STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, Anneliese Rothenberger, Otto Edelmann, Erich Kunz et al.; Vienna State Opera Chorus, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan conducting. Kultur 1268 (two cassettes, subtitled).
His name may not loom that large in the history books, but every lover of art films owes a debt to Paul Czinner. Among other things, he was the first to bring Olivier to the screen in Shakespeare (via the 1936 "As You Like It") as well as the first to film performances by the Bolshoi and Royal ballets and full-length operas at the Salzburg Festival.Two of the last are of particular importance - a 1954 Furtwaengler-conducted "Don Giovanni" (with Siepi in the title role) and the above-listed "Der Rosenkavalier," which dates from 1961. Certain aspects of the production may look primitive by today's standards, but the latter preserves in full color not only the near-definitive Marschallin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (who recently celebrated her 75th birthday) but the equally treasurable Octavian of Sena Jurinac, Otto Edelmann's Baron Ochs and, last but far from least, the playing of the Vienna Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan.
"Rosenkavalier" buffs will recognize these names from recordings, Schwarzkopf and Edelmann popping up in the same roles on Karajan's classic EMI set with the Philharmonia (now outstandingly transferred to CD). Jurinac, on the other hand, was arguably the most effective element on Erich Kleiber's mono-era London recording of the opera and the decision to bring her aboard for this project must be counted as inspired.
The result is a production in which the Knight of the Rose for once really does become the dramatic focus of the piece. Whether bidding reluctant farewell to the Marschallin or finding his heart stirred by Sophie's youthful innocence, this Octavian invariably commands our sympathy, with singing of ususual purity and strength.
Interestingly those same qualities distinguish Edelmann's Ochs - almost certainly his finest role - in a vividly drawn characterization in which every detail, vocal and dramatic, stands out sharply. Reminding us that originally he was to be the title character, the aging roue from the country whose ill-conceived marriage plans are ultimately set at naught by the dashing young cavalier.
But, as is well known, it was eventually the figure of the Marschallin that captured the hearts of composer and librettist alike. "It is this character that the public, and particularly the women, will feel to be the protagonist, and with whom they will leave the theater," Hofmannsthal wrote Strauss midway through their collaboration.
Certainly that is true of Schwarzkopf's performance, at once regal and wise yet susceptible to the fears that assail every woman whose mirror tells her she is no longer impervious to the ravages of time. When she confides to Octavian that some nights she goes through the rooms stopping the clocks, we sense her reluctance to let either her beauty - still very real - or the youth his love for her symbolizes slip through her fingers. Yet she does let him go, and in the process gains the stature Strauss' music has hinted has been there from the beginning.
Indeed so complete is her identification with the part that even her occasional vocal mannerisms work to her advantage, such as that beautifully
VIDEO shaded tremolo that here conveys the barest suggestion of fragility.
For the rest Anneliese Rothenberger makes an appealing if somewhat artificial Sophie and the veteran Erich Kunz an expert Faninal - actually more restrained than one might have expected. But it is arguably Karajan who earns his solo bow at the end for his sweepingly expansive shaping of the score, from the impassioned surge of the prelude to the controlled opulence of the more intimate pages. At the same time the intrigues sparkle and the VPO brass registers strongly.
Against this the video catalog offers, on both tape and disc, a state-of-the-art Covent Garden taping with Solti - gorgeously sung but a bit shy on character, particularly the Marschallin of Kiri Te Kanawa. Aficionados will also be aware of an earlier tape issue of the Czinner film, on VAI, a bit better transferred vis-a-vis the mono soundtrack (which is in fact a little rough) but lacking the subtitles Kultur now offers.
For myself, I would not want to be without either. But if I could have only one it would be the Salzburg video, supplemented by the Solti and Karajan recordings and the ancient set of extracts with Lehmann, Schumann, Olszewska and Mayr, recently reissued by Pearl. That may not make for a complete "Rosenkavalier" library, but it's complete enough, with every item as glistening in its way as the silver rose Octavian bears to his beloved. And every bit as much a classic.