"The waltz king has done it again," wrote one of the first reviewers of "Der Rosenkavalier," mistakenly but understandably. It was, after all, an opera with a Viennese setting, some delectable waltz melodies, plenty of slapstick humor, a mezzo-soprano in trousers, a lot of dialogue in Austrian dialect and a composer named Strauss.
Richard Strauss was the only well-known composer of that name who was not a native Viennese. But with the aid of poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, he managed to instill the spirit of that city into this work with amazing thoroughness -- not only the "wine, women and song" cliche's popularized by the other Strausses, but a clear-eyed, deeply probing look at the decadent 18th-century society of Vienna, its intrigues and ceremonies, follies and pretensions. Only one Viennese composer in history had managed a similar combination of lyric grace, social comment, pathos and hilarity -- Mozart in "The Marriage of Figaro" -- and his opera was set in Seville. Any closer to home, it would have been suppressed.
In each opera, behind the comic bustle of false identities and rampant libido, there stands a solitary figure in whom the pathos is concentrated: Mozart's Countess and Strauss' Marschallin -- both women neglected by their husbands and painfully aware of the damages being inflicted on them by time. In these two operas, the collaboration between composer and librettist reached unsurpassed levels. Musically, Mozart's work remains the greater of the two, but in its total texture, the blend of words, music and theatrical elements, "Rosenkavalier" has more depth and variety and gives more well-rounded satisfaction.
Three versions of "Der Rosenkavalier" currently demand attention -- all conducted by Herbert von Karajan. His 1956 recording for EMI, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall, Otto Edelmann and the Philharmonia Orchestra, has been digitally remastered and reissued. The 1962 movie, based on a Salzburg production in which Schwarzkopf and Edelmann were joined by Sena Jurinac and Anneliese Rothenberger, has been issued on videotape by Video Arts International, and a new, digital recording with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, Janet Perry and Kurt Moll is now available from Deutsche Grammophon.
Although the conductor is the same in all three performances (and the orchestra is the Vienna Philharmonic in the latter two), there are significant differences among the three productions, not only in the casting but in the interpretation.
Von Karajan's "Rosenkavalier" has always tended to slow tempos (though never at the expense of vocal line and continuity), and his conception has always been rather symphonic, with dramatic elements left to take care of themselves. They do that most effectively on the VAI tapes (VHS or Beta hi-fi, VAI-OP-2, two cassettes), where visual elements reinforce the sound. This movie has long been recognized as a classic performance, and I cannot imagine that any opera-lover with video equipment will want to be without it, even in the absence of libretto or subtitles.
The art of filming staged performances has advanced enormously since 1962, but the camera work is technically adequate, as is the sound, considering its vintage. Occasional imprecisions of lip-synchronization indicate that the sound track must have been recorded separately in a studio. In the Beta hi-fi format, it is below today's highest standards but worth plugging into your home sound system.
The casting is strong throughout, from Schwarzkopf -- in her prime and singing one of her greatest roles -- to Erich Kunz, who has a vivid impact in the secondary role of the fussy, nervous social climber, Herr von Faninal. Jurinac and Rothenberger are both excellent, musically and as actresses, and Edelmann's portrayal of Baron Ochs is nearly ideal. His characterization has a strong (and properly negative) impact without ever tipping over into caricature, and he sings lines that others have been known to grunt or shout -- fortunately, since Strauss has given his comic villain some of the best tunes in the show.
Schwarzkopf and Edelmann are in equally excellent form in the 1956 recording, which has amazingly good sound quality in its digital remastering on Angel 4CDX-3970 (three cassettes). Even in 1956, master tapes were catching a lot of sound that did not find its way to the commercial product; these cassettes sound very close to a master tape, and the compact discs (which I have not yet heard) should be even closer.
The performance has been a top choice for more than a quarter-century (its most serious competition being the Solti recording, which is, unlike any of Von Karajan's, absolutely uncut). Ludwig and Stich-Randall are, if anything, a shade better than their counterparts in the Salzburg videotape, and the total performance gives deep and lasting satisfaction, greatly enhanced by the splendid new sound.
For his latest recording (DG 413 163-1, four LPs), Von Karajan's tempos are even more deliberate than they were in 1956. He lingers lovingly over the music's subtle textures, and the general effect is sometimes that of a tone poem, with voices (particularly in secondary roles and ensemble numbers) almost treated as parts of the orchestra -- something the much younger conductor could not quite manage to impose on his stellar 1956 cast. It is magnificent, in its own way -- a unique sensual experience with by far the best recorded sound this opera has ever had.
His cast is generally fine, though the 1956 recording remains the one with the best cast. Tomowa-Sintow and Baltsa are outstanding, and, remarkably, Tomowa-Sintow nearly matches Schwarzkopf in her interpretation.
For better and for worse, the special qualities of Von Karajan's latest "Rosenkavalier" can also be heard in his first recording of "The Flying Dutchman," now available from Angel (4D3X-3958, three cassettes; DSCX-3958, three LPs). Once again, the tempos are leisurely and the total effect of the performance allies opera closely to the tone poem. This feeling is established right from the beginning, with an overture that is, in fact, a tone poem of uncommon power, and it recurs in moments when the true heroes of the opera seem to be the Berlin Philharmonic and the Vienna State Opera Chorus.
To balance this power, however, Jose' van Dam gives the title role a performance that eclipses all others on records. He is well-seconded by Kurt Moll as Daland, and together they set a standard not quite matched by the higher voices in the cast. In sum, the strong points of this recording outweigh the other "Dutchmen" now available, and Angel's digital sound is outstanding.