Der Rosenkavalier at St George’s, Bristol

HAVING enjoyed a number of live screenings of plays, musicals and operas over the past few years, I was greatly looking forward to St George’s screening of Richard Strauss’ matchless opera Der Rosenkavalier, or to give it its English title The Knight of the Rose.

Not that it could be described as being “live” in any way.  Far from it; this screening was of a film made in 1925 – and a silent one too.  A silent film of an opera?  A strange concept maybe, but one of the many things I learned from last night’s excellent programme notes was that film versions of operas were actually quite popular in the silent film era, although few can surely have been as spectacular and of such high musical quality as this.

Once thought lost, this astonishing film was restored about ten years ago with the final eighth reel being totally reconstructed, thus enabling the entire work to be screened once more to the score Strauss himself wrote.  Strauss, in fact, conducted the London premiere at the Tivoli Theatre on The Strand some twenty five years after the actual opera was first written.  The performance, broadcast by the BBC, was widely reported, The Standard going so far as to describe the occasion as “the most distinguished event in the history of cinematographic entertainment.”
It was Strauss’ original librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal who had the idea of making a silent film of Der Rosenkavalier.   According to the programme notes, Hoffmansthal believed that gesture was more powerful than the written word and so the idea of an opera without singers focusing on gesture and its relationship to music held huge potential. Although the composer was initially reluctant to get involved, the promise of an excellent fee together with tours of the film in Europe and America changed his mind.  As one would have expected, Strauss’ music is based on that of the original opera and was written for large orchestra; indeed it was the first attempt by a major composer at a through-composed film score.  A rather more flexible “salon version” of the score was also made, intended for performance in cinemas where small orchestras were resident.   It was this that was used for Friday’s screening, the film being accompanied by an impressive and hard-working chamber ensemble of a dozen players drawn from members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by the splendid Geoffey Parsons.
It was clear from the outset that Parsons knew both his film and his score inside out.  The musicians’ extended tuning and quasi-practice during the opening credits created a clever sense of anticipation; and when the film actually began and the orchestra launched into Strauss’ opening bars we were hooked and immediately transported back to the 1920s and the era of the silent film.  The lack of horns came as a bit of a surprise at first (Strauss makes great use of these in his actual opera) but with some extraordinarily fine playing from the wonderful OAE together with the remarkable clarity of the St George’s acoustic, the leaner, maybe even cleaner texture of the orchestration was perfect.   It was the perfect project for an orchestra known for its love of exploration and innovation too.
The director of the film was Robert Wiene, who had already made a name for himself with The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920).   The plot is loosely based on the operatic original, but as it was very much a “people’s film opera” as Strauss liked to call it,  some of its many convolutions were sensibly ironed out and numerous rather more spectacular scenes, including a battle and what must have been just about the biggest garden party ever, incorporated.  Far more was made of the character of the boorish Baron Ochs than in the opera too, played, interestingly enough, by one Michel Bonen who himself was an opera singer although, of course, this was not evident in the actual film.  His coarseness and general ridiculousness was well captured both by Weine and Strauss – the waltz which accompanied his first appearance making particularly effective use of the harmonium.
Most of the film was shot at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna and such was the extravagance of the project, with its cast of hundreds if not thousands, it is hardly surprising that it actually bankrupted the production company.  Nevertheless, Wiene’s sense of taste and total understanding of the art of the silent film was evident.  The opulent sets and scenic spectacle, the detail paid to the grouping of his actors, and above all to their expressions, gestures and body language, (I had never realised before that hands could be so revealing), all contributed to hold us absolutely rapt from start to finish.  Add to this Strauss’ glorious music and you could almost sense more layers of thought and feeling in just about every frame of film than you might have considered possible.
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment have performed Der Rosenkavalier two or three times now and their next performance, in Vienna, is imminent.  Speaking to one of the members of the ensemble afterwards, I was informed that Viennese audiences can sometimes be a bit sniffy about things.  It will be their loss if they do not embrace this though – it was absolutely wonderful.

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