Review: Richard Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ at The Met Opera
So personal is the relationship between Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier and its admirers that the arrival of a new production at the Metropolitan Opera is like having your living room redecorated. It has to happen every so often but disrupts your inner and outer world — while leaving you wondering what aspects of the finished product you love, what you can live with and what you might eventually get used to. A few years ago when a new Rosenkavalier at the Glyndebourne Festival gave this dry Viennese comedy a nude scene, an older man in a kilt was heard grousing, “Why do they always have to be so bloody clever?”
Perhaps no current opera director is more clever or intelligent than Robert Carsen, who was greeted with a mixture of boos and cheers Thursday at the Met’s new Rosenkavalier — one that may also be Renée Fleming’s farewell to the opera stage (though diva farewells are always provisional).
Musical matters were mostly well in hand with Sebastian Weigle leading a particularly sparkling, well-paced Act I. In the psychologically rich role of the Field Marshall’s wife, Fleming was in her all-too-typical medium-voltage form (slathering everything with pretty much the same creamy vocal tone) until Act III, when she summoned the kind of expressive urgency that originally made her a star. Particularly eloquent was her exit: Reacting to a casual comment about the romantic impulsiveness of young people, the aging aristocrat sings “Jah Jah,” which Fleming gave a melancholy suggesting the character never had the luxury of youth.
The production’s big picture was this: The original 18th-century Viennese setting was brought forward to World War I — a concept that raised the dramatic stakes effectively. Suddenly, the middle-aged Marschallin and the teen-aged Octavian weren’t just hopping in and out of bed, but seeking love, as war is threatening to wipe out their Old World way of life. So why, in the middle of this, was a nouveau-riche family marrying off their daughter Sophie to the obnoxious Baron Ochs? In this production, Daddy was an arms manufacturer and is making loads of money that can raise his social status.
What perhaps divides audiences is how Carsen executed his concept. Even with the opera set in a later age, I can’t imagine why designer Paul Steinberg made the boudoir of refined Marschallin a gaudy color that can only be described as Hello, Dolly! red. The low-class tavern of Act III became a house of ill repute, which made sense in this era of La Ronde, the 1897 Arthur Schnitzler play about Viennese sexual mores. But did the clients taking a tour of the place have to be grossed out by the smell? Amid all of this, Baron Ochs wasn’t a generic buffoon but was semi-dashing, less broadly comic and a bit more menacing with his offensive but more understandably military manners. Thus, bass Günther Groissböck was more vocally conservative than in more traditional productions where comedy takes precedence over musical accuracy.
The production naturally had an impact on the singing — in many ways. As young Octavian, Elīna Garanča was so convincingly male that at first I was sure she was actually Stephen Costello. But when Octavian is disguised as a female maid, she indulged in broad physical humor at the expense of her vocal performance. Of course, where singing really counts in the sublime, the Act II presentation of the wedding rose, Garanča’s wonderfully lean but lustrous mezzo-soprano unfurled. Then in Act III, Carsen turned the tables: Octavian wasn’t pretending to be some innocent maid but threatened to overwhelm Ochs with Fifty Shades of Grey. (Garanča had a high old time). Erin Morley was the young bride Sophie sung with spring-water-fresh soprano and a less-submissive spirit than you see in traditional productions. Matthew Polenzani was broadly comic in the cameo role of the Italian tenor, but I wanted more soul.
My single wish for future revivals of this production would be to de-populate the stage. Carsen simply had too many people too much of the time. When the Baron sings his famous Act II waltz, the stage was full of people in evening clothes waltzing around. Other crowd scenes were so crowded that significant details were lost. Kind of like that old Barbra Streisand film version of Hello, Dolly! There’s that name again….
TAGS: 1864 1949 [lc] der rosenkavalier opera renee fleming richard strauss
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David Patrick Stearns
DAVID PATRICK STEARNS
David Patrick Stearns is the classical music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributor to WRTI-FM in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to Gramophone and Opera News magazine