Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

That’s no silver rose, that’s a whole silver rose shrub.

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.

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Und in dem “Wie” da liegt der ganze Unterschied

On Friday night, most of the New York opera fanatics I know were at Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall. Forgive me, but I enjoy Strauss far more than Britten and I went to Der Rosenkavalier instead, in its first performance at the Met this season. It’s an adequate but uneven revival, featuring a promising surprise debut by Erin Morley as Sophie but some miscasting elsewhere.

The biggest drag on the evening was Edward Gardner’s conducting, though drag isn’t really the right word. Because it was quite rushed, heavy, and thick, which is a bad combination for Strauss. There was little gradation of texture (particularly noticeable considering Vladimir Jurowski’s exemplary transparency in the Met’s current Die Frau ohne Schatten), and the orchestra was consistently too loud, often forcing the singers to belt when they probably were perfectly capable of doing something more subtle. Gardner seems to have little sense of Strauss’s rhythmic flow, either, and while fast, his conducting rarely danced, and when he slowed down (as he did for much of the solo music), it was just slower, without the sense of lingering on a thought. I wondered if he was shy of making it too sugary, but it didn’t seem like he’d found a plausible alternative. The orchestra played fairly cleanly, with a few clams in the horns and trumpets, but I missed the string sound of Munich and Vienna.

If Vienna was lacking in the strings, it was present in Martina Serafin’s regal Marschallin. She gave a classy, solid performance with beautifully clear diction and sense of the text. She’s sympathetic and natural onstage, and gives a good impression of spontaneity. Her voice is big enough to have won most of its fights with the orchestra, and it has an appealingly old-school grainy quality. But this was also a modest performance, lacking in some degree of magnetism. While the Marschallin might give up Octavian, she still is the most complex figure in the opera and often has the greatest command of the stage; Serafin seemed to have resigned that role as well. The only thing big about her Act 3 entrance was her dress.

Perhaps this was because the revival was planned around Elina Garanca’s Octavian, which is reputedly just such a major performance. But Garanca is pregnant, and was replaced here by Alice Coote. While I really like Coote, she is thoroughly miscast and we are left with something of a stardom lacuna. Coote’s solid, thick voice lacks the complex overtones and sheen that this role ideally demands, and its near-soprano range seems high for her. It also seems to be a bad match for her introverted, non-showy personality. She did best in Act 3, where her piping, shrill Mariandel had some funny moments. But in the straightforward ardor of Act 1 and the majesty of Act 2 she seemed out of her element.

The trio was completed by Erin Morley, a happy replacement for the “sick” Mojca Erdmann. Morley has been singing small roles at the Met for a while—things like Rhinemaidens and the Dew Fairy—as well as larger roles elsewhere. Her Sophie started off irrepressibly energetic, and her voice is a lovely high soprano, very well focused and controlled even in the highest reaches. She understandably spent a lot of the opera looking directly at Gardner, but this was an impressive role debut and I hope the Met gives her more good assignments.

There must not be too many Barons Ochs (Ochsen?) in the world of opera, because I’ve seen Peter Rose sing this thing a number of times in any number of very similar productions. His voice isn’t the largest, which was an issue here, and he had real trouble with the highest and lowest parts (the top note on the haystack line being a particular issue), but he certainly knows his way around the opera, gets the dialect, and can play the comedy without being as irritatingly crass as some.

The supporting cast was acceptable if not distinguished, with a pinched and high-note-challenged Italian Singer from Eric Cutler, an uneven but really funny Annina by Jane Henschel, a largely inaudible Valzacchi by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, an unmemorable Faninal by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, and a very shrill Marianne Leitmetzerin by Jennifer Check. As the Police Commissioner, Richard Bernstein did his usual thing of singing everyone else off the stage and making you wonder why he wasn’t singing Ochs or Faninal (he is doing the same as Zaretski in Onegin). Only James Courtney, as the Notary, was guilty of heinous overacting.

