Review by Tony Watts
Not likely to be seen at your local Odeon on a Saturday evening, particularly as a silent film is not the most obvious medium for opera, this version of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s masterpiece stands out as an oddity in the composer’s output. Presumably conceived as another way of ploughing an already fertile furrow or as a publicity tool for the opera it is broadly a dramatisation of the story of Der Rosenkavalier and boasts a score for orchestra especially written to accompany this one hundred minute version with Strauss drawing on music from the opera, as well as his Couperin Suite and a rather brash newly-composed march.
It was directed by the distinguished Robert Wiene (famous for The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari) who also shared writing credits with Hoffmansthal and Louis Nerz, while design and costumes were in the hands of a team headed by Alfred Roller, a man with impeccable Straussian credentials. The cast included the great German bass-baritone Michael Bohnen who made a vividly rumbustious Baron Ochs. With such an impressive team behind it, omens for the movie looked good, though it was a type of experimental hybrid sure to appeal to the adventurous Hoffmanstahl rather more than to the conservative Strauss. In the event, the picture came in so vastly over-budget that it bankrupted the production company.
Hoffmanstahl re-vamped the storyline considerably to suit the new medium, introducing the Marschallin’s husband, the Feldmarschall, frequently referred to, though not seen in the opera but here shown as a military hero in a massive battle scene. The author was fascinated by the medium and introduced such cinematic devices as flashbacks into the newly worked scenario. Sadly he fell out with Wiene, who ignored most of his innovations considering them over-complicated and effectively removed him from the production. The ever-practical Strauss was less impressed but still conducted both the Vienna and London premieres before bowing to the inevitable financial pressures of the concept and replacing the live orchestra with a recording also conducted by him. He was never one for letting unnecessary expenditure stand in the way of profit.
For many years the Rosenkavalier film was thought to be lost, but specialist Berndt Heller devoted considerable time to assembling as complete a print as possible from sources in London, Prague and Vienna, but even now the last ten minutes or so are missing, replaced by stills and excerpts from trailers. Despite Wiene’s participation as director and with the large budget allowing for several spectacular scenes, it is not a particularly original or interesting piece of filmmaking and suffers from some almost comic over-acting from several members of the cast. It is also hard to escape the conclusion that Strauss’s heart was not fully in the enterprise despite him demonstrating his customary mastery of the orchestra. It was well received, particularly in London, with the Evening Standard, indulging in a positive orgy of hyperbole describing it as ‘The most distinguished event in the history of cinematographic Entertainment’.
This concert at the restored Queen Elizabeth Hall by the Orchestra Of The Age Of The Enlightenment under Geoffrey Paterson was an attempt to recreate the original Dresden and London premieres, albeit using the chamber version of the score, where a showing of the film was preceded by a selection of favourite Strauss songs, in this case the Vier Lieder Op.27 (Ruhe, meine Seele!; Cäcilie; Heimliche Aufforderung and Morgen) as well as an excerpt from the Presentation of the Rose from Rosenkavalier sung here in appropriately silvery tones by young British soprano Charlotte Beament (replacing the announced Miah Persson), an OAE Rising Star, recently heard at ENO in Nico Muhly’s Marnie, though the failure to engage an Octavian was a sad omission which took the edge off the last vocal item.
It was fascinating to hear Strauss’s film score played so beautifully by the OAE and made me eager to hear some of the major Strauss orchestral and operatic works in similarly expert HIP performances.
Ultimately, whatever its flaws, the Rosenkavalier film is a true rarity, which all Straussians will be grateful to have been given a chance to experience.
The Rosenkavalier (1926) film showed at Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH) on 17 May. For information on events and concerts at QEH & the South Bank Centre, click here.
[Header Photo: Feldmarschall played by Paul Hartmann. His wife played by Huguette Duflos, Sophie performed by Elly Felicie Berger and Octavian performed by Jaque Catelain.]
Tony Watts is a keen opera, concert, theatre and ballet-goer. He has spent most of his working life in the music industry, including a 16-year spell at Decca Records. He has compiled and produced over 1,000 re-issues on CD, LP and digital formats, and written notes for several hundred more. In addition to writing for a wide variety of musical books and publications, Tony has worked as a music consultant on films and on exhibitions for the V&A. Follow Tony now on Twitter: