The Met’s new Rosenkavalier is a pleasant surprise. It’s good and you should see it, but maybe not for the reasons you expect.
While much heralded as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the operatic stage, she’s not its primary attraction. She’s fine and deserves a nice send-off for a distinguished career, but she is too pallid to be this production’s star. Yet the Met has, seemingly accidentally, ended up with something way more interesting and harder to achieve than a Marschallin showcase. Robert Carsen’s production is a creative and coherent interpretation of a piece which is often more exhumed than directed, and the Met has found something I didn’t even know existed: Günther Groissböck’s actually good take on Baron Ochs.
Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier. Met Opera, 4/17/17. New production, conducted by Sebastian Weigle, directed by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Cast includes Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Elina Garanca (Octavian), Günther Groissböck (Ochs), Erin Morley (Sophie), Markus Brück (Faninal), Matthew Polenzani (Italian Singer), more
Der Rosenkavalier is like the concept musical of opera: more about ideas and setting than linear plot, its staging almost written into its text. (Think of it as the intellectual grandparent of Follies and Cabaret, which are both oddly similar in some ways.) This makes it a tricky work to deconstruct because so much of the Meaning and specific local color are there and seemingly fixed. Can a work already preoccupied with artifice and a particular time and place, endowed with Hofmannsthal’s extremely literary libretto, really stand another layer of interpretation? You can’t just plop it into a generic fascist dystopia and call it a day. It takes more work, though directors like Stefan Herheim and Herbert Wernicke sure have done it.
I wasn’t sure if Robert Carsen was going to do that work, particularly considering that the Met isn’t a very receptive place for it. He’s also an unpredictable director. Despite his consistent visual signatures (famously, red chairs and huge beds, both of which are prominent in this production), he ranges from brilliant austerity (his much traveled Dialogues of the Carmelites, his now retired Met Onegin) to boring austerity (Met Falstaff) to party time (his Candide, which caused a minor international incident during the second Bush administration). But I am happy and very surprised that it is the rarely sighted party time Carsen who showed up this time, and he got the Met audience’s boos to prove it.
This is his second whack at Rosenkavalier; you can see his earlier one on DVD from the Salzburg Festival. Both replace the original eighteenth century with 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere and the very twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose aristocracy the Marschallin represents. This is not an unusual choice but for this piece it’s an interesting one: The Marschallin’s longing for her youth becomes a synecdoche for late imperial malaise, the nouveau riche Faninals represent the industrialization which will power World War I, and Ochs is a loose cannon and a big enough idiot to be eager for said war to start. The historian in me can nitpick but I have to admit that in dramatic terms it makes sense.
This isn’t entirely clear from the highly farcical Act 1, however. Paul Steinberg’s set starts in a bright red bedroom which could be in the eighteenth century, except for certain fashions and the portraits of Emperor Franz-Joseph. While excellently blocked—in its details this production is polished—you go to Renée Fleming and Elina Garanca for lush sound, not for textual insight. Neither seems to have a great deal going on behind the words. Garanca sounds gorgeous, Fleming sounds excellent, but they’re classy rather than distinctive. Fleming in particular seems to miss the sadness and bitterness deep in this role and is content to settle with “somewhat sad.” (I would stick with Anja Harteros and Sophie Koch as my favorite pair in this opera.)
But add to this Sebastian Weigle’s speed demon tempos and Günther Groissböck’s unusual and inspired Ochs. My standards for Ochsen are not high, few basses can sing it compellingly and he usually comes across as a crass dupe. Groissböck’s rather aggressive take is younger, more energetic, and less of an obvious victim. He’s not the village idiot but a man with power who is used to getting whatever he wants. This makes his eventual comeuppance much more satisfying and the slapstick comedy far more engaging than usual. Vocally, he isn’t huge but connects with the text in a natural way and sings the role’s big range with more ease and fluency than, I think, any other Ochs I’ve heard.
The second act is more conceptual, and it suddenly seems significant that Ochs and his henchmen are all soldiers in uniform (remember the Marschallin imploring Octavian, in this libretto’s inimitable style, “sei Er nur nicht, wie alle Männer sind,” or “just don’t be like all men,” which she specifies as meaning Ochs and her husband). If the Marschallin’s house was Austria-Hungary, the Faninal Stadtpalais’s decor suggests modernism as well as the military, with Mies van der Rohe-like back sofas and huge cannons (machine guns? something?) rolled around occasionally (the libretto specifies the source of his wealth as “he supplies the army,” a detail that usually goes unnoticed, but one that seems vital here). The staging of the Presentation of the Rose begins nicely with rows of doubles for Octavian and Sophie, but I wish said doubles would have stopped dancing during the actual singing part. Sometimes this production is a bit too busy. Erin Morley is a Sophie with some backbone and independence right away. Vocally, though, she is very much on the light side of things, with a filmy and gentle sound. She floats the floaty music like it should be floated and sounds quite lovely. You can hear her sing a chunk of it on Youtube.
