The irony is that much of this Rosenkavalier looks green, upon part of producer, maestro, and Marschallin. In terms of casting, this looks like quite a competitive dvd of Rosenkavalier, and with the Octavian (Vesselina Kasarova) slightly better than I expected. Much of the supporting cast is fine, especially the Notary (Guido Goetzen), Commissar (Gunther Groissbock), but also landlord (Volker Vogel), Annina (Brigitte Pinter), Duenna (Liuba Chuchrova), and host of major-domos, vendors, orphans, and footmen. The Italian Tenor (Boiko Svetanov) is strained and Valzacchi (Rudolf Schasching) undercharacterized.
Vesselina Kasarova's Octavian goes toe-to-toe with some of the best Octavians we have ever had on disc. Nothing ever sounds a little too pushed, strained as it even does with good artists in this part, in getting the impetuosity of the lad across. The comedy, forgiving a little misguided stage direction here and there, she plays and enjoys to the hilt. The 'Mariandel' scenes in Act One, and even to some extent in Act Three, are as funny as you will come across elsewhere. Kasarova's tone is full and even all the way across, and always interesting in color, making allowance for a little awkwardness of diction.
Equally praiseworthy is the Sophie of Malin Hartelius, an artist I have only seen before as Pamina, from Zurich again, on dvd. She has the warm tone for lower notes and midrange, ethereal high notes to almost closely rival Helen Donath and Lucia Popp, and together with all that warmth of character and charm, without even momentarily turning droopy or coy. She stands up to the Baron as well as any, and shares the stage very well with the Octavian.
The Baron Ochs of Alfred Muff, some vocal grayness and a few moments of sprechstimme apart, is fine, if not in the first class of Ochses. Still, he is preferable to some, more comedic and a bit more likable than Kurt Rydl on cd for Haitink and resisting the temptation to play the Baron as a buffoon, as happens too much with Otto Edelmann on the EMI set with Schwarzkopf and Karajan and as is discouraged by Strauss. He was likely to have been discouraged here from doing so - if so, an unusually wise move for this production (Sven-Eric Bechtolf). The Faninal of Rolf Haunstein is overparted and only routinely funny - no match to Benno Kusche on Kleiber I.
Vocally, the Marschallin of Nina Stemme is as full and sumptuous as anyone could ever ask for, and with sufficiently mature voice to belie her age, albeit with still some bloom on top. She interacts well and comedically with Kasarova in both the opening and the `Mariandel' scenes of Act One. If one merely just listens to Stemme, one would find a few lines still a bit lachrymose and still some other crucial lines not quite fully formed interpretatively. It is yet another thing to watch her on the video.
Without hearing it as such, this is a neurotic Marschallin, given to crying spells (as evident in the closing scene of Act One, when it has begun to wash over her that Octavian will soon get the hint), and yet in as ladylike a manner possible, apoplectic fits, where she more or less gently collapses to the floor. There is a lack of originality here. Those who love Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's Marschallin will rebel, for the same we get from her vocally as we do here visually.
It is in the final scene of Act Three that inexperience really shows. Nina Stemme gets locked into an all-purpose smirk in her oversight of the resolve to the proceedings of Act Three, sterilized and insufficiently comedic here, for example Annina's picked up children in butterfly wing costumes. And to what kind of posterity does Nina Stemme want to leave her acting for what has also been a rather heavily led Trio in the finale from the podium? She collapses to the floor at the end of the Trio and has to be helped toward exiting the stage by Octavian and Sophie, barely having made it off before the other two have resumed singing.
Tall, charming young doe Stemme is, what is it for the Marschallin's chances to have Octavian back for a fling next time the Feldmarschall is out of town, or seek dalliances with others? Or perhaps the Marschallin has already been making a habit of it. Watch her final re-entry with Faninal, walking in quite separately from him, the way she walks in, gestures to him, and nuances both facially and vocally one of the most revered closing lines in all opera - "Ja, Ja." Again, for sake of posterity, I hope that ten years down the road, Stemme gets another crack at it.
Franz Welser-Most conducts much of Rosenkavalier little more than adequately, smoothly and with warmth, and most of the time with the right lilt for the abundant waltz music with which so much of this music is imbued. His conducting of the opening and closing scenes of Act One both have the right degree of introspection, in support of the two protagonists on stage.
Some of the smoothness of his approach can be at times a little too much of a good thing, however, and the Zurich opera orchestra seems a bit overpowered by a few of the demands the score makes. Welser-Most seems especially shy of some of more vehement and dissonant pages in the score, seeming to apologize for some of them. Similar to along lines with Karajan, some lack of musical and dramatic contrastis the price we pay. He also makes slightly heavy weather of the Trio, and in response gets a stentorian, slightly plodding response from all three ladies.
Most deleterious, in addition to his taking most of the usual stage cuts, is a disfiguring cut he takes to the latter part of the scene of Octavian's duel, resulting in this case in an implausible potentially mortal stab wound to the Baron's foot. The Faninal household, including the Lerchenau gang its midst, has no time to react, and the harmonic change so disjunct and awkward that Stauss could not have ever advocated it. This is clearly a place where the music, that of Richard Strauss, has been forced into accommodating the (stage and) stage direction. The lining up of the left and right hand sides of the stage with choristers for the cries of "Der Skandal!" during the Police Commissar scene of Act Three is also cheap and equally insipid.
Sets are uniformly gray and white, with through the windows at back a more than perennial icy, fogged up gray, and some lack of variety in lighting. Staging wise, things hold out some promise for the first two thirds of Act One, though imagine your dismay when you see the same set for Act Three. One wants the Faninal kitchen in Act Two to open out for the Presentation of the Rose, into a grand hall and foyer for the Faninal palace; such never occurs. The entire action of Act Two takes place, in effect, backstage. Appearances by different characters in rear upper window - idea that only holds out slight promise at first - quickly becomes tiresome by the end of the act. One or two silent parts, including that of a mysterious tremulous and emaciated looking noble at the Faninals, and momentarily a few times, Leopold (played by a teenager) are too obtrusive.
Image quality is fine, sound quality a bit recessed, annotation sparse, extra features nonexistent. For complete credits, one must see the end of the truly Bergmanesque last track of Act Three. Especially for a sticker price of forty bucks, pass this one up and stick with the Munich Kleiber(I) - unfortunate for how fine Kasarova and Hartelius are, yet also for the star turns of especially Alfred Muff and also of Nina Stemme. We will be hearing much more from her soon.