Today’s performance of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier was broadcast live in HD from The Metropolitan Opera House. It was the 376th staging by the company of Strauss’ most popular opera. An impressive number, but far from La Boheme’s 1208 or Aida’s 1112. There’s a reason for the difference besides its being around for less time. It’s not as good as the other two. It does take a lot of resources to mount Rosenkavalier, but not more than Aida. The problem with the Strauss work is that it’s far too long. You could easily cut 45 minutes from the score without losing much. All of the third act up to the Marshallin’s entrance could easily go.Today’s performance clocked in at more than four and a half hours including the Met’s notoriously long intermissions.
Strauss just didn’t have the knack for slapstick comedy that makes up most of the third act. Much of Ochs’ carrying on in the first act could also be cut. Ochs is an obnoxious boor who can’t engage an audience’s sympathy.
So what’s it got going for itself? The Marshallin, one of opera’s great characters. Beautiful waltzes, magnificent orchestration, a final trio that’s one of music’s most inspired ensembles; it was exquisitely delivered this afternoon. Lots of other fine music and a story that’s appealing.
Renée Fleming has been singing the Marshallin at the Met for 10 years. She’s got the role down pat. She looks great (whoever did her cosmetic surgery is a master) and her voice is lustrous and silky from top to bottom. Even with video director Barbara Willis Sweete’s penchant for blemish revealing closeups you could still believe that she was in her early to mid thirties. The Marshallin seems to suffer from bipolar disorder. Fleming portrayed her emotional volatility without overemphasizing it. What makes the character is the sensitive, probing, and beautiful music Strauss has given her.
Everybody loves the Marshallin, but think about what she does. Today, in some jurisdictions, she’d be in front of a judge rather than an audience. She’s having sex with a 17 year old boy. She’s also committing adultery. I wonder why and how she hooked up with a kid half her age. Something is seriously wrong with the lady. Talk about suspension of disbelief.
OK, let’s talk about it. Octavian, the 17 year old boy, was played by a 50 year old woman – Susan Graham. She’s good looking, is well preserved, and possess a beautiful voice. She can also act which is a good thing because for about half the opera she has to pretend to be a boy pretending to be a girl. She’s been singing this role at the Met since 1995. Her impersonation is as good as any I’ve heard since before she was born. The Marshallin realistically thinks Octavian will leave her soon – how could he not. Octavian is a typical teenager who confuses lust with love. He moves on to Sophie who is a dimwitted 15 year old. How long to you think it will take before Octavian finds another Marshallin? And how long before the Marshallin finds another Octavian? The whole plot is small beer.
Sophie was played by soprano Christine Schäfer. Her mind seemed to be someplace else as she gave a vocally satisfactory (aside from a small crack at the beginning of her part) performance that seemed disconnected from the action. She even seemed that way during her intermission interview. It’s hard to believe that this is a singer who scored a great success with Berg’s Lulu. There were times I thought she might fall asleep.
Baron Ochs was sung by Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson. He fits the requirement that the bass who sings Ochs be a reject from The Incredible Hulk. He did as much with the role as one can given the character’s repellent personality which is only partly offset by his great waltz tunes. His voice is solid in the middle but goes airy at its top and is weak at its bottom. German composers not named Mozart seem to be unable to do comedy that doesn’t have at least a twinge of nastiness about it.
Eric Cutler gave a lovely reading of the Italian Singer’s aria. His voice is a slender instrument, though. Veteran Thomas Allen was an unctuous and confused Faninal. Nathaniel Merrill’s 40 year old production still looks splendid. The rest of the cast was up to Met’s high standard. Stage director Robin Guarino had a lot of people running all over the stage for much of the second and third acts for little reason. A little less hysteria would be welcome.
Dutch maestro Edo de Waart returned to the Met for this run of Rosenkavalier after an absence of 10 years. Strauss’ brilliant orchestra is as important a player in this opera as any of the singers. De Waart led his singers and orchestra with care and skill. A beautiful and sensitive reading of this dazzling score.
The Met’s subtitles gave up any attempt (except for an occasional “ain’t”) to translate the various forms of German that comprise Hofmannsthal’s libretto. The nobles speak an archaic high German, the commoners speak low class Viennese dialect, and the two Italians (Annina and Valzacchi) mouth broken German. But it’s hopeless to translate this for non-German speakers. Try translating Porgy and Bess into German.