Act 3 is the production’s most provocative. (Maybe this is why there doesn’t appear to be a single available press photo depicting any part of it. Sorry.) The setting of a garish brothel is only a hop away from the original’s chambre separée, as they say in operetta, though the production does have a lot more fun than usual with the local personalities. This also means that Carsen ditches the usual Ochs scare tactics of trapdoors and such, but finds appropriate analogues (suggesting that there’s no reason to take the libretto’s specificity as law). (Most hilarious was a half-naked man who appeared to wander in mid-tryst to retrieve a lost watch? I was sitting quite far away, but I think that is what happened.)
But there’s a bigger thing going on here: the production really leans into the queer and carnivalesque aspects of the piece, which is actually kind of unusual—you wouldn’t think an opera with this much drag would end up prim, but it often does. Octavian’s maid outfit is, er, more convincing than is entirely plausible within the realms of the plot, and instead of a naïve country girl he gives Ochs something rather more practiced with a lot more sex farce slapstick, and Garanca finally manages to loosen up. (Including a Marlene Dietrich impression at one point. In general this act looked more like the 1920s than the 1910s. I would also like to point out that the all-girl band, while charming, would never have had a saxophone in 1911.) There’s a kind of random orgy, but I believe every production of this sort requires a random orgy at some point. It’s all in contrast to the military might of Act 2. And since we’re dealing here with an Ochs who serves as a representative of hegemonic masculinity, the idea of him being brought down so thoroughly by a queer spectacle is gratifying. But it also feels like wish fulfillment: as anyone who has seen Carmen knows, the establishment always wins. (This was a major theme of the Herheim production, but manifest in a totally different way.)
And here’s where we get the big twist ending! If you’re seeing this production, you might want to skip this paragraph. The trio and duo happens in their pretty way, and Mohammed, instead of picking up a dropped handkerchief, is enjoying a bottle of something. But then the walls in the back open to reveal a line of soldiers ready for slaughter: Ochs’s and Faninal’s bellicosity has only been briefly diverted. I was at this performance with my dissertation advisor and a bunch of other Princeton profs and this ending proved divisive, but I thought that the concept demanded it and I was glad it was there. It doesn’t go with the music, but maybe that’s kind of the point: the war is outside the piece, something it can’t include, something that breaks it.
Elsewhere in the cast, Helene Schneiderman (the operatic equivalent of a Beloved Character Actress) was a fun Annina, Susan Neves sounded big but shrill as Marianne, and Matthew Polenzani was an ideal Italian Tenor, looking a bit like Puccini, or maybe Caruso, and handing the Marschallin a record. (This reminded me of the time at the Bay Staats when Piotr Beczala sang the Italian Tenor and then showed up in the lobby during the first intermission to autograph CDs while still wearing his costume. That was perfect.) Markus Brück was a solid Faninal, and the many minor roles were well-taken. While Weigle’s tempos were fast for my taste (except in some of the Marschallin’s scenes, when they turned too slow), the orchestra was mostly in good shape, sounding fairly lithe and lightweight. Despite Fleming’s take, for the most part this is a Rosenkavalier that escapes a sugar overload.
All in all, it’s worth seeing and quite a bit above the Met’s usual standard of productions. I’m skeptical about its prospects for revival, since with a more conventional Ochs it would not work nearly so well, and the careful blocking probably won’t look quite so careful next time—as the Marschallin would say, ist doch der Lauf der Welt.
If you’d like to read my ~further thoughts~ on these issues, and trust me I have them, you can check out my article on Arabella in Opera Quarterly.
Rosenkavalier runs through May 13 and that final performance is the inevitable HD, which I will be attending to get a better look at this production than I had from the last row of the balcony. (I will be bringing Smith students. Smith students, unsurprisingly, love this opera. They will love this production in particular, I think.)
Previously in Rosenkavalier (I went through my archives and made sure all the below posts were working—I had to do some fixing on the Herheim one, which hadn’t survived the trip from Blogspot):
Met (Merrill production): Serafin/Coote/Morley
Munich (Schenk): Harteros/Koch/Crowe
Stuttgart (Herheim): Iven/Prudenskaja/Böhnert
Vienna (Schenk): Pieczonka/Houtzeel/Fally
Budapest (Zagyars): Szabóki/Meláth/Rácz
(I did see the old Met production with Fleming too–two or three times, I think–but I didn’t review it here.)
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met