Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier

Live Telecast from The Metropolitan Opera

15 January 2009 5 stars

Der Rosenkavalier'What a drag it is getting old,' reads the opening line of The Rolling Stones' 1965 hit, Mother's Little Helper – a sentiment echoed, with greater subtlety perhaps, by the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. But Saturday's Metropolitan Opera performance of the Strauss masterpiece – led by a handsome pair of singer-actresses who, at 50 years of age, not only sang beautifully but also captured so convincingly the demeanor and personae of much younger characters – suggests that in show biz, at least, it's possible to age without growing old (…just ask Mick Jagger and Keith Richards).

Set in mid-18th century Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier (1911) centers upon a love triangle that comprises an aging Austrian princess (the Marschallin, played by Renée Fleming), her resolute 17-year old lover (Count Octavian, played by Susan Graham), and the eventual object of Octavian's affections, Sophie (Christine Schäfer) – the 15-year old daughter of the wealthy merchant, Faninal (Thomas Allen). Setting aside for the moment any moral and/or legal issues as defined by 21st-century sensibilities, the real force behind librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's drama is the Marschallin's coming to grips with, and ultimately yielding to, the inevitable passing of youth.

At 40 years of age, Nathaniel Merrill's 1969 Metropolitan Opera production of this Strauss masterpiece is, like Fleming and Graham, still going strong. It is well to remember, however, that Der Rosenkavalier is ultimately a character-driven opera that relies less on theatrical elements than good old-fashioned synergistic interplay of its principal characters – and therein lay the strength of the current Met production.

Until the climactic third-act trio, the main characters are delineated principally in pairs: the Marschallin and Octavian (Act I); Octavian and Sophie (Act II); the Marschallin and – figuratively speaking – Father Time (Monologue, Act I). The strength of the current production is unquestionably the interplay between Fleming and Graham, which during the entire first act and last half of the third act was frequently breathtaking and, by operatic standards, about as real as it gets.

Fleming and Graham have known each other since winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and have worked together countless times since. It shows. Their frolicking in bed in the Marschallin's boudoir, as the curtain rises at sunrise, appeared natural, instinctive and genuine.

Der RosenkavalierGraham's demeanor in the trouser-role of young Octavian, including her gait, posture and boyish expressions, was remarkable for its believability and spontaneity. I can't say I look forward to watching a middle-aged woman playing the role of a teenage boy, but I come prepared in such cases to suspend credibility as a necessary price for enjoying the overall performance. The six-foot tall Graham, using her imposing stature and some very convincing masculine mannerisms and gesticulations – such as her good-humored punches (as Mariandel) at the Baron during the supper scene – made it unnecessary for the audience to suspend belief. Some five or ten minutes into the performance I was willing to buy the premise: She is he, and a young 'he' at that. Period.

Like her acting, Graham's mezzo-soprano was beyond reproach. Her voice was strong throughout the performance, and sufficiently malleable to capture the many personalities she portrayed – from faithful lover in the first act (Wie du warst!), to coyish maid and finally to aristocratic nobleman, as he prepares to begin his life anew with Sophie.

Fleming's Marschallin crafted a three-dimensional character whose wide range of emotions and personal torment reached extraordinary depths of expression. Fleming completely immersed herself into the part during the first-act monologue (Heut oder morgen), where she tells Octavian that sooner or later (today or tomorrow) he will leave her for a younger woman, and later sheds the cloak of invincibility to reveal a very human and vulnerable woman.  After she tells Octavian 'now be good and go,' tears begin to streak down her face (visible only, perhaps, to those watching the opera via simulcast?). Fleming's exquisite and flexible lyric soprano displayed a kaleidoscopic range of color and shades of expression – including the softest pianissimos whose phrase endings seemed to melt away into the ether.

Kristinn Sigmundsson proved a perfect fit for the arrogant high-and-mighty aristocratic lecher, Baron Ochs (pronounced 'Ox,' a fitting play on words by Hofmannsthal). The Icelandic bass's tall, burly character – the drama's principal source of comic relief – captured the listener's attention as soon as he entered the stage, and once there it was difficult to look elsewhere. I loved Sigmundsson's commanding lyric basso profondo, which was in great form Saturday, from its deep pedal tones that descended to low E at the end of Act II to his solid high register. Sigmundsson played up the lecherous behavior to its limits during the amusing dinner scene in Act III, but never lost sight of his character's place in this opera: that of an incurable, but loveable, oaf. Of all the characters, Sigmundsson's German diction was the clearest, crispest, and most comprehensible.

