"Die Zeit," the Marschallin says, "die ist ein sonderbar Ding." At the first night of the Berliner Staatsoper’s new Rosenkavalier, I was certainly more aware of the passing of time than usual. The projected running length, including intervals, was just shy of five hours, and the first act, admittedly with Ochs’s boasts about his conquests presented uncut, ran to 84 minutes. Was this some sort of record, I wondered?

Camilla Nylund (Marschallin) © Ruth Walz
Camilla Nylund (Marschallin)
© Ruth Walz

Straightforward timings, of course, only tell half the story. But in Zubin Mehta’s hands this was a Rosenkavalier that started off fatally short of Schwung and swagger, in which cast and orchestra were fighting a losing battle to maintain musical and dramatic tension – even the Staatskapalle ended up sounding ill-focused as a result. Matters improved in the second and third acts, with the big set numbers gathering some momentum – the orchestra played deliciously in Act 2’s waltzes, and the trio did what it should. But the general lack of drama from the pit set this Rosenkavalier at a disadvantage from the start.

And there was also a distinct lack of spark in Viennese-born André Heller’s production, too. Heller is described by the programme as “one of the most successful multimedia artists in the world”, and here he joined the role call of opera novices to be handed recent major assignments at the Staatsoper. With directorial support from Wolfgang Schilly, he avoided some of the rookie errors committed by other recent opera virgins at Unter den Linden. With a large Viennese team of creatives he offered a lavish – and clearly expensive – homage to Jugendstil.

<i>Der Rosenkavalier</i> © Ruth Walz
Der Rosenkavalier
© Ruth Walz

In Xenia Hausner’s sets the Marschallin’s rooms in Act 1, though, are more generally abstract, and Act 3’s pub becomes one of the Palm Houses that were apparently all the rage in the period – an outdoor space that might just look like a middle eastern restaurant to the uninitiated. There’s also an additional incongruous construction, midnight blue with doors, wonky portholes and walkways, that protrudes into the auditorium.

Faninal’s palace is clearly designed as the pièce de resistance: a grand Jugendstil palace with parts of Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze hanging on the back wall. To underline the point, Klimt himself is in attendance, looking, along with partner Emilie Louise Flöge, somewhat confused. A few other ideas come and go. There’s an isolated meta moment when stagehands wander onto the scene beguiled by the Italian tenor’s aria, for instance. In an idea familiar from several other Rosenkavalier stagings, a grown-up Mohammed is shown to have a crush on the Marschallin. Breakfast is served by means of a table rising up and down from the stage.

Nadine Sierra (Sophie) and Michèle Losier (Octavian) © Ruth Walz
Nadine Sierra (Sophie) and Michèle Losier (Octavian)
© Ruth Walz

There’s no shortage of imagination in Arthur Arbesser’s costumes, although some of their garish excesses strike me as more Austin Powers than Adolf Loos: Faninal in gold suit, domestic staff arrayed in insignia uniforms, Marianne Leitmetzerin like a circus MC in blue-and-black frock, top hat and red boots. Elegance and understatement were clearly not priorities.

What’s also missing, though, is any broader sense of what Heller thinks about the work and what it has to say. The opera’s action is mainly presented downstage, more or less conventionally directed within this lavish framework. It’s as if this was the umpteenth revival, the concept behind the production long forgotten as the cast do what they'd pretty much do in any performance.

Michèle Losier (Octavian/Mariandel) und Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs) © Ruth Walz
Michèle Losier (Octavian/Mariandel) und Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs)
© Ruth Walz

Under the circumstances they acquitted themselves well. Camilla Nylund is fast becoming a reigning Strauss soprano, and her Marschallin, though perhaps not the most aristocratic in timbre, is a noble, moving creation, allowed in Act 3 here to show her real frustrations. Michèle Losier makes a vibrant, handsome Octavian. Her mezzo is not the most yielding or seductive, but she projects impressively. Between them, though, there was little sense of chemistry in Act 1, with too much passion allowed to seep out at Mehta’s tempos.

Günther Groissböck’s terrific Ochs – all rounded tone and handsy bravado – would also have benefited from more forward momentum from the pit to accompany his yards of text. Nadine Sierra makes an unusually rich-toned as Sophie but was prevented from presenting the character as anything more than a pampered princess. Roman Trekel’s tired-sounding Faninal and Atalla Ayan’s somewhat effortful Tenor headed a variable secondary cast.

Neither much to offend or inspire here, then, in what ultimately, though, is another new show that comes nowhere near the level one would – and should – expect from this sort of house.

***11