Edinburgh Festival: Silent Movie Der Rosenkavalier Festival Theatre

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The chance to see a silent film with its specially written music, played live, is still a rare experience. In this case, it was a particularly fascinating one, as the film of Der Rosenkavalier was thought lost until recently, while the adaptation by Richard Strauss of the music from his own opera contains additional material, including some written specially for the occasion.

Heroic efforts by film music specialist, Berndt Heller, which involved reassembling a print from sources in London, Prague and Vienna, have resulted in a very watchable version, complete except for the last 625 metres. The film is (perhaps mercifully) half the length of the opera, and the score, in this case in a chamber version, abounds with familiar tunes - sometimes sounding a little strange in their new guise, as when the Italian tenor's aria is rendered on trumpet and harmonium. The musical arrangement is on the whole very efficient and surprisingly varied, considering that only 11 instruments are involved. This performance was given by the Karlsruhe-based group, Ensemble 13, who, under the direction of Manfred Reichert, achieved miracles of synchronisation, assisted by a gadget operated from the orchestra pit.

The film itself, dating from 1926, presented some novel angles on the familiar story, with new scenes, including a massive outdoor battle involving what looked like half the Austrian army, an open-air masked ball, and numerous comic or satirical touches not so evident in the opera. Perhaps most interesting of all is the presence in the plot of a whole new strand, as we follow the adventures of the Marschallin's absent husband, busily saving his country on the battlefield, while overhearing rumours of his wife's carryings-on back home. As played by Paul Hartmann, the Marschall cuts an impressive and lonely figure, with a dignity assisted by his (relatively) restrained performance. Something that cannot be said of the other chief players, who over-act with abandon in the "serious" love scenes in a way that seems irresistibly ludicrous to contemporary eyes, and caused much hilarity in the audience at Saturday's screening. By contrast, this pantomimic excess works well in the comic scenes: the magnificent Michael Bohnen is grotesquely tremendous as Baron Ochs, like some bucolic Austrian version of Dr Johnson, capering madly to the strains of the famous Rosenkavalier waltz.

This showing proved an engrossing and entertaining experience, to the extent that there was a palpable feeling of dismay at the film's abrupt end - those cursed missing 625 metres, which presumably no one will ever see again.