Some productions, not without merit but bland, become classics of prestigious Operas, travelling around Europe – even around the world – year after year without anyone understanding which qualities the backers could see in them, other than their famous music scores. Herbert Wernicke’s work has fortunately nothing to do with these productions. His staging of Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier is almost 20 years old, since it was created five years before the director died, in 1997, and seems yet not to have aged a bit. It manages both to revisit the text while treating it with the greatest respect. The action still takes place in Vienna, but at the time of composition instead of the original 18th century, gaining thus in depth and echoes between past and present. By doing so, it extracts the opera’s material effortlessly.

Herbert Wernicke’s <i>Rosenkavalier</i> © Emilie Brouchon / Opéra national de Paris
Herbert Wernicke’s Rosenkavalier
© Emilie Brouchon / Opéra national de Paris

Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s brilliant libretto is about nothing but this: the slow and necessary transition from one age to another. The young Octavian and Sophie fall in love, under the Baron Ochs’ and the Marschallin’s noses: the betrothed Baron refuses to cancel the wedding, the old mistress sees the end coming and agrees to it. "Time is a strange thing. As our lives go by, it means absolutely nothing. And then, one fine day, we are aware of nothing else", she sings with emotion but without blaming anyone or anything, as she feels it is time for her to bid farewell. Michaela Kaune plays this resonant and melancholic Marschalline wonderfully, although she stood in sooner than expected for the equally wonderful Anja Harteros.

Strauss R.’ music, as he was about 50-years-old and refined his style, was in perfect tune with von Hofmannsthal’s sharp libretto. Following the success of their first coauthoring Elektra, this Rosenkavalier was to be followed by five more collaborations. Far from the experimental modernism of Salomé, which André Gide criticized for its "undiscontinuous mobilization of all the possibilities", Strauss graciously put together different aspects of his music. In the tradition of Mozart and Da Ponte, he recalled Le nozze di Figaro and its opera buffa logos, Octavian’s mezzo-soprano tessitura and storyline alluding therefore greatly to Cherubino. Thanks to Daniela Sindram’s soundness, one can both feel why this range was assigned to these fickle and young male characters, who both fall in love with older women only to turn away from them, and the depth such a figure can contain once relieved from its pure comedic purpose. As for Baron Ochs, played by the gargantuan Peter Rose, he proves himself to be as tyrannical and ridiculous as Count Almaviva, and embodies joyfully an opera age definitely bygone.

Bel canto also appears briefly – hats off to Francesco Demuro, who seems to have a great sense of humour – and atonal accents can be detected: Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was to be written one year later. This blending, spiced up with Viennese Waltz tones, brings the feel and the essence of Mahler’s phrases back to the ear, enhanced with a certain amount of modesty. Philippe Jordan conducts the Orchestre National de Paris and its Chorus perfectly, reminding that this repertoire is as delightful to hear for the audience as it is pleasurable for the musicians to play. Their precision and smoothness are more than fit for the work.

There is not an ounce of irony in the rendition of the magnificent duo "Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren", sung by the couple going down a light stairs as in a Fred Astaire musical number. Korngold and Hollywood times were coming, and were already echoing in Strauss’ sweet melodies, which Wernicke understands perfectly. Tenderness and depth are not to be captured beyond the Sisi gowns and glitter, or to be embellished by the sumptuous scenery and its mirrors in trompe-l’œil style. They already exist through them, as Hofmannsthal wished depth to be hidden on the surface.