The production dates from 1969, as betrayed by the pastel carpet. It’s dated and dull. I am kind of amused at the enormous round of applause the Act 2 set (seen above) inevitably generates. I believe it is in fact intended to show the nouveau riche Faninal trying too hard in the interior decoration department, but that point may be impossible to convey at the Met, where too much is never enough. It is also tricky in an opera like this, which will never send one servant in to make an announcement when it can send in four who sing in counterpoint. (Also, you may have noticed that this opera is a bit long.) I was going to say, “you could make a production about that dynamic,” but then I remembered that Stefan Herheim already did, and I went to Stuttgart once to see it. (It was far and away the best Rosenkavalier production I’ve seen. You can watch a little bit of it here, somewhat NSFW.)

When I looked up this Met production’s age on the Met Archives database, I found a thoroughly entertaining review of its first performance by Irving Kolodin from the Saturday Review. He wrote:

Given such a variety of elements, a truly successful “Rosenkavalier” could emerge from only two sources: a powerful integrated dramatic supervision, or an overwhelmingly influential effort by the conductor. This “Rosenkavalier” was not blessed with either. Nathaniel Merrill’s direction solved, successfully, the primary problems of movement, displacement, and interchange of personnel on and off stage. But he had not, so far as I could determine, done much to stimulate characterization among those performers who had not brought a characterization with them, or achieve a totality among the characterizations that were offered.

I could not have put it better myself. He also notes, “Best of all, the [set designer] O’Hearn production gives every promise of durability.” Perhaps that virtue has carried this one a little further than it should have?

Let me say that my companion at this performance, who knew the score but had never seen the opera live, found it fairly satisfying. This is an opera impressive and multifaceted enough that any halfway decent performance offers considerable food for thought. (I catch something new every time, and I still regularly miss the point in Act 2 when Annina and Valzacchi switch sides.) But as an admitted Rosenkavalier addict (in my defense, I spent 2010, which was its 100th anniversary, in Austria and Germany, when everyone was producing it), this one is middle of the pack at best.

Der Rosenkavalier runs through December 13. Photo copyright Jonathan Tichler.

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier. Met Opera, 11/22/13. Production by Nathaniel Merrill (revival), conducted by Edward Gardner with Martina Serafin (Marschallin), Alice Coote (Octavian), Peter Rose (Ochs), Erin Morley (Sophie), etc., etc., etc.

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Der Rosenkavalier in Munich: Die schöne Musi!

The Marschallin seems like a role that the elegant, meticulous soprano Anja Harteros was born to sing. She finally did it at the Bayerische Staatsoper this season, and repeated it with the fabulous Octavian of Sophie Koch at their Festspiele this Saturday (the July “Festspiele” consists of a few new productions plus a retrospective of the season with most of the same casting, fancier audience members, fewer rehearsals, and higher prices–fun but a little unpredictable). While Otto Schenk’s production would benefit from a good fumigation and energy injection, the all-star cast made this worth it.

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier. Bayerische Staatsoper/Münchner Operfestspiele, 7/23/2011. Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Constantin Trinks with Anja Harteros (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), Lucy Crowe (Sophie), Peter Rose (Ochs), Piotr Beczala (Tenor).

This Rosenkavalier is an Otto Schenk extravaganza, similar but more opulent than Vienna’s Schenk. This run was originally planned as a new production this season, but intendant Nikolaus Bachler decided to keep the Schenk at the last minute, supposedly a bone thrown to staging conservatives. While the sets and costumes are in fine physical shape, age is still a problem. Most seriously, the Personenregie has gaps: there are many points where the singers simply stand still while the music cries out for stage action. As the Marschallin would point out, you can’t stop time.

Visually, the cluttered aesthetic is not to my taste–the von Faninals seem to gunning for a record for the largest china collection outside the Hofburg. But the level of detail (such as the inclusion of visible and detailed antechambers behind the main set) is impressive if you like that kind of thing. The Act 3 inn is more convincingly seedy than some other productions’, though the action in the opening was not as clearly laid out as it could have been. If you want to see this production in action back in its glory days, such as they were, you can do so on this excellent DVD conducted by Carlos Kleiber with Gwyneth Jones as the Marschallin.

