Sunday, 19 April 2015
Baden-Baden bei Wien
Unless you're familiar with both places, the title may need some explanation. Baden-Baden, Dostoyevsky's 'Roulettenburg' and I guess not awfully changed since then (more on that in the next post), nestles in a valley on the fringes of the Black Forest. Baden bei Wien is a rather sweeter, resolutely old fashioned spa town a tram ride from Vienna. And Vienna, of course, is the location for Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier, not that you'd really have known it from Brigitte Fassbaender's production at Baden-Baden Festspielhaus. Erich Wonder's first backdrop, which I thought might be showing Dubai without the sea from a luxury penthouse, apparently references a view you can get from a high-rise hotel some way from Vienna's inner Ring.
We based a whole Easter jaunt to Germany around Freund Peter Rose's invitation - there he is above the morning after the show we saw at an outside table of Baden-Baden's Cafe König - to go and see his Ochs for the umpteenth time (always welcome, since he is now - fairly unarguably, I'd have thought - the world's best). With Anja Harteros and Anna Prohaska in the cast more of an enticement than Sir Simon Rattle, his Lady - Magdalena Kožená, improbably cast as Octavian - and the Berlin Phil, it sounded like a good opportunity. The idea was to continue with walking expeditions in the Black Forest, but an invitation from the Thuringia Bach Festival changed all that and turned it all into a very wonderful busman's holiday (fortunately the indulgent diplo-mate found it so too, despite initial misgivings).
Not that this Rosenkavalier, for all its many passing pleasures, was the highlight (Strauss yields to Bach done at the highest level). For a start, the Festspielhaus is a bit of a monster. Sure, Baden-Baden's main theatre, originally a thousand-seater with a too-small orchestra pit as Berlioz found when he inaugurated it conducting his specially-commissioned Béatrice et Bénédict in 1862 - would now be inadequate for many of the operas put on by the Festival (the theatre company was performing a version of Berlin Alexanderplatz there which I'd love to have seen had there been more time). But it's a much more attractive option.
The Festspielhaus, a 2500 seater swaggering as the biggest in Germany, opened in 1998 and funded by a club of 300 of Germany's richest citizens, has the facade of Baden-Baden's grand old station (the present one is way to the north). Sure, the station building itself is handsome and the ticket hall now functions with the same guichets that used to sell railways tickets.
But once you get into the theatre, you feel a million miles away from the action, and the singers, too, are dwarfed by the sheer height of the interior (second only to the ghastly Bastille home of the Paris Opera). We were in row 12 of the Parterre, with tons of leg room - always welcome - but felt detached from the action the minute the curtain rose. Even the Berlin Phil, which started with a horn blooper and ended Act One with a flat high note from the solo violin, didn't exactly sound opulent, though there was a certain fullness and the action music of Act Two seemed to come off best: Rattle's attention to detail paid off there. But the orchestra hasn't played this score since Karajan's time - which means most of them haven't played it at all before - and clearly needed more time on it. First of the production photos below shows the orchestra on stage. They're all, I think, by Monika Rittershaus, seemingly the official photographer; I applied to the press office for images but never heard back.
As in the last Royal Opera production, only the Ochs and the Sophie passed their tests with flying colours. Peter's characterisation, always beautifully sung especially in the upper register, has relaxed so much over the years, and casual dress seemed to put him even more at his ease. Anna Prohaska is another stage animal, proving - as have Marie Arnet, Lucy Crowe and Lisa Milne before her - that Sophie is no generic pushover. Here she is with Kožená in the duet following the trio.
I thought Harteros would be another great Marschallin of our times to set alongside Martina Serafin in Vienna and the most gracious lady of them all, Anne Schwanewilms, whom we saw in Dresden, also courtesy of Peter, and will never forget (can't bear Fleming's over-larded interpretation, never could; though it now sounds like I should see the wonderful Krasimira Stoyanova in the role - the DVD of Harry Kupfer's Salzburg production is now out).
