Notes and Editorial Reviews
Comic opera really isn't funny, it's just that it isn't tragic or melodramatic. There are exceptions of course--long moments in Il barbiere di Siviglia and L'Italiana in Algeri are Marx-Brothers-funny, and Falstaff's sly wit and often fat-bellied situations can really get you laughing at a good performance; but anyone who actually laughs during Die Meistersinger badly needs a vacation, and to laugh at the vulgar ribaldry of Rosenkavalier's last act is to be crazy about the obvious. Moreover, the Marschallin, zooming headlong into her mid-30s (yipes! over the hill!), has such wise, "bittersweet" moments that non-Viennese people, who make up 99.8 percent of the rest of the world, can only wonder how the waiters in a Kondotorei in Vienna can be so horrendous and sour, given what must be a national propensity for "bittersweetness". It is therefore all the more wonderful to report that this recording of Rosenkavalier, taped live in Salzburg in 1953, is imbued with an attitude that refuses to resort to sentimentality, an attitude that brings a smile, if not exactly a guffaw, to the listener's lips.
Conductor Clemens Krauss deserves the lion's share of the credit for realizing that there's actually something satirical about the work, that it is about a style of life and a way of thinking and behaving that deserves to be lampooned. His orchestra attacks the music with great flair, while the rhythmic flow is smooth and natural. He chooses fleet tempos throughout, slowing down almost morbidly once or twice only to underline the buffoonery and self-centeredness of Baron Ochs, brilliantly played for very broad laughs by Kurt Boehme, who is the only one allowed to exaggerate. Maria Reining's beautifully sung and acted Marschallin is simply grand. (She recorded it in the studio two years later under Kleiber, and her singing is pretty awful.) She doesn't play the character with any sadness whatsoever: even the moment near the end of the first act where she admits she sometimes stops the clocks is treated as a fleeting thought and not as the weighty epiphany that so many singers take it for. And during much of the first act she seems to be actually smiling and having a good time.
Opting for a soprano Octavian also lightens the entire opera's texture, and here Lisa della Casa, revered by opera fans around the world (albeit a singer whom I have invariably found precise and cold, if with a beautiful tone) is fabulous--impetuous, flighty, out for a good time, silly-and-he-knows-it. Hilde Geuden completes the female trio, and her Sophie is delicious--youthful, nervous, but absolutely certain that she's not getting hitched to the disgusting Baron. Her tone remains a matter of taste: a touch of acid is always present above the staff. The point is that we leave the opera feeling that these four people are as close to real as the convention allows--very un-Schwarzkopfian, indeed. Alfred Poell's Faninal is properly fawning and fatuous, and the Italian tenor of Karl Terkal is not only well sung, but also is a nice imitation of an Italian tenor in the home of a fancy lady. The entire ensemble is excellent; these people have this opera in their blood. The orchestra is as good as we might expect.
As a bonus, the third CD closes with the start of the last-act trio and continues to the opera's end, in a recording studio-made in 1936 and expertly spliced with missing parts from a 1944 broadcast, both under Krauss. The singers are Viorica Ursuleac, Tiana Lamnitz, and Erna Berger, and they're excellent. It's remarkable that the timings are almost exactly the same--to the second--as the '53 performance: Krauss had a real vision for the work that was unchanging. The sound on the '53 performance is pretty terrible, but the singers can always be heard (and distinguished between) clearly. The '36/'44 highlights sound far newer and cleaner. Perhaps this set is for people who normally don't like this opera (an odd recommendation); or perhaps it's just a great performance with an alternate, not-overly-romantic point of view. Whatever, it gives great joy, lousy sonics and all.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com