Exquisite! Mostly so. Musically so certainly, vocally so as well, and the colors of the sets, the reds particularly, are so rich and vibrant, as in the first season of Downton Abbey. Robert Carsen and his team do for Der Rosenkavalier what they did for Verdi’s Falstaff a few years ago. As back then, it mostly works here.
For starters they update the action from the 1740s in Imperial Vienna to 1911, the year Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden, but also just before the onset of the Great War. The clouds were gathering. Portraits of Emperor Franz-Josef adorn the walls, soon to be history. The update vastly increases the costume opportunities, for one thing: the various folks gaining a morning audience with the Marschallin in Act I sport a wide variety of threads, as do the gleeful girls at work in Act III. But the time shift also opens the door for a greater military presence on stage, both in heavy metal, weapons and gray attire. Baron Ochs is in uniform, Leopold, billed here as Ochs’s bastard son, is in uniform; the officers dancing at Faninal’s are in their dress whites, the foot soldiers in the finale of Act III are suited up for battle. The powder in this Rosenkavalier is gun powder, not wig powder or snuff.
Günther Groissböck’s Baron Ochs is wonderful. Couldn’t take my eyes off him and always cocked my ears for him. Ochs is still a monied swine in Carsen’s production, but we detect also in this lack of class an unhealthy dose of the barracks. Groissböck’s Ochs is battle-fit, not a manatee with a wig in tails. He may be socially glib and flippant in the quite long give-and-take with the Marschallin in Act I, but au fond he’s a sexual predator, agile, sly, with light coat of yellow orange fur on his head. Like a fox. He wounds easily and retreats to the safety of his mates when the going gets rough. On top of all this, Groissböck is vocally as solid as they come, giving lie to the assertion that weight in voice comes with weight in frame.
Poor Sophie! I mean, how could her father let this arrangement happen? Erin Morley sings timidly in girlish anticipation of meeting the man she’s intended for, poignantly as she remembers her deceased mother, and heavenly as she returns Octavian’s ardent glance. She is as resistant and responsive as she needs to be, depending on whom she’s interacting with. Reticent at first, Morley grows in voice as her character grows in stature and in the courage to shape her own destiny.
Sophie is particularly responsive to the magnificent Octavian of Elïna Garanča. Though later in Rosenkavalier’s creative process Strauss became increasingly smitten with his Marschallin, the title character of the opera is in fact Octavian, aka the Cavalier of the Rose who bears the silvered stemmed blossom to Sophie. Yes, the Marschallin is perceptive and wise and has an introspective depth rivaling Wotan in Act II of Die Walküre, and yes, the character is often sung by a seasoned, savvy soprano who is as comfortable on stage as the Marschallin is in her mature, not to say ‘old’ skin. But introspection is not action: Octavian is the agent of change in this opera. Garanča’s Octavian is a young man here, certain of what he wants, if not so certain how each ensuing moment will pan out. Disguised as Marandel, the skirt in Acts I and III, Garanča swoops and wobbles, brazen, not shy. As Octavian, she never shys away from coupling with the women. Garanča’s every moment, dramatically and vocally, is memorable, even given the sometime excessiveness of Carsen’s direction.
Renée Fleming ranks very close to the top of my list of Marschallins, a list which includes Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Kiri Te Kanawa, and Felicity Lott. In this, her farewell performances at the Metropolitan Opera (can this be even true!?), Fleming adds to her wealth of experience a degree of mellow. Her Marschallin converses with Ochs in Act I as if it were an everyday chat; her partnering with Octavian was physical and passionate. Mostly conversational or otherwise engaged, Act I really doesn’t give Fleming a chance to let loose. Happily her contribution to the trio in Act III with Garanča and Morley met all expectations. Thank you for the thrill, thank you for the memories and best wishes, my dear Renée.
There are twenty-eight, count ‘em, twenty-eight other vocal characters in this opera. Some highlights include: Matthew Polanzani is the elegant Italian Singer in Act I, looking like Caruso and autographing a 78; throughout are Alan Oke as the oily Valzacchi, and his equally so accomplice Annina, taken by Helene Schneiderman; Sophie’s Papa, the wealthy, recently ennobled Herr von Faninal, is given to spells of anxiety, all with big voice by Markus Brück; Sophie’s Duenna Marianne Leitmetzerin is also given big voice by Susan Neves. I mean, wow!
Intriguing as well is conductor Sebastian Weigle, whose Fidelio struck me quite positively earlier this spring. Though certainly not shying away from the big orchestral moments, particularly the Introductions to Acts I and III, Weigle weaves out of Strauss’s many notes a subtle orchestral fabric that intrigues almost subliminally, never shouting “hey, listen to this!” The intricate complexities of this detail-heavy score are not lost, but rather woven together seamlessly. I’m very much looking forward to hearing it again. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is in top form throughout.
Robert Carsen’s team includes Paul Steinberg, Set Designer, Brigitte Reiffenstuel, Costumes, Carsen and Peter Van Praet, Lighting Design, and Philippe Giraudeau, Choreography. Like Carsen’s recent Falstaff at the Met, the costumes and colors are brilliant, the characters are well defined, if sometimes over the top, the sets are fluid, the direction is taut, and the comic asides are real chucklers. Remember the random horse calmly eating the hay in the final Act of Carsen’s Falstaff? Here in Act III we have a topless tart chatting on the (whore) house phone amidst a lot of comings, also goings; a john wanders in semi-clad from an adjoining room to retrieve his watch. Leopold is something of the voyeur, hiding under the bed much like Bardolph (or Pistol, I don’t remember which one) in Falstaff’s room at the Inn. Many of the interactions are physical and explicit here, not the sort one imagines Frieda Hempel or the great Lotte Lehmann putting up with. I’ll go on record by saying there is too much groin-groping, even for this administration. Effective, yes, but also overdone.
The playing spaces point back to the rear of the stage but the floor space is large. A drop wall with doors, sometimes furniture in front as well makes for a wide but shallow playing space. It’s effectively used for entrances and exits and when the drop wall is lifted, the larger interior space is revealed…all good. As at the end of Carsen’s Falstaff, the angled walls open in back. Here a squad of soldiers does a ready, aim, fire and all fall down. The Great War is just around the corner. Unfortunately the magical end of Rosenkavalier is a first casualty.
This said, you still have to see this one and, especially, hear it.
Reviewed performance: April 24, 2017
Photos: Ken Howard and Kristian Schuller
I love this opera. Don’t miss it.