Yet Harteros didn't seem to know what tone to adopt. Way too much hair-fiddling in the opening scene, nothing inward about the first monologue (apparently it was her idea to have the Notary with her for the start, since she thought she had to address 'Da geht er hin' to someone onstage). A gorgeous physical presence, of course, and how she opened up to golden tone, especially in the Trio - but then I (and J too) kind of wished we were hearing her Verdi again. This is possibly the only time I've not been remotely touched by the closing scene of Act One.
The other blames lie there with Rattle's uncertain tempo relations and above all with Kožená's young blade. Not nearly as grim as I was expecting, and her dreadful habit of throwing her head back for top notes that don't really come out very fully could be ascribed to the impetuousness and exaggeration of the young man. Yet it was so apparent that this is a voice not in the same league as those of Harteros, Prohaska and Rose, and the 'take my wife' thing has never seemed quite right to me*. Quality there undoubtedly was from Irmgard Vilsmaier's ever-striking Duenna, an unusually strapping Faninal in Clemens Unterreiner and of course from Laurence Brownlee's Italian tenor.
Excellent Valzacchi and Annina, too, from Stefan Margita (I thought he was more a Helden- than a light tenor) and Carole Wilson. Their visual gags were the funniest, among several which had to do more with the wacky costume designer, Dietrich von Grebmer, than with Fassbaender, who claimed she had no concept at the start, and it showed: plenty of interesting ideas, but none of them properly followed through. Our intriguers started as cross dressers. Then for the 'Ecco!' scene they had swapped striped suit and old-lady pink, only to both appear as 'ladeez' for the Letter Scene. I did find that funny. And I loved the Leopold, Ochs's illegitimate son, as a teenager on rollerblades (again, von Grebmer's idea and again, he could have been developed by Fassbaender as far more of a character, though the gag of Ochs sending him off for takeaway pizza when our Baron rejected the inn's expensive fare was a good one).
The photos actually make it all look rather handsome; in the theatre, it seemed cheap and nasty. One spent far too much time working out what Wonder's projections were supposed to be or to mean, and the idea of people doing long entrances back and forth at the back messed up the privacies of Act One.
The Presentation of the Rose was blown by having us see Octavian raised on a pedestal before he makes his entrance among people who've been working on sewing-machines (Faninal wouldn't mess up business with show). Pointless business, too, with producing the silver rose from a bunch of real flowers.
In Act Three, quite apart from the fact that there were way too many people piling on stage (the chorus need be no more than a dozen), Peter was left repeating business to fill gaps where Fassbaender hadn't really thought of anything. And the stupid thing is that Hofmannsthal hands it to the director on a plate. If you throw most of his stage directions out, you have to find stuff that's equally convincing, as did Richard Jones at Glyndebourne. Above all, I kept wishing this was a Glyndebourne-sized experience instead of vacuity in a barn. Won't be going back to this Festspielhaus again, however extraordinary the cast. But still, we had a fun time in Baden-Baden the day after the show, cafe-hopping with Peter and Martin Snell (the Notary, interesting chap who lives in Lucerne).
It's been a driven week since our return, with way too much of me on The Arts Desk starting with the Bach festival writeup, hitting a dud of supposedly radical music-theatre on Tuesday and then soaring with Gypsy (the unsurpassable Imelda Staunton in one of Johan Persson's production shots above), Cheek by Jowl's harrowing Measure for Measure and Sasha Regan's hysterically funny but also very disciplined all-male The Pirates of Penzance (group shot below by Kay Young). And then yesterday we caught the tail-end of dearly beloved old rock and roller Paul Beecham's 70th birthday party, with the master at the turntable and many of his old cronies reunited.
Anyway, the London summer season is on a real roll now, with too many good things to resist. Back to school tomorrow with the first Opera in Depth class of the summer term, on Guillaume Tell. I've just read the Schiller play and it's a masterpiece - way better than the libretto for Rossini's opera. But that will furnish plenty of musical riches.
*Worse - she's going to sing the Angel in The Dream of Gerontius at the Proms, with Sir Si conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. How could he, when he's worked with Dame Janet? One to miss.