Some things never change. When Richard Strauss came to Prague in 1922 to conduct Der Rosenkavalier, his operas were packing repeated performances at the New German Theater, and the composer was hailed as an artistic “unifier of nations". A century later, a talented international cast headlines the newest production of Der Rosenkavalier at the State Opera, which to judge by the laughter from a full house at the premiere has lost none of its comic appeal.

Petra Alvarez Šimková (Marschallin) and Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir (Octavian)
© Zdeněk Sokol

This version is a revival that veteran stage director Andreas Homoki debuted at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2006. It hews closely to the source material, playing on the strengths of the farcical situations and relying on a cast that can both sing and act. Homoki and co-director Werner Sauer embellish the absurdities with a fine sense of comic timing, and animated performances by Icelandic mezzo Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir and Finnish bass Timo Riihonen carry the narrative nicely.

In the trouser role of Octavian, Eiríksdóttir spends much of the first act bouncing off walls – literally, as Princess Marie Thérèse (Petra Alvarez Šimková) lounges in bed on the sole set, an off-white box with a sloping floor, while her young paramour declares his undying love, then scrambles to hide from unexpected visitors and takes on a chambermaid disguise with gusto. Eiríksdóttir has been a standout in several Prague productions this season, and this seems like a role she was born to play, thoroughly convincing as an impetuous young man and in strong voice throughout as a lover, impostor and protector.

Petra Alvarez Šimková (Marschallin), Timo Riihonen (Baron Ochs) & Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir (Octavian)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Riihonen is a large man with a voice to match, and he dominated much of the second and third acts as Baron Ochs, playing him as a lovable lothario. There’s a lot not to like about Ochs, especially the way he gropes women in this production. But Riihonen found an irrepressible charm in his character, and a frisson of humor in the contrast between his high station and low behavior. The second act ends with him drunk on the tilted floor, a comedown Riihonen accentuated with a closing vocal line that slowly descended into a growl capped by a concluding burp.

They had strong support from Lithuanian soprano Vera Talerko, who as Sophie managed to maintain an ingénue’s innocence and yearning vocals while fending off the Baron’s aggressive advances. Her duets with Eiríksdóttir were golden, particularly in the final scene. The duets and trios were less effective with Šimková, who didn’t seem to find her full voice until the third act. A Czech soprano, Šimková sang with tenderness but not the drama and authority that the role of the Marschallin demands.

Petra Alvarez Šimková (Marschallin)
© Zdeněk Sokol

If the intimate moments don’t always work, Homoki and Sauer excel once more bodies are on the stage, highlighting the action with clever visuals. An entourage of maids and retainers freeze in place when Octavian and Sophie first meet and fall instantly in love, a film device for framing a magic moment that works surprisingly well onstage. When Sophie’s father faints, onlookers quickly gather around, all flapping their hands to fan him. Crowds spill on and off the stage in flashes of lightning and thunder, and heave to and fro in time to the music, creating a madcap atmosphere.

And there is no small amount of choreography in the Baron’s pursuits, which involve a lot of spinning, ducking and quick escapes. Running through a lot of complicated routines, Riihonen, Eiríksdóttir and Talerko were as smooth and agile as acrobats.

Under the baton of German conductor Gabriel Feltz, the State Opera Orchestra showed impressive range and sophistication with a challenging score. Working with a large sound canvas, Feltz crafted colorful accompaniment and feather-light interludes, segueing in a heartbeat from an anguished aria to a pleasant waltz. The pacing of the vocals seemed slow at times, a disconnect perhaps inevitable with such antic action onstage. But the overall effect was exactly right, with sensitive support and plenty of space for the singers, and amusing punctuation for the buffoonery. And over three-plus hours, the playing stayed sharp and lively.

Arnheiður Eiríksdóttir (Octavian)
© Zdeněk Sokol

Apparently that’s no change, either. After one of his visits to hear his music performed in Prague, Strauss enthused, “The entire evening was of a high quality, with all the performances being absolutely brilliant. The blood of musicians courses through the veins of all Czechs!” And still does.

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