Cher Public

Today or tomorrow or the day after that

“Time is a strange thing,” the lady observes, to a young man who cannot begin to understand what she is talking about. “While one is living one’s life away, it is absolutely nothing. Then, suddenly, one is aware of nothing else. It is all around us—and in us too.” 

When the Metropolitan Opera presents its new Robert Carsen production of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier on Thursday, and eight more times over the following month, conditions will be right for the audience to enter into a meditation on time’s passage. Both singers in the scene quoted above will be at a crossroads. Elina Garanca, moving into new repertoire, has announced these will be her final performances of Octavian, the 17-year-old rose-bearer of the title. It is not a portrayal the Latvian star has brought to the Met before now.

Octavian’s mature lover, the Marschallin, will be Renée Fleming, 58 and a Met headliner for most of her 26 years with the company. Although there have been conflicting reports on Fleming’s future plans, these are likely to be, at the very least, her final Marschallins. She starred 18 times in the Met’s prior production, which from 1969 to 2013 showcased generations of Marschallins, Octavians, Sophies and Barons. Some of those singers are gone now, forever to be missed.

Many in attendance will have grown up or grown old with that retired production, and now will be seeing a very different Rosenkavalier. A younger group will have grown up hearing Fleming. Perhaps she will have been “their” soprano, the one whose voice drew them into the special beauties of this strange art form we follow. There is no stopping the clocks. “Yet one must not be afraid of it…”

“To say that Der Rosenkavalier won immediate favor in this city would be far from the truth,” wrote the American‘s Max Smith, covering the Met premiere in December 1913. There was then, as now, resistance to the new. The critic noted “unmistakable signs of apathy” from the audience. “Many persons felt bored after the first half hour of the performance and expressed themselves in terms emphatic.” Although Smith admired Freida Hempel‘s Marschallin, he did not feel the Met had managed a great first performance of a work he knew from overseas productions led by Karl Muck and by Strauss himself.

That shaky launch did no lasting damage. Rosenkavalier‘s 384 Met performances to date are good for 22nd on the all-time repertory list, below Wagner’s Meistersinger and above Verdi’s Otello. A gap of just under six years from January 1917 until November 1922, during and following the United States’ involvement in the Great War, is the longest the Met has ever gone between Rosenkavaliers. The company’s second-most-performed Strauss opera, Salome, has not received half as many performances.

But is any “beloved” opera regarded with such ambivalence? Most operagoers, even those who resist the lurid heavy oils of Salome, Elektra and Frau ohne Schatten, claim to love Rosenkavalier. Fewer claim to love all of it. Although it is rarely given live without a number of traditional cuts, it is still too long for many. Farcical scenes involving the appropriately named Baron Ochs have come in for more criticism that has the Marschallin’s wistful philosophizing, or the budding romance of Octavian and Sophie.

I am not untouched by that ambivalence, and this piece’s existence owes something to editorial powers of persuasion. When we published the parterre box video overview of Rusalka in February to coincide with another new Met production, following similar undertakings in 2016 for Elektra and Tristan und Isolde, I told La Cieca I was not sure I wanted to repeat the endeavor for Rosenkavalier. I know of at least 13 filmed Rosenkavaliers. That would be a lot of poignant reflection and raucous comedy for anyone to take in (or “on”) over a few weeks. La Cieca suggested I write about five DVD/Blu-ray performances—five favorites or five I considered significant.

I considered the proposal while completing some other things for the site, and a sad coincidence ultimately nudged me off the fence: bass Kurt Moll, a favorite singer of mine and a leading Ochs from the 1970s through the 1990s, died on my birthday of this year. Feeling “conscious of the frailty of everything earthly,” I settled on eight performances, two with Herr Moll’s Ochs. Some of these Rosenkavaliers I knew well; others were new to me. We will have one performance of each decade from the 1960s through the 1990s, and two from each decade of the present century.

What I discovered will not sound like much of an insight: Rosenkavalier can be tiresome when the performance is not very good, but does not seem a moment too long when it is very good. A heavily cut bad performance seems endless; a good one with more of the score can fly by. The opera asks a lot from directors, conductors and singers. If they are up to it, it gives a lot back, to them and to the audience.

It provides wonderful opportunities for singing actors of several voice types. There are times in it when Strauss’s music, Hofmannsthal’s gorgeous language, and the situations come together for effects that cannot be achieved in any other art form. If great music theater does not spring from these passages, something is very wrong. The Marschallin’s “Bis in mein Herz hinein” in the first act is one of these; her “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” a few minutes later is another. As “Mariandel” sings in the final act, “Makes me want a’croi.”

A note on cuts: Reviews of Rosenkavalier often mention “the standard cuts” or “the usual cuts.” Met premiere conductor Alfred Hertz reluctantly took 40 cuts, and resisted managerial pressure to take even more. In modern times, I am aware of 16 discrete traditional cuts across all three acts, some more noticeable than others. A conductor may take all 16, or half of them, or none. Most of the Rosenkavaliers discussed in this survey are abridged to some degree. The exception, the 2014 Salzburg, will come at the end.

Rosenkavalier was nearly 50 when Paul Czinner‘s 35 mm film documented the 1960 Rudolf Hartmann/Teo Otto production that opened Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus. Hartmann’s work aspires to clarity and logic, and Otto’s settings for all three acts, with shiny floors and red, gold and cream interiors, look like color versions of photos of the earliest Rosenkavalier productions. Czinner, Hartmann and conductor Herbert von Karajan all were older than the opera, as was the Faninal, Erich Kunz. The other principal singers had been born within 15 years of the premiere.

