Rosenkavalier: Time stole my high notes

Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier.  Metropolitan Opera, 1/15/09.  Conducted by Edo de Waart, stage director Robin Guarino.  With Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Ochs), Thomas Allen (Faninal), Eric Cutler (Italian Singer).

OK, folks, I know I said that Il Simone was going to be my next review, but sorry, I lied.  I went to Rosenkavalier last night.  I saw it back in October, but why should I turn down an opportunity for an additional, uh, almost five hours with my buddy Richard Strauss (AND I got to sit down this time)? I saw no reason.

So you can probably guess from that and from my current nom de blog that I LOVE my Rosenkavalier.  But I’m kind of protective towards it.  It’s a delicate thing, you know?  If the comedy and pathos and energy and lyricism aren’t all balanced just right, it stops casting its spell and begins to resemble the kitsch object that the haters claim it always is.

This performance was pretty good, and Act 3 was close to perfect.  Kudos to Edo de Waart for conducting a sprightly, non-bombastic, and yet touching account of the score, which never dragged or got overly sentimental (even when Mariandel did).  But some other things weren’t quite so on the dot.  Act 3 was indeed very special but most of the dramatic meat of the piece is found in the first two acts, which were musically nice but theatrically… off, if just by a bit.

The comic stuff in Act 1 between Ochs and Octavian was WAY overdone, far too broad.  We had nowhere to go for Act 3, which should be a descent into something, but we were already at some kind of lowest denominator.  Besides, for an opera that is all about propriety I feel like Ochs would have the sense not to do anything so offensive in the Marschallin’s presence.  Also, it just wasn’t funny, because there was so much of it and it came as so little of a surprise, ever.

Act 2 seems to me to be all about stillness and motion, between Octavian and Sophie’s ewigkeit and all the busy and fleeting affairs, er, activities of the Faninal household.  I still got that, but a certain element of contrast between the two was missing because the fighting and rudeness wasn’t anything new, it was just Act 1 all over again—again, the crassness of Ochs was drawn so early on that there was nowhere to go.

Renée Fleming’s Marschallin is in theory ideal, but I found her curiously uninvolving.  She has all the musical and dramatic notes right there, but they seem underplayed.  On some level this criticism makes no sense, the Marschallin is nothing if not subtle, but somehow for me Fleming failed to capture the simultaneous artifice and pure humanity that makes Marie-Therese Tosca’s cousin.

Vocally, there were some issues as well.  She might actually have the most ideal Strauss lyric soprano voice ever, but she sounded kind of small, sometimes covered by the orchestra and rarely soaring over it.  Renée and I don’t go way back so I’m  not sure if this is a recent development or the usual state of affairs, or if it was just part of her whole restrained interpretation.  The pianos are gorgeous, but there were many places where I wanted more volume, particularly in the top register (“Ich hab’ ihn nicht einmal geküßt!”).

No one in this cast was a good friend with their upper extension, actually.  I’m not sure if Sophie is quite in Christine Schäfer’s voice.  She’s really a fabulous singer, but it seems like the Sophie train may have left the station a few years ago.  In the fall, Miah Persson sang this role with an effortless silvery tone that just floated up high so easily, Schäfer’s sound has more body but doesn’t project quite as well.  Schäfer seemed to have to work to keep the high notes under control, and I have to give her a lot of credit because none really got away from her and some of them were just lovely, but the effort was there.

Kristinn Sigmundsson as Ochs, as you may gather, was guilty of a lot of unfunny business and mugging through the whole show.  I’m not sure quite why he wasn’t that funny, but he wasn’t.  I think Ochs has to be at least a little sly about his manly Trip to Gropetown (yes that link is safe for work, it’s just a feminist blog), not quite this unaware of himself.  Vocally, Sigmundssson’s voice didn’t really back him up, the high notes and the low notes had volume issues, the middle was OK but not exactly cavernous.

Susan Graham’s voice was far and away the largest of the three women, and this caused some balance issues, particularly with La Fleming.  It’s not the most lush mezzo sound you’ve ever heard, but it’s very strong and has some drama.  Like everyone, she showed a little strain up at the top of her range.  But I found her eager, self-centered, well-intentioned Octavian (and hilarious Mariandel) to be the strongest portrayal in the cast.

Also worthy of note was a cameo by Thomas Allen as Faninal, who might not have much volume left but made a usually forgettable character almost complicated.  Among the rest of the Cast of Thousands, Eric Cutler was a decidedly American-sounding Italian Singer—where’s my star cameo?  Looking at the schedule we could have had Cura (eh, maybe we wouldn’t want that), Giordani (Italian he is), Alagna, or assorted Calafs.  (Shame we didn’t get Beczala.  No, really, click on the link, it’s AMAZING.  This is from the updated Carsen production, which is quite amazing itself.)  Or Placido singing it an octave down.  Hey, why not?

