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Eine Wienerische Maskerad’ und weiter nichts (A Viennese Masquerade and Nothing More)

Grand Théâtre
12/13/2023 -  & December 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26, 2023
Richard Strauss : Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59
Maria Bengtsson (Marschallin), Michèle Losier (Octavian), Mélissa Petit (Sophie), Matthew Rose*/Wilhelm Schwinghammer (Ochs), Bo Skovhus (Faninal), Omar Mancini (Italian tenor), Thomas Blondette (Valzacchi), Ezgi Kutlu (Annina), Giulia Bolcato (Marianne Leitmetzerin), Stanislav Vorobyov (Police commissioner), Louis Zaitoun (Marschallin’s majordomo), Marin Yonchev (Faninal’s majordomo), William Meinert (Notary), Denzil Delaere (Innkeeper)
Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Alan Woodbridge (chorus master), Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Jonathan Nott (conductor)
Christoph Waltz (stage director), Annette Murschetz (sets), Carla Teti (costumes), Frank Evin (lighting)

(© Magali Dougados)

A truly exceptional production with an ideal cast is a rare occurrence in opera, especially when the work is Der Rosenkavalier. For once, the four leading roles–Octavian, the Marschallin, Sophie & Baron Ochs–were uniformly top‑notch both vocally and dramatically. However, the outstanding element here is its staging. It’s rare that a stage director truly understands the essence of a work. Only then can innovations such as the transportation of the epoch be achieved. Enter Christoph Waltz, the acclaimed actor who’s worked with such cinematic giants as Polanski, Tarantino and Woody Allen, and who once had aspirations to be an opera singer.

It took this Viennese man to grasp the minutiae of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s brilliant libretto, which is a match for Richard Strauss’s glorious score. Von Hofmannsthal is one of the greatest twentieth century poets and authors of the German language, and Der Rosenkavalier works at a basic level and also at several higher planes. Upon scrutiny, his nuanced text successively reveals more intricacies as the drama unfolds. It takes a person of great culture to understand the historical and societal contexts of the opera to effectively reveal its nuances.

Der Rosenkavalier premiered in 1911, three years before the start of WWI which effectively erased the venerable Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Hapsburg dynasty. The Empire was in its twilight since its defeat by an ascending Prussia in 1866. The years between 1867 and 1914 were particularly fertile ones in terms of artistic creativity. Vienna was the stage where seminal elements of Western modernity were born, in music (Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Berg,); in painting (Klimt, Kokoschka); psychology (Freud); philosophy (Wittgenstein); literature (Zweig, Schnitzler); and in witticism (Karl Kraus). Welcoming, timelessly seductive, secular and cosmopolitan, Vienna was the ideal setting for such innovation.

Der Rosenkavalier is set in the era of Empress Maria Theresa as an homage to a once glorious Empire. However, it’s also a biting critique of the rigid hierarchy of an aristocratic class that didn’t easily adapt to the effervescence of a now increasingly multiethnic Vienna. Both in Der Rosenkavalier and in Arabella, his subsequent collaboration with Strauss, Hofmannsthal evokes the ethnicities that comprised Vienna and the Empire, and this, in sharp contrast to its homogeneously German rival Prussia. Octavian, Count Rofrano, is in all likelihood Italian. Intriguer Valzacchi and his niece are certainly Italian. Baron Ochs, the Marschallin’s country cousin, hails from Carinthia, on the border with Slovenia. Her husband, the Feldmarschall, is away from Vienna hunting game in the Croatian woods (actually in Vojvodina, in present day Serbia).

Waltz’s astutely imaginative conception of the opera’s characters was well-conceived. Case in point, his directions to British bass Matthew Rose enabled the singer to embody the psychological intricacies of the nobility, especially the land‑rich and cash‑poor nobility. It was near miraculous that a non‑Austrian would so ably convey the nuances of this class’s self-entitlement, their perception of society at large and within it, their respective roles. Perhaps it takes a Brit, with that country’s unique hierarchical social system and class codes, to understand these subtleties. Further enhancing his performance, Rose’s diction was impeccably Austrian, with his commanding stature matched by his sonorously authoritative bass.

Rose was the virtual incarnation of Baron Ochs, uncouth yet supercilious due to his station of birth. Supporting him is rich merchant Faninal, with his grotesque obsequiousness and unctuous servility. His readiness to offer his daughter in marriage in return for ingratiating him with the aristocracy is even more revolting.

It was disarming to see Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, a heartthrob leading man two decades ago, as an old Faninal. It connected seamlessly to the primary theme of the opera: the passage of time and the necessity of accepting it. As the Marschallin tells Octavian “Heut oder morgen oder den übernächsten Tag... Leicht muss man sein, mit leichtem Herz und leichten Händen halten und nehmen, halten und lassen... Die nicht so sind, die straft das Leben, und Gott erbarmt sich ihrer nicht.”

