More than any other city in Europe, a deep respect for tradition is firmly ingrained in the Viennese psyche.  It is as inseparable as Apfelstrudel and Schagobers. Although the Empire has long since passed into oblivion, even the catering company for the Wiener Staatsoper still proudly bears the name Gerstner K.u.K. Hoflieferenten (Gerstner Royal and Imperial Court Purveyors). Following such devotion to tradition, it is not surprising that the current production of Der Rosenkavalier by Otto Schenk and Rudolf Heinrich dates from 1968. The stage-setting has been mounted 366 times since its inauguration and there is definitely no demand for a new one.

Chen Reiss (Sophie) and Stephanie Houtzeel (Octavian) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Chen Reiss (Sophie) and Stephanie Houtzeel (Octavian)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Hugo von Hofmannsthall’s extremely specific stage directions are followed to the letter, and there is absolutely no attempt to impose any gratuitous directional quirks on a work which is as inescapably Viennese as Sachertorte. Any evaluation of a new performance therefore rests entirely on the singers. The superb Staatsoper orchestra is so accustomed to playing this magical music its players barely look at the score.

In the smaller roles, only the Faninal of Jochen Schmeckenbecher and Marianne of Caroline Wenborne were up to the usual Staatsoper standards. As the Italian Singer, Chinese ensemble member Jinxu Xiahou was a rather singular choice. “Di rigori armato il seno” had clear, forward projection and was mostly impressive except for a serious intonation lapse on the top Bb on “gelo”. Israeli soprano Chen Reiss as Sophie was suitably floaty at the right moments but a bit pallid in interpretation. Perhaps one should not expect too much from a girl “frisch aus dem Kloster” who only had the Almanach de Gotha for bedtime reading.

Peter Rose (Baron Ochs) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (from a previous revival)
Peter Rose (Baron Ochs)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (from a previous revival)

Peter Rose has been singing Baron Ochs at the Staatsoper for over fourteen years and was completely convincing in his characterization. His Viennese dialect and diction were exemplary, which is vital to the understanding of von Hofmannsthal’s wordy and witty libretto. He was not so much the “aufgeblasne schlechte Kerl” as a rather childishly amusing, boorish bumpkin with a rampant libido. In fact one felt a certain sympathy when the “wienerische Maskerad” in the sleazy Beisl reached its chaotic conclusion. It was announced before the performance that Mr Rose was suffering from ill-health. There was actually little evidence of indisposition other than at the top of the clef, which was definitely tentative. He managed to sing the extreme below stave notes (eg. the optional low C on “beschämt” in Act I and sonorous low E natural on “dir zu lang” at the conclusion to Act II) albeit with imperfect intonation.   

Having first sung Octavian in this production in 2010, German-American mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel was impressive in all respects. With a stage presence reminiscent of Frederica von Stade and singing with a similar tone colour, Miss Houtzeel was an impulsive, ardent youth (an enflamed “nicht heut, nicht morgen”) whose characterization was consistently convincing. The top register was especially good, with some well focused, strongly projected notes.

Anja Harteros (The Marschallin) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Anja Harteros (The Marschallin)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
The most anticipated performance of the evening was that of Anja Harteros as the Marschallin. Following such definitive interpreters of the role in this production such as Lisa Della Casa, Sena Jurinac and Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Miss Harteros had several very hard acts to follow. The voice is impressive with a stong, refulgent top and there were some sensitive word colourings (“Als müsst’s so sein” and “Sei Er gut, Quinquin”) but there was something dramatically unsatisfying about her interpretation of this fascinating, complex character.

In essence, she stayed the “kleine Resi” and never matured into the aristocratic grande dame of the Fürstin Werdenberg. There was a lot of adolescent temperament too. She was positively livid with Valzzachi (“Ich will nix wissen”) and bored to tears with the rabble of “gewöhnliche Bagagi” who invaded her bedroom. More tears at the final parting with Octavian. Vocally things were more satisfactory. The important “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” monologue showed real sensitivity to the text and a fine lyric technique with some excellent piano phrasing on “ein Geschöpf des Vaters”. The climatic ff “Heut oder Morgen” was explosive.

The sublime final trio was rightly the musical highpoint of the evening, and conductor Ádám Fischer’s luxurious tempi, with the ravishing Vienna string tone, made for an exceptionally moving conclusion to Strauss’ ‘Komödie für Musik’.

The non-singing role of the Marschallin’s “kleine Neger” houseboy Mohammed was played by a small girl in an enormous white turban with the wonderful name of Katharina Salome Martin. Maybe the good Viennese are not so immune to innovation after all.