By ZACHARY WOOLFEAUG. 17, 2014
SALZBURG, Austria — Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” has arrived at the Salzburg Festival over the past 30 years with the regularity of a comet: 1984, 1995, 2004 and now 2014. Like clockwork, each decade has let us revisit this sprawling yet intimate opera, a paean to both nostalgia and transformation.
This year’s occasion is Strauss’s 150th birthday, and he can rest easy: There is nothing in Harry Kupfer’s new staging to send him rolling in his grave. Nor to roil an audience, even the tradition-minded one here in Austria, where this opera, which takes place in 18th-century Vienna, is revered as a birthright. Mr. Kupfer, a veteran director, treats the work with kid gloves.
Sometimes sleepy and sometimes arrestingly elegant, his is a calm, tasteful “Rosenkavalier.” It walks the same line between quiet charm on one hand, and conceptual and psychological mildness on the other, as this year’s production of Schubert’s “Fierrabras,” directed by another operatic stalwart, Peter Stein. If Mr. Kupfer and Mr. Stein were innovative enfants terribles in the 1970s and ’80s, they can now be counted on not to rock the boat.
Credit Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters
Updated to the Vienna of the early 20th century, on the cusp of Modernism, this “Rosenkavalier” is dominated by looming photographs of the city’s grand old buildings, symbols of a past — and the social structure it represents — that the opera depicts in the process of galvanic change. Spare arrangements of furniture — some neo-Classical, some Art Deco — move on slowly rotating treadmills, the ground literally shifting beneath everyone’s feet.
Within these unstintingly classy surroundings, the characterizations are standard issue, with the Marschallin perhaps slightly more circumspect than usual and Sophie (sung with a hard sliver of a soprano by Mojca Erdmann) a bit more headstrong. Their relationships are observed gently, even vaguely, but are nevertheless recognizable because they accord with tradition, like blurry photographs of people you know.
The mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch is an experienced Octavian, but her healthy voice has clouded over time, and her interactions with both the Marschallin and Sophie lacked spontaneity and intensity. While Günther Groissböck needs more plummy richness to fill out the depths of his smooth, articulate bass, he is an unusually young and agile Baron Ochs, a part often given to the overweight and over the hill: If only Mr. Kupfer had done more with this. Mr. Groissböck had some competition from the bass Tobias Kehrer, easily commanding in the small role of the Police Commissioner and, one can hope, an impressive future Ochs.
Best was the soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, singing her first Marschallin with silvery tone, sensitive dignity and eloquent German. The Marschallin’s great monologue at the end of Act I, reflecting on aging and the inexorable march of time, for once did not feel like a stand-alone number, sung in portentous italics.
It passed without particular notice, a tribute to Ms. Stoyanova’s subtlety, but also a telling moment in a performance that never quite rose to the emotional and musical climaxes, whether here in Act I, in the Presentation of the Rose in Act II or in the soaring trio and duet, mixing love and renunciation, with which the opera memorably ends.
For this, the conductor Franz Welser-Möst can be both praised and blamed. He led the Vienna Philharmonic in a sleek, coiled performance, astonishingly lucid in the opera’s prelude. But as with Mr. Kupfer’s production, there was a degree to which this account of the score, always tasteful, lacked fire and imaginative heft.