Rodell Rosel was funny as Valzacchi, and Wendy White was a mostly well-sung Annina that kind of annoyed me with her constant waltzing.  I know this is the director’s fault, not hers, but at some points I was pretty sure she should not be hearing the music she was dancing to, in the Abbate sense.  One moment of that kind of slippage would be neat, so much of it just felt dumb.

As for the production, it’s very pretty.  Hofmannsthal’s libretto already has so many layers of symbolism and time that a traditional staging already has some of the qualities that many adventurous stagings attempt to bestow.  But go watch the Carsen production from Salzburg if you want more food for thought, it’s fantastic and really smart.

Too much, not enough, where’s my Goldilocks Rosenkavalier?  Ach, so it goes, I can live with this one for now.  Thanks to operatic partner in crime AH, who heard most of this already and maybe said some of it first.

Next: Your second-rate blogger goes to the second performance of Simon Boccanegra.  Review in approximately one week.

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Je vais marcher dans votre co-production

La Fille du Régiment, Met Opera, 4/21/08. Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego Flórez, Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli et. al. Marco Armiliato.

Donizetti’s Fille du Régiment is an obsession-filled story of a twisted nuclear family. Only when Marie has shed her fractured paternal attachment with the regiment and reluctantly conformed to a traditional model of feminine conduct can she be united with her love, Tonio, who must in turn trade his lederhosen for a uniform to prove his masculinity. Don’t make me tell you about the tank.

Just kidding. Mostly. Been reading some Freud recently; it gets to you.

This production is a hoot. It kept coming very close to the line of Too Much, but never really crossed it.

I liked Natalie Dessay’s Marie a lot more than I liked her Lucia (not reviewed here because I saw the dress rehearsal). Her Marie is a little like a cartoon character, mixed with a slightly mystifying dose of Olympia and occasionally capable of brief introspection. Her voice is still razor-like and somewhat vinegary, but it suits this role and her interpretation of it precisely. Her middle voice had something of a glow to it that I didn’t hear in her Lucia, and her manic presence is also more at home as Marie than as Lucia (where she was hopelessly muted until the Mad Scene). “Forceful” would perhaps describe her voice, but, well, Marie is forceful too. The coloratura is so integrated with the stage action, it’s both funny and entirely verisimilar in an operatic way.

My appreciation of this opera will probably be forever hampered by my utter ambivalence about the 9 or however many high C’s that take up residence in Tonio’s “Ah! mes amis.” I have nothing but praise for Senor Flórez’s panache in singing them, and recognize that it’s an amazing feat, it’s just not my preferred mode of vocal athleticism. And I don’t find the music itself of this number very interesting. Yes, he sang it twice, it was pretty great the second time too, I’m sure I just saw vocal history but give me the regiment song or the Act II trio, or something with lots of coloratura, or whatever. Bwah. Sorry.

But I love love love Juan Diego Flórez. He’s got a lot more than the high C’s, namely charm and style. The slow parts were beautiful, and the cute parts totally cute. He’s funny without forcing anything.

I think Alessandro Corbelli has somewhat more than the amount of voice required of your average buffo but somewhat less than would be required by most other operatic roles. Tonight, at least, he sounded somewhat small and not quite boomy enough. He’s very amusing and his French is fine, though. Felicity Palmer was, as usual, both hilarious and vocally authoritative as the Marquise, nice piano playing too (and re Maury’s question: her piano bit sounded vaguely like Act III of Wozzeck to me). Marian Seldes didn’t steal the show as the Duchess of Krakenthorp, which I think is a good thing. She did make it pretty funny though, including a recurring joke about a bobsled team that made wonderfully little sense.

They all sell the thing, perhaps a little too well. There isn’t a lot of time to breathe. Sometimes the production feels like a slightly overoiled machine. Donizetti comedy is goofy but lovable, without the spicy touch of the surreal that can invade Rossini opera buffa. To be the truly anarchic experience this sucker wants to be, it could use a few more touches of interpolated Wacky to take it out of the “mildly zany” (pace Maury) and into the “totally weird” (though a little bobsled joke goes a long way), or it needs to take the piece as it is and play it a little more straight. It feels like they’re going to squeeze the opera too hard and it’s going to break, though it never quite happens. The emotional scale is a little too big, they want to be able to be touching and wacky at the same time but the gear shifts don’t happen quickly or completely enough and you end up on a fence.

These sell-out-before-anyone-has-seen-it productions bother me. I don’t think it’s been overhyped exactly, it just seems like it has been ordained a hit regardless of its actual quality. Like the encore, it seems somewhat planned out and calculated when it could use some spontaneity. It’s symptomatic of the gains and the losses you get when you import or co-produce something with other houses (in this case, two others–ROH and the Wiener Staatsoper). It arrives battle-tested but maybe just a little bit shrink-wrapped.

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Bye Bye Parsifal

I have no words, other than “Parsifal-Bye Bye Birdie Mashup.” Just watch it.

Sample comments from the YouTubes: “This is awesome.” “This is so wrong.” Both are true.

ETA: Credit where it’s due, I got this from the Parsifal issue of Opera Quarterly.

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