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Love as a Schell game

Using a light touch, the director infuses Los Angeles Opera's 'Der Rosenkavalier' with fantasy, poetry and unalloyed modernity.

May 22, 2005|Donna Perlmutter | Special to The Times

The phone is ringing loudly, insistently. It's actually sitting at his feet, so he has to lean forward to be heard. But somehow, Maximilian Schell behaves as if all is silence.

Doesn't he want to answer it?

"No," he says. "I can't just be available at the moment of someone's whim.

"You're living your life -- which isn't an affair you jump off and then jump back onto."

That fairly sums up the unremitting attention the Austrian-born, Swiss-bred, Oscar-winning actor-director-documentarian is giving to the job before him: staging Los Angeles Opera's new big-budget "Der Rosenkavalier." The production -- his second for the company, after a much-admired 2001 "Lohengrin" -- will open a seven-performance run at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion next Sunday.

"Directing is like meeting a woman," he muses, leaning back in a pillowy club chair in his West Los Angeles townhouse. "You don't know her, but something strikes you and then you just have to go into it. Michelangelo said that in every rock there's a figure hidden. All you have to do is carve it out. With care, not haste."

One can imagine just how much care went into Schell's memorable movie performances: the frighteningly enigmatic defense counsel in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (which won him the Academy Award as best actor of 1961); the suave master thief in "Topkapi"; the grim, hard-bitten resistance agent under direst Nazi threat in "Julia." Similarly, his remarkable 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich employed a format so original that others have copied it.

Schell has taken on the look of a maestro in the decades since then -- indeed, he's been cast as the late conductor Herbert von Karajan in an upcoming film. Now 74, he sports a slight, shaggy beard and a black scarf wrapped at his throat. His deeply burnished baritone rolls out like a cultured continental's, with a mere trace of a German accent, though not the stiff variety. He's definitely from the schmoozy school.

Hence, he says, with this "Rosenkavalier" -- as with any of his other projects -- he has at first taken a relatively hands-off approach, not wanting to interfere with the performers' instincts.

"When you have the cast, the sets, the lights," he says, "an opera takes on its own life.

"I'm not one of those directors who marches in with a set of plans," he adds, parodying the type by hunching his shoulders and grunting as though at the wheel of a heavy vehicle. " 'Go wherever you want,' I tell them, 'and when you're done, I'll look at it and make suggestions, adjustments.' "

He likes to start with the foundation.

"First you put a roof on the house, paint the walls, etc. When I was a young actor, in my first apartment, the first thing I bought was a Steinway piano," he says, pointing to a nearby baby grand, which he can play with considerable mastery. "There was no bed at first. I slept on the floor.

"As an actor, I was a fantastic rebel. Then I became a directorial rebel and understood rebels from both sides. So now I am a friend who gives advice -- not one who knows more, necessarily, but who shares ideas."


Chronological cross-references

Often those are small ideas, such as one he recalls watching director Charlie Chaplin work out in 1966 while filming "A Countess From Hong Kong" with Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.

For a particular scene, Chaplin looked again and again through the camera: "It was all about two heads and the distance between them. Too close and their eyes cross. Too far and there's no contact."

As it happens, though, such decisions can be crucial to the success of "Der Rosenkavalier," Richard Strauss' fifth opera, composed to a libretto by Austrian playwright and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal and first performed in 1911. It's a blend of humor and pathos, a comedy of manners and mores that also chronicles more serious undercurrents, including the social upheaval that resulted when the 18th century Viennese bourgeoisie crept into the realm of the aristocracy. And its themes are personified in one character -- the Marschallin, or field marshal's wife -- a woman who laments the loss of her youth but wisely reckons that her young lover will move on.

"I admit to finding my main focus here rather than with the music," says Schell. "But of course the two are intertwined. Strauss could not have written it without Hofmannsthal. After Da Ponte" -- the author of Mozart's best-loved operas -- "no one ever wrote such beautiful librettos."

Much consternation surrounded "Rosenkavalier's" premiere in Dresden, Germany; many revised versions followed. At one point, the great theater artist Max Reinhardt was called in for directorial doctoring. Hofmannsthal even made a silent film of the opera in 1925, "just to preserve its authenticity from bad productions," says Schell. "It contained his exact work and his corrections."

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