As the innocent young heiress, Sophie, Christine Schäfer proved a credible teenager caught in a power struggle over which she has no control. The German soprano has an attractive lyric soprano, and her solid high register and good blend of vocal timbre was put to good use in the third-act final trio and subsequent duet with Graham. Still, Schäfer's facial expressions were rather one-dimensional throughout the performance, particularly during the signature presentation of the rose scene in Act II, and she maintained an aloofness that suggested that the young soprano was willing to throw her body, but not her heart, into this performance.

Robert O'Hearn's spacious and opulent period sets, particularly Faninal's breathtaking palatial estate in Act II (curiously labeled a 'town house' in the projected English translation), looked attractive (at times stunning) and left ample room for Stage Director Robin Guarino to engage her characters in some light slapstick.

O'Hearn also designed the costumes, which are faithful (if not entirely stunning) replicas of mid-18th century aristocratic elegance, such as may be seen on the set of a period-production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro – only with a twist. Using a technique that recalls the pervasive reappearances of the color red in Stanley Kubrick's 1999 neo-noir film, Eyes Wide Shut, the color lavender permeates this production as ubiquitously as Strauss's leitmotifs (character-themes). We first see in this production the ornate lavender trimming on the front of Octavian's formal aristocratic attire when he presents the silver rose to Sophie in Act II. The lavender motif then reappears on the spectacular dress donned by the Marschallin during the final trio of Act III, and again on Faninal's robe at the end of the opera. Lavender also becomes a central focus of the production's lighting scheme, particularly during the final act.

Guarino's visual effects were generally well-timed and alertly executed, such as during the quickly paced and visually appealing pantomime at the opening of Act III, as the characters prepare to frame the hapless Baron Ochs. Still, the visual cacophony of running children and scurrying servants eventually began to grate on my nerves. Much more effective was Guarino's first-act choreography of the characters in the Marschallin's antechamber – a curious consortium of musicians, servants and guests who vie against each other to gain the princess's attention and curry her favor. Among the hopefuls is the nameless Italian tenor (Eric Cutler), who delivered his enchanting bel canto aria with poise, self-assurance and an irresistible lyric tenor that was so appealing I became angry when Baron Ochs abruptly cut him off mid-phrase.

One small role that deserved recognition is the part of police commissioner, played by baritone Jeremy Galyon, whose commanding baritone and assertive stage presence suggests a promising career.

Der RosenkavalierTV and Transmission Director Barbara Willis Sweete, who choreographs the camera-work for these HD simulcasts, strived for shots that juxtaposed pairs of interrelated characters, capturing the telling facial expressions of the main characters and affording the listener a window into the soul of both the singer and the object of the singer's affections. The good camera-work clicked to great effect during the 'aristocratic ritual' of the presentation of the rose, when the handsomely dressed Octavian glances for the first time into the eyes of the beautiful Sophie. It was as if someone had pressed the button on a stop-watch, as Octavian stands frozen in a gaze of fear, then confusion, then finally love (it should be noted here that, like the fabled Droit de seigneur of Mozart's Figaro, no such ritual ever existed: Hofmannsthal simply made this up).

Before turning to opera in the early years of the 20th-century, Strauss wrote symphonic tone-poems almost exclusively. And while Strauss made ample use of his considerable orchestrational skills in his earlier operas, none can compare with the sheer ebullience – and unabashed aural exhibitionism – of Der Rosenkavalier. Here, the orchestral score is not only as important (or as dazzling) as Strauss's writing for voices, but it forges an unshakable bond with the glitzy costumes and sets intended to recapture the vibrant splendor and elegance of 18th-century Vienna.

The Met Opera Orchestra, under the expert direction of Edo de Waart, took Strauss's score to a pinnacle that perhaps even the composer himself might not have imagined possible, with razor-sharp precision in the intricate wind passages and bravura horn passages that soared to the fore at all the right places. De Waart's tempos were oftentimes brisk and daring, such as the breakneck speed of the second-act orchestral introduction, yet the players appeared to relish the challenge. Even the tarantella-like frenzy that opens Act III posed no problems, as the ensemble responded with rapid triplet passages delivered cleanly and evenly.

By David Abrams

Photos: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera


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