R. Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier / Schwanewilms

Album cover art for upc 880242569141
Catalog: 2056914
Format: BLU RAY

This is the first Blu-ray Der Rosenkavalier, and no one can seriously argue about its visual and sonic superiority over the standard DVD competition, including those of conductors Carlos Kleiber and Georg Solti, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Gwyneth Jones (Marschallin), Brigitte Fassbaender (Octavian), and Barbara Bonney and Lucia Popp (Sophie). The big question is how it compares musically to that formidable competition, given that the cast is not exactly filled with household names, especially in the United States. For those listeners who have doubts about the cast, Staatskapelle Dresden should insure that this is a creditable performance. Der Rosenkavalier was premiered in 1911 in Dresden, and its tradition with the music of Richard Strauss continues unabated, with frequent festivals featuring many of his operas. Some may also have concerns about conductor Fabio Luisi, but his new recording of Don Quixote as music director of the Staatskapelle Dresden should be very reassuring.

Director Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s production was premiered in 2000 in Dresden and recorded live at the NHK Hall in Tokyo during the Semperoper’s 2007 Japanese tour. Laufenberg succeeds in transferring the action from 18th-century Vienna to the postwar 1950s without doing any damage to the opera’s nostalgic tone and timeless social issues. The Prelude is played against passionate onstage lovemaking, stunningly enhanced by Blu-ray’s dramatically contrasting colors, superior sharpness, and black levels in subdued lighting. The standard DVD version of this performance simply cannot compare to this degree of resolution. The lavish sets and costumes perfectly complement Strauss’s incomparably melodic and sumptuous score. Despite the change in time, this is an otherwise traditional production, as opposed to the recent radical concept versions coming out of Zurich and elsewhere that are known collectively and not too affectionately as Eurotrash.

Anne Schwanewilms’s lyric soprano is quite ideal for the Marschallin, and she is even visually reminiscent of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in her regal bearing. Her act I monologue and final encounter with the ardent and impetuous Octavian are noble and poignant. Anke Vondung proves to be an excellent singing actress in the part of Octavian/Mariandel. Her rich voice blends magically with Schwanewilms' soprano. Maki Mori is not in the same class from the standpoint of acting, but Sophie is a less complex role. Her high-lying but lightweight soprano soars in the Presentation of the Rose scene, and also blends beautifully with Schwanewilms and Vondung in a memorable final trio. Kurt Rydl is appropriately buffoonish as Baron Ochs without overdoing it. His voice remains tonally rich, but it degenerates into a consistent wobble on any sustained notes, regardless of the volume. Luisi's interpretation is a revelation. He spins out Strauss' long lyrical lines masterfully, and the waltzes have just the right amount of lilt and rhythmic snap. The Staatskapelle Dresden owns this music, and they sound, almost predictably, sensational.

This Der Rosenkavalier has the best sound I have heard on Blu-ray disc to date. The dynamic range is huge, and the extreme high and low frequencies have palpable presence and impact. Audio formats are PCM stereo and 5.1 surround that effectively immerse you into the listening experience. The artful camerawork is equally successful in revealing the splendor of the sets and the intimate moments with these fine stage actors. My one complaint is that there is too much distracting alternation between close-ups and long shots during the final trio. On the other hand, the close-ups of Octavian and Sophie in their concluding duet (after the trio) are quite endearing. This Blu-ray disc is arguably the preferred video Der Rosenkavalier, based on its technical and musical merits. The booklet only contains an essay on the Straussian tradition of the Semperoper and Staatskapelle Dresden and a brief synopsis. There are no extras.

Price: $47.98