Much of the interest lies in seeing Rosenkavalier played by people who, literally and in career terms, grew up with it. We see the tried-and-true business from performers who played parts in trying it and making it true. The singers are good operatic actors, not cinema actors, and they synchronize imperfectly with their recording with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic. There are brief audio dropouts in the first act, but the soundtrack has more life and theatricality than Karajan’s highly refined EMI set with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the same Marschallin and Ochs, from a few years earlier.

There is one performance here that will not be bettered by any that comes later: Sena Jurinac‘s soprano Octavian. The line “Ich weiss nicht, wie alle Männer sind” seems the key to the whole character. Jurinac makes something very touching of a young man for whom everything is still new. He cannot bear to imagine there is anything foreordained about his life and relationships, and he is wounded by suggestions that the deep, raw feelings he experiences are commonplace. Jurinac makes explicit the link between Octavian’s hurt at the Marschallin’s reproaches in Act One and his fury at the Baron’s condescension in Act Two.

Jurinac’s differentiation of Octavian’s “Mariandel” alter ego is subtle; the singer does not trade in egregiously flat singing or nasality. This is a charming Octavian, and a very beautiful one, both vocally and physically, but there have been other charming and beautifully sung Octavians. Jurinac has the imagination and the means to get at something rarer: fantasy. Worlds are opening up to this Octavian. They open up for us as well, and we enter them with him.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the fabled Marschallin, had a first-class musical intelligence, and style and understanding with it. I do not know whether it was her idea or her director’s, but she alone among these eight Marschallins hears the graceful music that follows the words “der Lauf der Welt.” She listens to it, contemplates it, and it generates the next section of the monologue: “Kann mich auch an ein Mädel erinnern.”

Schwarzkopf and Karajan build and shape the Marschallin’s big scenes expertly, but there is more “vocal art” than real singing here, with the voice sounding breathy and under careful management. When Schwarzkopf does put pressure on her instrument and sing out, the tone can harden or sour. We also must take it on faith that this chilly, imperious woman was, not all that long ago, the young girl she describes. Traces of that are too well concealed, and in that sense the interpretation, for all its insistence on itself, has not aged gracefully. Perhaps appropriately, Jurinac gets more of a rapport going with Anneliese Rothenberger‘s radiantly wholesome Sophie.

Otto Edelmann does a practiced traditional “oaf” Baron with deadly consistency, clowning with popping eyes. Best of the others are Giuseppe Zampieri, whose lusty Sänger makes “Di rigori” the golden-toned showstopper it cries out to be but rarely is, and Hilde Rössel-Majdan, singing and acting as though Annina is the most important character in the opera. We end with Octavian and Sophie excitedly running off toward a future that seems bright, as if neither sets not score can contain them any longer.

Rosenkavalier was one of several specialties conductor Carlos Kleiber inherited from his illustrious father. In the first of his two admired video versions, Munich 1979, he looks very happy to be there but charges into orchestral introductions to all three acts before the audience’s applause has died down. That hints at the performance he leads: impulsive, brash, but with smiling good humor. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester was not then the polished ensemble it is today. Their sound in 1979 could be described as full of character.

Director Otto Schenk and set/costume designer Jürgen Rose, like their Salzburg predecessors, reach back to the opera’s earliest days for their mid-18th-century recreation. Stage business is less amusing than it can be; crowds line up stiffly, extras looking like extras. The supporting casting is so-so, and the fine tenor Francisco Araiza‘s crack in the second verse of “Di rigori” (which had sounded stressed from the start) reminds us we are in the days of unedited opera videos.

Fortunately, the stars do the heavy lifting. Brigitte Fassbaender, a mezzo like all the later Octavians in this overview, is quite different from Jurinac: more petulant and butch, intense rather than dreamy, not as suave a vocalist, with some scratchy tone. What is the same is the character’s sensitivity, and the conviction in every attitude Octavian moves through over three hours. Lucia Popp‘s vocal purity secures a draw with her physical maturity. She sings angelically while clasping her hands and looking down a lot, carefully modeling a conventional demure Sophie. Manfred Jungwirth is a fuller, more lifelike standard Ochs than his 1960 counterpart, but sings less steadily.

First among equals is Gwyneth Jones‘s Marschallin. She is every inch the great lady, confident and regal, but with voluptuous sexuality and hints of youth and wildness. Jones was by this point a Brünnhilde, and works to subdue a big, unruly voice for Strauss’s finer lines. She is largely successful, but this is a performance to be seen.

The final third of Act One is a major display of singing and acting, full of illuminating detail. Jones smiles enigmatically while covering the mirror with her hand as the last notes die away. She has more left for the character’s late return. The brief conversation with Sophie drives home for this Marschallin what she had expressed earlier. On some level she may feel unchanged, forever young, but coming face to face with feminine youth makes her feel older than ever. “How can this come about?” is still the undercurrent. Sophie would not sense it, but we can.

Jones moves like a woman born to wear clothes that trail after her. Only twice does she depart from stately grace: alone, realizing with alarm that she had not kissed Octavian before his departure, and in her last moments on the stage, when her back is to him and he kisses her hand. She hurries up the steps to exit that inn and does not risk a glance back. From the trio onward, her eyes shine with resolve, queenly pride, sadness and apparently real tears. This full-bodied, bighearted response to the Marschallin, a career highlight for Jones, is one of the enduring glories in all of filmed opera.

Tomorrow: Moving toward and into the 21st century, we look back at a long-serving Met production and get a hint of the one that will replace it.