatory visuals, detail swimming in and out of focus.
It's hard to pick a standout amongst the excellent cast, most of whom surpassed their bigger-name counterparts in the recent Covent Garden production. Mojca Erdmann was the only name I recognised. Her Sophie was beautifully-voiced though lacking in colour. Christiane Iven's blowsy Marschallin wasn't quite as elegant but she really held the stage, with even the second act scented by her presence. Marina Prudenskaja's darkly poised mezzo complemented a frighteningly convincing physical portrayal of Octavian, and she wasn't afraid to let rip and squawk her way through Mariandel. Lars Woldt's Ochs was strangely likeable despite his oafish excesses, and clearly a bumpkin (as the directions suggest) rather than a boor (as we usually get).
What a pity there were such a large number of technical problems on the night I visited. Curtains that wouldn't close, curtains that wouldn't open, drapes that snagged on ladders, failing lights, and assorted bumps, bangs and crashes all evening. It's a busy production that must make a lot of technical demands but these were basic issues.
***** more photos on next page *****