14 September 2004 | Gyran
Regal Dame Kiri
Listening to Der Rosenkavalier is like lying in a warm bath for three hours. Well I've just had a six hour bath because I wanted to compare Kiri Te Kanawa's 1985 version with the Felicity Lott version of 1994. This was only a metaphorical bath because watching television in the bath can be fatal. Even if you are watching the television in the lounge through the bathroom door there is still the danger that you will drop the remote control in the water. By the end, my metaphorical bath was thoroughly chilled by the real tears rolling down my cheeks as I listed to the final trio three times over, first Lott, then Te Kanawa, then Lott again. This is one of the reasons why I love opera on film. Anyone wanting to do a comparative review of the two live productions would have to wait nine years to do so and then the comparison would be blurred by selective recall.
The Te Kanawa film is the Royal Opera House production, directed on stage by John Schlesinger and on film by the estimable opera specialist Brian Large. As well as Dame Kiri as the Marschallin, this stars Anne Howells as Octavian and Barbara Bonney as Sophie. The conductor is Georg Solti. The 1994 film stars the so-called dream team of Dame Felicity as the Marschallin with Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian and Barbara Bonney again as Sophie. This is a Vienna State Opera production, conducted by Carlos Kleiber. I do not wish to draw a distinction between the vocal performances in these productions because, as far as I am concerned, all five singers are wonderful. Dame Kiri is a more regal Marschallin and Dame Felicity is more human. Barbara Bonney as Sophie in both productions gives the impression that the role was written for her. Anne Howells makes a charming man or woman and Anne Sophie von Otter is the sexiest thing I have ever seen in trousers. We should be grateful that Richard Strauss's hatred of tenors caused him to make Octavian a trouser role. This makes Von Hofmannsthal's libretto almost like a Shakespeare comedy with a woman playing a man who then disguises himself as a woman. But it is a comedy with great profundity. The final trio in which the Marschallin realises that the time has come to let her lover go to a younger woman is everyone's favourite for a desert island.
So why do I go for the Felicity Lott version. Let me give you two tiny reasons. When von Otter appears as the Rosenkavalier to present the silver rose to Sophie she is stiff and formal and does not look straight at her but we can see from von Otter's eyes what she is thinking. We see the sidelong glances at Sophie and then when they finally look directly at each other we see the devastating effect on both their faces. The other is at the very end of the opera when the Marschallin makes her final exit. She trails her hand behind her, correctly assuming that Octavian will rush to take it for one last time. That detail of Von Hofmannsthal's is in both films but it is von Otter and Lott who accomplish it most movingly.
Finally to that last trio. Why did I watch it three times? Well, first I watched the Lott version, then Te Kanawa and then Lott again to try to work out why I preferred it. Ultimately I think it was Carlos Kleiber's interpretation that made the vital difference and caused my warm bath to run cold with tears.