Sunday, 1 March 2015

Semperoper Dresden: Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra

[From OPERA, March 2015, pp. 328-9]

The Semperoper’s Strauss-anniversary celebrations came full circle at the end of 2014 with the return, with a new cast, of Barbara Frey’s Elektra, with which it had all started in January. The main attraction, however, was a reprise of Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s 2000 production of Der Rosenkavalier, with Anja Harteros as the Marschallin and Christian Thielemann at the helm (seen on December 14). The production itself holds up well, placing the action in a contemporary setting but doing so with a light touch: paparazzi plague the ‘celebrities’ that the principal characters have now become; the Marschallin’s palace apparently has to be propped up financially by guided tours; Faninal’s residence becomes the penthouse of Trump Tower. There are a few unsuccessful touches, not least the staging of the Prelude (Strauss’s music here is not, it’s fair to say, depicting the act of frantic undressing), or having Mohammed indulgently pampered by the Marschallin. One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a much finer effort than Frey’s Elektra.

Musically, too, this Rosenkavalier showed the Semperoper at its very best, with the playing of the Staatskapelle reaching the highest levels of exquisitely relaxed virtuosity—a sort of supreme flexibility, of both tempo and texture, that reminded me of the playing of another Staatskapelle, Barenboim’s Berliners, at the 2013 Proms Ring. Thielemann’s tempo fluctuations could be, by any normal criteria, outrageous at times: the nearly ten seconds of silence before the Trio or the impetuous surging towards its climax, for example, or the way he lingeringly eased the orchestra back into its waltz at Baron Ochs’s ‘Ich wart’ auf Antwort’. But with the orchestra on such form, these moments were totally convincing, and with such a fine cast playing along, the overall effect was both beguiling and moving.

Harteros, in particular, benefited from the flexibility, and her Act 1 monologue was superb, all the more memorable for the way in which the production allowed her space to stalk the stage and command it fully. As already noted in these pages, the voice is not quite the silky, creamy stuff of Straussian dreams, but it has enough of those qualities as well as its own special beauty—a slight gauziness encasing a firm, powerful core—and is always employed with the greatest elegance and musicality. Similarly, her characterization is impeccably aristocratic, even a touch austere—dressed in black and white, she seemed to resemble a stern Spanish Habsburg, rather than a high-ranking subject of their Viennese cousins. 

Her Octavian was Sophie Koch, very much a staple in this role, but one whose commitment and vocal richness shouldn’t be taken for granted, even if her mezzo has lost some of its vibrant sheen and security. Christiane Karg’s Sophie was wonderful, a perky, sparky characterization matched by singing that spoke of very human vulnerability and sensuality rather than doll-like purity. I’m not sure I’ve heard a finer Trio: with help from the Semperoper’s glorious acoustic, all three voices managed to remain distinct while blending beautifully. Peter Rose was in fine voice as Ochs, and Adrian Eröd’s emphatic Faninal and Yosep Kang’s excellent Italian Tenor led a fine extended cast.

The fact that the evening belonged to Thielemann and his orchestra, though, was largely emphasized, I’m afraid to say, the following evening, when Peter Schneider took to the podium for Elektra, in the production that Thielemann had conducted with such fleet-footed ferocity at the beginning of the year. Schneider’s account was solid and unremarkable, and his cast seemed not to have had a great deal of rehearsal. Nonetheless, the performance was worth hearing, primarily for Elena Pankratova as Elektra. The Russian soprano had tackled the role in Bari earlier in the year and here showed that her voice, a remarkably powerful and beautiful instrument, smoothly produced across its range right up to a thrilling top, is up to the challenges of the role, even if the middle register felt occasionally under-projected. Dramatically her performance was routine, admittedly, but this would no doubt improve were she given more direction in a more interesting production; vocally, though, she is a
welcome addition to the relatively large number of fine Elektras on today’s scene.

Manuela Uhl sang a powerful, often exciting, sometimes sharp Chrysothemis. Jane Henschel showed that she’s still a formidable Klytemnestra, offering the polar opposite of Waltraud Meier’s understated and under-sung characterization in January. Markus Marquardt was a solid Orest, singing in a pleasingly grainy and powerful baritone.

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