Normally I would run a mile on reading the composer name Strauss on any programme – of course Richard Strauss is no Johann Strauss but for some reason I have negative associations with this name. On this occassion, however, another name caught my attention – Renee Fleming! I am so in awe of this woman – she is just brilliant. Sadly though I wasn’t able to get a ticket for one of her performances – nevertheless…
… I had my eyes set on seeing this production. Luck was on my side to get a ticket to one of the Insights hosted by Kasper Holten discussing this new production. That particular evening saw Renee Fleming, Andris Nelsons and Robert Carsen talking about the motivation and inspiration behind their roles and the production. Therefore I went rather well informed into this new opera.
Seated with the gods – ie the lower left slips I had prime view of the orchestra pit and the side wings and since I have had a sneak preview of the stage I didn’t mind too much not seeing all of the stage.
This new production is co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera (New York), Teatro Regio (Turin) and Teatro Colon (Buenos Aires). Robert Carsen decided to set it around 1911 when the opera originally premiered in Vienna. Whilst the stage set was kept relatively simple but powerful the costume department went all out! It surely was a spectacle for the eyes – it was very much how I would’ve have imagined Emperial Austria to be like – pompous uniforms and not everything is quite as it seems.
Though the Opera is titled as Comedy in Music for Three Acts there are some very poignant moments in there that leave you a little hanging. 100 years we of course have the hindsight of what was to come a mere 3 years after the opera premiered. So to have guns and heavy machinery being pushed around on the stage left you feeling a little uneasy. Having said that the beginning of the third act also showed the plunging depths of the society and I suppose it is not that surprising anymore to have rather a lot of human flesh on display in a scene depicting a house of questionable reputation. No half measure taken there at all! Some of the singers had perfected their Austrian accent that well that you could’ve imagined being in the gutters of Vienna.
The bed played a rather important role in the whole opera. Back in 1911 before the world premiere in Dresden the opening scene (Marschallin in the bed, Octavian holding her hand) caused quite a stir and they eventually settled on a slightly modified version. Carsen made sure that the bed wasn’t to be missed – a map was needed to find your way around it! Whilst nowadays the bedroom is probably one of the most intimate places the bedroom of the Marschallin was nothing like that – everybody would come to see her in there and with rather looming paintings of previous Feldmarschalls hanging on the walls – including Marie Theres’ husband – there certainly was no feeling of privacy there. It was a challenge to hide anything and this is how the whole comic situation came along.
The cast was spectacular. I won’t list them all (full list can be found on the roh.org.uk website) but will mention a few. Rachel Willis-Sorensen gave her first night as the Marschallin and she was exquisite! She did give a little taster during the Insights already and I was very much looking forward to seeing her perform the whole role. She is still a comparatively young singer (born 1984) but she is such a joy to listen to. Over the last few years she has started to make a name for herself internationally and no doubt will have a bright future ahead. Renee Fleming spoke about the role being quite a challening one due to the depth of the character and that every time she sings the role she will have a different interpretation and will learn something about herself it. Willis-Sorensen had such a presence on stage and portrayed this very complexe character of a torn woman beautifully.
Anna Stephany, playing Octavian, also had her first performance in this role and production. Her and Willis-Sorensen had an electric chemistry between them. Stephany is quite a petite lady and perfect for this boyish character – her acting was second the none – especially when it came to seducing Baron Ochs. Little lady like touches paired with sprawling like only a man can…
Matthew Rose, Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau, was a very convincing sleeky Austrian! His singing was outstanding and his interpretation of the Ochs was so good that I most certainly didn’t grow to like this character – though in the end he did get what he deserved for not keeping his hands to himself.
One thing though that I would like to mention that German really is tricky language to sing and to be understood by the audience! I am native German speaker and I still needed the English subtitles to help me really understand what was actually being said. The cast did their best, but even the likes of Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Valzacchi) and Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Herr von Faninal) were at time very difficult to understand.
It truly was a magnificent evening where all – music, costume, singing and stage setting – just came together for a unique opera experience. Having heard Carsens thoughts behind the whole staging did mean that I probably went in a little more thoughtful than I would’ve otherwise. The little hints here and there can easily be taken and put right in today. Though the opera is 100 years old there are surely a lot of parallels with what is going on in society nowadays. Maybe it might not be as obvious as written out by Hugo von Hofmannsthal but no doubt a similar story can be found anywhere in the world to this day. I guess mankind hasn’t changed at all in some respects…