What is truly novel in Christoph Waltz’s staging is his partial anachronism. Act I seemed to take place in the 1740s, as written by von Hofmannsthal, with the period’s sets and procession of tradespeople in the Marschallin’s private chambers selling their wares. Each character, from the pet seller to the dressmaker, as well as the sartorial aspect of the Italian singer, Louis XIV‑style, evoked the reign of Maria Theresa.

In Act II, Sophie was surprisingly dressed in 1950s style. Marianne Leitmetzerin, her duenna or chaperone, looks to be merely her dad’s secretary, familiar enough to be a friend. Yet Octavian then arrived with the distinctly eighteenth century silver costume and the box with the silver rose. Likewise, Baron Ochs and his shabby valets were in eighteenth century garb. Why the anachronism? I believe Christoph Waltz wants to convey a biting message: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Society changes, titles might be gone but humanity seems to crave hierarchy and even reinvent it. Faninal’s household represents social change and the empowerment of a mercantile class in contrast to an increasingly sclerotic aristocracy.

In Act III, we’re again transported, this time to the 1740s. The chambre séparée in the inn is astutely designed. Instead of the usual hidden windows, the entire back wall is composed of panels, which open when Baron Ochs is caught in flagrante delicto with Octavian, dressed up as the Marschallin’s chambermaid. The entire staff witness the scandalous act, to intensify its gravity.

During Act III’s glorious trio, Frank Evin’s lighting was magnificent. Using different shading behind and in front of the panel, he created a shadow theatre. Valzacchi and his niece were surreptitiously watching, adding to the scene’s intensity, perhaps being transformed themselves (see the penultimate sentence below).

This production was Christoph Waltz’s reworking of his own previous staging of the opera, produced in 2013 for Antwerp’s Vlaamse Opera, with the same Marschallin, Maria Bengtsson. One can understand his motivation for choosing her again, as she would have been arguably too young for it a decade ago. But happily the Swedish soprano is exceptionally well‑suited for the role at this stage of her career, exuding finesse and natural elegance à la Grace Kelly. Her lyric soprano was perfect for a role which lies mostly in the middle register. The timbre of Bengtsson’s voice was superbly distinct and easily recognizablea rare quality indeed. She’s able to express myriad emotions using only her gaze and her delicate movements. In Act III, her surveying of Octavian and Sophie evoked even more than what was contained in Hofmannsthal’s magnificent text. Her Act I monologue “Da geht er hin... Die Zeit ist ein sonderbar Ding” was a veritable masterclass in expressiveness, and her impeccable diction spellbindingly evoked her aristocratic stature.

Canadian Michèle Losier was an ideal Octavian, convincingly conveying the posture and demeanour of a young man. Her light but warm mezzo here was exactly appropriate for the Strauss and Mozart trouser roles in which she excels. She was well‑matched with Mélissa Petit as Sophie, with her light lyric soprano contrasting well with Losier’s mezzo. Their Act II duet, the presentation of the rose (“Mir ist der widerfahren”,) was truly a moment of grace, as Sophie appropriately says “Wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie Rosen vom hochheiligen Paradies. Ist Ihm nicht auch?” Petit’s high notes were brilliant, seeming to reach the heavens.

The smaller roles were meticulously cast. Omar Mancini’s Italian tenor was first‑rate, with a beautiful timbre and eloquent phrasing. His Act I aria, “Di rigori armato,” was lovely and appropriately evocative. The baroque Italian text was no haphazard choice. Valzacchi and Annina were paragons of villainy. Turkish mezzo Ezgi Kutlu is endowed with a seductive velvety mezzo, almost too grand to play Annina, a character role. The non‑singing role of Mohammed, the Marschallin’s young black valet, was played by a girl, possibly as an aggiornamento. Interestingly, the handkerchief that the Marschallin drops in the third act is supposed to be picked up by Mohammed at the end of the opera. Here, the inn’s servants amiably fight over it, but it ends in the hands of Valzacchi and his “niece,” a mysterious allusion meant to remain unresolved.

The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande sounded glorious under the baton of Jonathan Nott. The nuances of the presentation of the rose in Act II were tenderly accentuated. The orchestra sounded appropriately boisterous in the scenes where Baron Ochs is irate or caught off balance.

In Christoph Waltz, Geneva’s Grand Théâtre has struck gold. Famous worldwide for leading roles in Polanski’s Carnage, Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and most recently Woody Allen’s Rifkin’s Festival, Waltz is also an astute and gifted stage director, as seen in this production. Opera craves innovation, and revisiting the great repertoire requires the director to be intelligent, creative and knowledgeable of the intricacies of time and place. May Geneva continue to grace the opera world with productions of this calibre, helmed by directors with a vision and intelligence as sublime as Herr Waltz.

Ossama el Naggar



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