Munich’s Bavarian State Opera approached the final week of its summer opera festival with high anticipation for a selection of operas by celebrated hometown composer Richard Strauss. The first installment, Die Schweigsame Frau, sounded on a tragic note at its performance on July 22nd. As much of Europe suffered from a searing heat wave, conductor Stefan Soltész collapsed from a heart attack in the final minutes of the first act and was rushed to the hospital, where he later died. He thus joined the rarefied category of conductors who have died on the podium, as it were, a group that includes Felix Mottl, Joseph Keilberth (who coincidentally conducted the first German performances of Schweigsame Frau after World War II), Fausto Cleva, Giuseppe Patanè, and Giuseppe Sinopoli. The rest of the performance was cancelled, with refunds offered to the audience.
Judging from the first act, Strauss’s farce, based loosely on Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, or the Silent Woman, and with a chatty libretto by Stefan Zweig, had promise. The natural standout was the bass Franz Hawlata’s Sir Morosus, a retired naval captain with ear injuries who seeks the titular “silent woman” but is hilariously undone by his crafty nephew and his bohemian friends. The opera has never ranked high among Strauss’s works, which tend toward deft deliveries of more extreme situations and emotions, but the opera’s political context has imbued it with higher meaning.
Zweig, Strauss’s librettist, was Jewish. By the time of the opera’s premiere in 1935, he had already been driven into exile, where he later committed suicide. The association harmed Strauss, who refused to disavow him and consequently faced sharp criticism from the regime. Just after the premiere, he was forced to resign as president of the Reich Chamber of Music, a post he had accepted largely to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and half-Jewish grandsons and not, as the Nazi government found out by reading his mail, because he had any sympathy for the government. The opera had only three performances in Germany before it was banned and until after World War II could only be performed abroad. Productions occasionally appear out of political sympathy, but it is hard to image the opera holding the stage on its musical or dramatic merits any more than Strauss’s other lesser works, which are rarely performed. By coincidence, however, the Bard Music Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, also performed Schweigsame Frau on the same day as Munich’s ill-fated performance.
The outré Australian director Barrie Kosky designed this production in 2010, but it was his newer production of Strauss’s vastly more popular Der Rosenkavalier (1911) that commanded greater attention. Kosky had a steep hill to climb, for his new production, which premiered in March 2021, had the burden of replacing the legendary director Otto Schenk’s exquisitely traditional effort, which had been a beloved mainstay of the Bavarian State Opera’s repertoire for nearly 50 years.
Kosky is known for eccentric effects that can be inane or quickly grow tiresome, and there was no shortage of them here. Rosenkavalier dwells heavily on the inevitable passage of time. Its heroine, called the Marschallin, is a Viennese princess who was forced into an arranged marriage with an older man, a Field Marshal whom we never see. We meet her as she is aging out of a love affair with her ingenuous teenage cousin Octavian, who is charged with delivering a silver rose—a betrothal gift—to Sophie, the bourgeois fiancée of the Marschallin’s boorish country cousin Baron Ochs. A wise woman who knows the ways of the world and is conscious of her advancing years, the Marschallin is resigned to losing Octavian sooner or later. As we soon find out, she loses him to Sophie, who is horrified by Baron Ochs’s caddish conduct and finds irresistible love at first sight in Octavian. In a sublime act of grace that culminates in the opera’s gorgeous Act III trio, the Marschallin accepts her loss and yields Octavian to his new love.
Good productions of Rosenkavalier allow the characters to explore the theme of time and its passing on their own. Kosky felt it necessary to open with a large, spinning grandfather clock from which Octavian and the Marschallin make their furtive entrances. More annoyingly, he shadows much of the action with an odd figure—a mute actor playing an old man dressed in nothing but some kind of diaper. Sometimes the old man performs the actions of servants who appear in the opera’s stage directions. At sensitive moments, he tosses sparkling confetti on the characters when they reach moments of emotional bliss, which the audience, presumably, might not have noticed. Usually, he just wanders the stage aimlessly, like some sort of lost Father Time whom nobody needs in order to understand the opera.
Bizarre and meaningless though this was, other elements of the production stood out for their lack of originality. It has become modish to stage Rosenkavalier in the era in which it was written—just before World War I—rather than in the eighteenth century, where Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal quite consciously intended it to be. Robert Carsen’s production—currently shared by the Metropolitan Opera, London’s Royal Opera, and other houses—is only one such effort. For all his pretensions to iconoclasm, Kosky almost demurely follows along. But what lesson are we meant to glean? Is the creative groupthink trying to tell us that grace, deference, discretion, true love, and all the wonderful things we experience in Rosenkavalier are merely ephemeral artifacts of a vanished culture doomed to horrible destruction? Let us hope not. Victoria Behr’s costumes for the principals are at least attractive, but there was a telling caveat at the end of the evening, which marked the farewell performance of the comprimario tenor Ulrich Ress. For his final curtain call, he changed into his character’s ornate costume from the company’s old Otto Schenk production. No critical comment was advanced, but there is no question about which approach to Rosenkavalier at least one cast member preferred.
If the visuals left us baffled and disappointed, the musical performance reached toward the stars. The superb soprano Marlis Petersen delivered a sensitive, nuanced Marschallin that captured the character’s emotional dilemmas with a pathos unseen since Renée Fleming gave up the role five years ago. Soaring sentimentality came with an appealing bloom in the voice that radiated charm. Two nights later, Petersen reinforced the stellar impression in a solo recital at Munich’s elegant Prinzregententheater, a gem of a house that architecturally resembles the Wagnerian Festival Theater in Bayreuth at about 60% scale. Cycling through songs by Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Gabriel Fauré, and others among their contemporaries, the recital focused on explorations of “inner life,” from dreams and impressions to acceptance and realization. Its most affecting piece by far was “Träume” (“Dreams”), the final selection of Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder, a five-part song cycle written for a married woman Wagner was in love with while composing Tristan und Isolde, his great opera of forbidden but inexorable passion. With scintillating sensitivity, Petersen exceeded her Straussian accomplishments and may yet soar in Wagnerian directions.
The accomplished bass Günther Groissböck stepped in for the originally scheduled Christoph Fischesser to sing Baron Ochs. Groissböck now probably owns the role internationally, so the substitution was a welcome treat that Munich’s audience greeted with rapturous applause. His characterization avoids the hackneyed cliché that Ochs is merely an old cad—here is a man on the cusp of middle age with a proud sense of self. The comedic effects are not lost, but the arrogance is bracing rather than desperate, the voice fresh and resonant rather than croaking and shrill. This Ochs will undoubtedly get out of bed the day after losing Sophie and the financial rewards marriage to her would have brought and still be the same man who could observe that her “delicate wrist” is “a rare distinction among the bourgeoisie.”
The role of Octavian was written for a mezzo-soprano to perform as a “trouser” part. The effect captures the delicate balance between animus and anima that evolves with sexual maturity. Samantha Hankey diligently captured the young man’s fits and tempers with a balanced approach that radiated sympathy over callowness. The young American soprano Liv Redpath sang a lithe Sophie and especially came alive in the soaring Act II music accompanied by celesta. German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle has never disappointed in any role in my experience, and sang with stentorian self-assurance as Sophie’s father, the newly ennobled arms merchant Faninal.
The Bavarian State Opera’s general music director Vladimir Jurowski assumed his post just last season and conducted with intense command. With deft, angular motions, he brought out bright and lustrous hues without losing any hint of the music’s meditative clarity or sparing any rush in its emotion. As a musical performance, it could be savored again and again.
Paul du Quenoy is president of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University.