I can’t really comment on many of the acting details of this performance, because, as is often the case at the Nationaltheater, my view of the stage was hopelessly bad. I could see the set and, once in a while, the singers, but as for most of what they were doing beyond the big rote blocking action you get in a standard issue Rosenkavalier (which is what this was), I’m not too sure.

Late replacement conductor Constantin Trinks (GMD in Darmstadt) seems like a good find, particularly when you allow for the limited rehearsal time of these festival productions. It wasn’t the most precise Rosenkavalier I have ever heard, and both stage-orchestra coordination and the faster orchestral business were off at times. But the light spirit, indulgently slow ending, and general sense of shape and dramatic timing worked really well, with a clear path through a score that can meander. Balance was something of an issue in Act 1, when the orchestra overpowered the singers, but improved over the course of the evening.

Anja Harteros has a wonderful way with the text, with beautiful diction and wit, and a conversational musicality that sounds both natural and graceful. Her voice is a little smoky and grainy, in a good way that makes her sound unique, and her middle voice has the strength needed for this role. Most notable is the detail and musicality she puts into every phrase, which is particularly good for Straussian style. Once or twice she sounded studious, but she is already my pick for the Marschallin of today.

Sophie Koch is an experienced Octavian. Like Harteros, she tends towards the aristocratic side of her role, welcome after too many slap-happy, excessively hormonal productions. But she is still convincingly youthful and masculine, funny in Act 3 without being over-the-top, and sings with expansive, lustrous tone, only sometimes sounding a little thin on the very top notes (Octavian did, after all, start as a soprano role).

The rest of the cast was perhaps not quite their match, though Lucy Crowe’s Sophie was very good, sung with richer, fuller sound than the thin twitterers you sometimes get, and acted with confidence but never brattiness. Unfortunately the pitch of her high notes wavered occasionally. Peter Rose’s Ochs is one of the better ones out there, more bumpkin than lecher and sung with style and fluidity, but his voice is rather hollow at both top and bottom. Supporting roles were universally solid and well-rehearsed.

In a delightful bit of luxury casting, Piotr Beczala appeared and knocked the Italian Tenor aria out of the park. Sure, it’s a kitschy bit of music, but given such a luscious rendition, it’s the best two minutes of tenorial bliss you could ask for.

Despite the boring production (which I couldn’t see too well anyway), a festival-worthy performance.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Der Rosenkavalier in Stuttgart: Ist ein Traum…

The Marschallin of Stefan Herheim’s virtuosic Staatsoper Stuttgart Rosenkavalier is a sad woman with a lot on her mind. In her unconscious, she struggles between restraint and abandon, the ugliness of reality and the lush comfort of backwards-looking art. Backwards-looking art? Yes, this is a deconstructive production. But while Herheim doesn’t let Strauss off the hook for his sentimentality and conservatism, he also creates something with genuine beauty in the big moments and wit in the small ones. If it sounds overstuffed, well, it is, but so is the opera.

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Der Rosenkavalier: Wie du warst, wie du bist

While Otto Schenk’s Wiener Staatsoper Der Rosenkavalier have been spiffed up and the staging is showing alarming signs of rehearsal, a great Rosenkavalier still requires a great cast. While Adrianne Pieczonka’s Marschallin is very fine, neither she nor her less distinguished costars quite lit up the stage. With the exception of the excellent orchestra, this wouldn’t have rated above a solidly routine Rosenkavalier in most houses. In Vienna, a city that takes its Rosenkavalier almost as seriously as its Mozart, it ranks as a disappointment.

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Der Rosenkavalier in Budapest: Heut’ oder morgen…

Budapest’s magnificently gilded opera house is a relic from Hungary’s glory days, when the city was the joint seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But while it was a high point for a nation that considers itself very important (just check out the size of the Hungarian Parliament), the Dual Empire period was the beginning of the end for Habsburg power.  On the cusp of World War I, Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier would appear, a Habsburgian comedy in the same rococo guise as some parts of the opera house.   Rosenkavalier in Budapest, you might say, has baggage.

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