Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Strauss's Marschallin: the role of a lifetime

In a recent issue of Gramophone, David Patrick Stearns ponders the ideal recording of Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss's most popular opera. I was reminded that we have a wonderful  Rosenkavalier on DVD for the price of an intermission glass of bubbly. It's a modern-day production that serves the opera beautifully, and it boasts a striking Marschallin who has made quite a name for herself in the role. The Wall Street Journal enthused about Anne Schwanewilms (right) in a revival of this DVD's production, which eschews the furbelows and extravagances of the typical 18th-century setting:
Strauss's opera has also enjoyed a happy flight of success since it premiered in 1911. The reasons for its mostly undiminished popularity are as varied as they are obvious. Its music is astonishingly light and yet sophisticated; its plot abounds with comic charms and farcical twists. Hugo von Hofmannsthal's inventive libretto, rich in parody and clever use of anachronism, brings us a half-real, half-imagined 18th-century Vienna: the perfect backdrop to a work that meditates on the passage of time. In keeping with the nostalgic theme, the Teatro Real in Madrid has opted to revive a 1995 version of the opera conceived by the late German director Herbert Wernicke. The mainstay of this vision is a stunning, mirrored set that bathes the stage in the multiple reflections of the characters as they stand before us. The aristocratic Marschallin, played by the riveting German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, is virtually unrivaled in this production.
Much of the first act of Der Rosenkavalier takes place in and around the Marschallin's bed, with she and her young lover Octavian (a trouser role)
"Because the three leading female roles can often be sung by the same voice," writes Stearns, "sopranos often cycle from one character to another, starting with Sophie, the soubrette nouveau-riche bride being sentenced to marriage with the loutish Baron Ochs, and then transitioning into her rescuer, the young (usually mezzo-soprano) nobleman Octavian. The destination role is the Marschallin, fast ageing in her own eyes, who wistfully relinquishes her illicit affair with Octavian. The cathartic Act 3 trio, in which all three characters enter different stages of their lives, has been described by Dame Judi Dench as one of the most perfect stage moments ever conceived."
Kiri Te Kanawa (featured as Dame Nellie Melba in Season 4, Episode 3 of Downton Abbey) sang her last opera at the Cologne Opera in Germany. She played the Marschallin, a signature role. (You can hear her Verdi/Puccini in this classic recording.)
Gramophone's Stearns had this to say about Te Kanawa's Der Rosenkavalier on screen:
"Te Kanawa’s reputation as a vocally lustrous but bland Marschallin is put to rest by Covent Garden’s John Schlesinger production under Solti, and not just because she delivers real tears. She’s a more assured screen presence for James Levine at the Met, enjoying great chemistry with Troyanos’s ebullient Octavian and building her Act 1 crisis with skill. And Fanfare's reviewer wrote, "No one has ever looked and acted more the Marschallin than Kiri Te Kanawa." This Met production also starred Judith Blegen as Sophie, Kurt Moll as Baron Ochs, and Luciano Pavarotti (as the Italian tenor who serenades the crowd in the Marschallin's boudoir in Act I).
The Met's 1982 Rosenkavalier (© Al Hirschfeld foundation)
Below are some snippets of the Schwanewilms DVD, including some of the ecstatic final trio.

See more opera and classical vocals here.


  1. Please give me tips on how not to get bored during an opera. My family is a big fan of hers but I just can not contain my boredom when I am there with them, It might be my young blood I guess.

  2. Thanks for sharing the interesting video. It is really fun to watch it. I love to see such interesting stuff when ever i feel like bored.