Royal Opera House
With Kiri Te Kanawa the leading Marschallin of her day, and the return of the formidable Georg Solti to the Royal Opera House 14 years after his departure as musical director, it is our great fortune that the BBC was on hand to record this classic production of Richard Strauss’s bittersweet masterpiece.
Te Kanawa is at the top of her form vocally. The voice is glorious, the intonation precise but seemingly effortless, the delivery impeccable. She has an imperious presence, yet there is frailty in her grandeur, and the long lyrical passage at the end of act 1, "Da geht er hin", is full of such sad reminiscence that it brought tears to her eyes. (OK—probably menthol-induced, but it reflected how many in the audience would have felt.)
She is not the most extravagant actress in her stage manner, and if one has a criticism, it would be that she does not treat the appalling Baron Ochs with the contempt he deserves.
Te Kanawa looks the right age for the part, and Barbara Bonney too manages to seem suitably youthful as Sophie. The high tessitura is navigated with ease, and she captures the independent spirit of this woman on the cusp of maturity without losing sight of her more fragile side.
Anne Howells as Octavian sings beautifully, blending perfectly with Te Kanawa. She does however seem remarkably feminine—reserving her most mannish gestures for when the young count appears in drag as the supposed maid Mariandel.
Baron Ochs (the clue is in the name) is played with old-fashioned bumptiousness by Aage Haugland, relishing the bad boy antics. It’s hard to think, however, that a production today would allow this repulsive slime-ball predator to get off so lightly. Robert Tear, Cynthia Buchan and Jonathan Summers give fine supporting performances as Valzacchi, Annina and von Faninal.
There is an opening shot of Solti looking absolutely fearsome in the opening prelude. His approach may not be a la mode these days, but it delivers the goods. There is an aching quality to the first violin over the strings at the act 1 climax, woodwinds are distinct throughout, and the conductor finds the right balance between the romance—just this side of schmaltz—satire and melancholy.
The singers are remarkably well recorded, a credit to performers, musicians and in no small measure to BBC sound engineer Graham Haines.
John Schlesinger’s production is of its time. The ultra-conservative, frightfully aristocratic set by William Dudley features a bed as tall as an aircraft hangar with window drapes to match. There is a nice touch to illustrate the nouveau-riche status of Faninal as lackeys fix faux book spines to his library shelves, but the introduction of a dwarf into the Baron's retinue as a comic character is hard to forgive.
Costumes, designed by Maria Björnson, are equally sumptuous, with one for Ochs similar to that by Alfred Roller (reproduced in my Viking guide) for the original 1911 designs. Octavian is dressed like a young god to deliver the silver rose, and in for her act 3 appearance, Te Kanawa is clothed in a gown with more sparklers than the Milky Way.
The video quality is what one would expect for a 1985 television transmission. It’s in 4:3 format for a time when most TV screens were 20” or less, but given the challenge of action often taking place at the extremes of a wide stage, TV director Brian Large’s adaptation works well, even including the superimpositions for the final trio.
The accompanying booklet has an extensive synopsis, but unfortunately no track list or background information.
Reviewer: Colin Davison