21st-century opera devotees are used to see opera being well-represented on the screen. Cinema relays provide performances directly from the great houses and DVDs are constantly being produced, immortalising productions for future viewers. In a fascinating concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment gave us something a little different, taking us back to the early days of operatic representation on the silver screen.

Charlotte Beament
© Boyd Gilmour

Silent film arrangements of operas were not uncommon in the early 1920s, but Robert Wiene’s Der Rosenkavalier stands out for its quality of scenery and atmosphere. True to form, it was Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’ great collaborator, who was the impetus for bringing a film adaptation of the opera to life. Interestingly for a librettist, Hofmannsthal was fascinated by the potential supremacy of gesture over word and came to the conclusion that a film adaptation would offer a tremendous opportunity to explore the idea while bringing the opera to a substantially larger audience. Strauss was persuaded to rearrange the score to match the screenplay and work commenced. The Schönbrunn Palace, a stunning gem in Vienna, hosted the production, the rich costumes and generously casted extras filling the space to imperial form.

Does it work? The score reduces the orchestra down to a salon-sized chamber orchestra and allows for some extraordinary music, particularly from the central string quartet. Under Geoffrey Paterson, the reduced orchestra played like clockwork, gleaming silver filigree from below the screen, nimble and fragrant, bombastic at times; a flawless and energetic performance. The musical issue for me was that the score, even re-arranged, cries desperately for the cohesive vocal element that Strauss’ astonishing facility for the – particularly soprano – voice provides in the opera. Without it, there’s an emptiness to the ear.

As to the film itself, the stand-out was without doubt Michel Bohnen’s star turn as Baron Ochs. Bohnen, who was an early interpreter of the role on stage, brings the character’s shabby pomposity to life, the acrobatic eyebrows and lascivious glances ideal for the character. Likewise, Jaque Catelain as Octavian has the requisite flair for comedy; his cross-dressing scene when his rendezvous with the Marchallin is interrupted is superbly done, the dynamic with Bohnen who is trying to seduce him in the mistaken belief that he is a chambermaid was terrific and he conveys the character’s youthful and ludicrous passions well. Less impressive is the Marchallin who is largely stripped of the depth and complexity that Strauss and Hofmannsthal give her in the opera. Huguette Duflos does her best, but the character is little more than a wet blanket who looks alternatively bored or panicked.

Sophie, too, played by Elly Felicie Berger, is little more than a plot device and it is only in a garden scene when all the young nobles are excluding her from their games than one feels at all invested in her character. The unexpected addition to the plot of the Marshall, however, gives the film a little frisson of danger; superbly played by a brooding Paul Hartmann, the audience is made to sympathise with the officer who is torn away from his wife shortly after marriage to go to war, only to discover that she is indulging in extra-marital liaisons. A shame, though, that the ‘happy ending’ of the three couples takes the sting out of the opera’s true ending.

Soprano Charlotte Beament provided an appetiser of Strauss’ four Op.27 songs that he presented to his wife the night before their wedding. Beament’s sense of line and colour was clear, and her attention to the text brought the songs to life, although the arrangement of the Presentation of the Rose scene which followed, although showing a superb higher register, was a slightly bizarre moment.