Götz Friedrich’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier for the Deutsche Oper Berlin is a warm, tasteful variation on a beloved classic. Set in a 1920s Vienna rich with tradition, Friedrich’s production never overpowers the singers – and what singers they were! Michaela Kaune, Albert Pesendorfer, Eun Yee You and Elīna Garanča transported the audience to a lost time and place, even while embodying their characters’ ultimate timelessness.

Elīna Garanča (Octavian) and Michaela Kaune (The Marschallin) © Bettina Stöß
Elīna Garanča (Octavian) and Michaela Kaune (The Marschallin)
© Bettina Stöß

Der Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden in 1911, its libretto written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian writer who was to provide Strauss with a number of libretti. Ultimately a comic opera, Der Rosenkavalier is known for its kind treatment of the Marschallin, the older lover of the (very) young Octavian. Friedrich updated his production to the 1920s, which is tricky when you consider that by that date, the Austrian nobility had been dissolved. However, the update in no way affected the story, which is ultimately timeless. There will, after all, always be lovers of disparate ages, boorish rich men chasing skirts, and the upwardly mobile overlooking numerous sins to advance their place in society. Despite a number of unattractive sets (deep green curtains and electric blue sofas in Act I, mirrors and café tables in Act II; a burlesque theater hosting a birthday party in Act III), Friedrich’s production manages to transport the audience to another world. Ultimately, it does not affect the story in the slightest. And even if it had, the singers were more than good enough to distract the audience.

The emotional core of the opera, the Marschallin, was sung by Michaela Kaune, who perfectly embodied her character’s dignity and kindness. She sang the Marschallin’s long monologue, “Da geht er hin... Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” with beauty and purity of tone, and showed us every facet of the Marschallin’s character, from the sexy, fun-loving woman to the grand and noble lady. Kaune was girlish and flirtatious with Octavian, long-suffering with Ochs, sweet and dignified with Sophie. She towered over the young lovers, both morally and literally, as though to highlight that Sophie and Octavian were, at the end of the day, still children. Kaune sang the final trio with great emotion and beauty. She was a pleasure to experience.

As Octavian, Elīna Garanča worked her character’s comic misadventures with relish. Whether rolling around on the floor in Kaune’s arms, processing into the Faninal’s home decked out in a silver frockcoat and breeches that would make David Bowie jealous or sporting a dirndl and braids as “Mariandel”, Garanča showed us a teenage boy in the throes of love and impetuosity. Garanča’s voice is rich and plummy, perfect for the cultured Octavian. Though she started the opera slightly overwhelmed by the orchestra, she soon warmed up and sang beautifully throughout. Her comic timing was very much on display, particularly in Act III. As “Mariandel”, Garanča sang in a ridiculously high, girlish voice, full of Austrian folk mannerisms, and it was a riot. And then it was down into the depths again, as she weathered Octavian’s break-up and his new relationship with Sophie. Garanča managed the highs and lows of the impetuous teenager with aplomb, and sang the final trio fit to break the heart.

Eun Yee You (Sophie) and Elīna Garanča (Octavian) © Bettina Stöß
Eun Yee You (Sophie) and Elīna Garanča (Octavian)
© Bettina Stöß

Eun Yee You’s Sophie was a delight. Said to be “not quite fifteen”, this Sophie was a pistol of a girl, feisty and determined to have her own way. It is to Octavian’s credit that he tells her he can only help her if she decides to help herself. You sang the role with a beauty that only added to the girlishness of her character. Her Sophie was willful but not arrogant, obedient but not a doormat. She seemed like a far younger version of the Marschallin, which is perhaps why Octavian fell for her. The Act II duet she shared with Octavian “Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren...” was intimate and lovely, You’s sweet soprano mixing seamlessly with Garanča’s darker tones.

Baron Ochs, the opera’s comic whipping boy, was sung by Albert Pesendorfer. Enormously tall, Pesendorfer used his height to his advantage, towering over the rest of the characters both physically and personality-wise. His comic timing was excellent, and Pesendorf was able to showcase Ochs’s noble manners as well as his ultimate sleaziness. He sang with a warm baritone and a fine technique, and his tangle with Octavian in Act III was both hilarious and pitiable.

Der Rosenkavalier has almost too many people in it to name, but special mention must be given to Dana Beth Miller for her cynical Annina; to Burkhardt Ulrich for his smarmy Valzacchi; to Markus Bruck’s hysterical, overwhelmed Faninal; and to Matthew Newlin for his lovely performance as the Italian Singer. The ensemble and Kinderchor did a fine job as various lackies, servers, and overexcited children. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, led by Donald Runnicles, was spot-on; not a note was out of place.

All in all, Gotz Friedrich’s production is classy and fun, managing to update the action while staying true to the spirit of the story. Elīna Garanča and company shine. It is a production well worth seeing.