Cher Public

And in the ‘how’

Yesterday’s first installment of a selected Rosenkavalier video overview covered two classic filmed performances, one from the 1960s and one from the 1970s. Today’s continuation closes out the 20th-century selections, crosses the millennial mark, and includes the first of our performances to depart from the opera’s prescribed 18th-century setting.  

A revival of the 1969 Nathaniel Merrill production opened the Met’s 1982-83 season, and a telecast from the series got its first video release in 2010. Music director James Levine leads several big names who have the right vocal qualifications, but the production received better performances over its 45 years of service. Stage timing is careless. People keep reacting to things they cannot yet have seen, or seen well enough to process. Robert O’Hearn‘s sets, inasmuch as they can be seen well in Gil Wechsler‘s murky lighting, were looking a bit dingy. The sound is thinner than on the earlier videos, with a loss of orchestral detail, so what registers most in Levine’s contribution is raw energy.

This is the Noo Yawk version of traditional Viennese. The Marschallin’s boudoir boasts a painted skyline view, and Faninal has the most spectacular palace. The latter gets scenery applause when the curtain opens on it (how many would-be Faninals were in the audience, I wonder?). The little boy playing Mohammed gets a lot of space to prance and mug while serving breakfast. Ochs shows up at Faninal’s in a loud suit the color of watermelon, and that gets laughs. Sequined appliqués on the ostentatious “noble” uniforms glitter for the Family Circle. It all may heighten one’s appreciation for the seemlier Otto Schenk.

Kiri Te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos make a mismatched Marschallin and Octavian. The soprano is convincing in vanity, less so in philosophical response to it. She soft-pedals the German words and looks lovely without evoking much—a vague performance. Her mezzo partner is completely alive to each moment, tense and anxious. Troyanos is, in fact, the most successful element onstage here, although Kurt Moll‘s restrained, thoroughly musical deep-bass Ochs delivers on much of what it promises. One wants to see his portrayal in better surroundings, and will. Judith Blegen rather overplays Sophie’s sweetness, but makes pleasing sounds. Luciano Pavarotti, a luxury Sänger sounding slightly under the weather, performs with eyes glued to the book he grips.

I do not doubt that this telecast introduced many Americans to Rosenkavalier and may have nostalgic appeal. On this revisit, it strikes me as “basic,” as the kids say today—a primer on Rosenkavalier more than a statement about it.

Carlos Kleiber returned to Rosenkavalier at the Vienna State Opera in 1994 with a cast that compares well with his 1979 Munich group, and a superior orchestra and chorus. Again we have a Schenk production, this one with overworked designs by Rudolf Heinrich. I am not sure it is a matter of the revival direction being better, but there are funnier people in the smaller roles this time. This is a more affectionate and tender performance than the 1979, with better teamwork among the soloists. Some of them had worked together before (the three leading ladies had sung Rosenkavalier with Kleiber at the Met), and they are comfortable with each other in the best ways.

Felicity Lott‘s gracious Marschallin, without the glamour of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gwyneth Jones or Te Kanawa, and done no favors by the wigmaker, works on intelligence and persuasive charm. Lott is nicely understated, with the lieder singer’s care in approach to text. She is imaginative and eloquent in her time alone on the stage, whether singing or silent.

Lott and Anne Sofie von Otter record a special Marschallin/Octavian partnership, among the best filmed. There is familiarity between them, and fondness, and a strong emotional connection. The affair has been going on long enough that what is unspoken weighs heavily. A look can be loaded, and so can a touch. “Mariandel” savors the act of putting Octavian’s picture in the Marschallin’s hand and closing her fingers around it. “She” then gently plays with the Marschallin’s hair, just enough not to arouse the Baron’s suspicion.

Von Otter, who in both male and female guises has a passing resemblance to Princess Diana, is the best of the mezzo Octavians considered here. Her sound is settled, toward the soprano end of the mezzo spectrum; her musical manners are patrician. She is fascinating to watch in the presentation of the rose, in which she is well partnered by Barbara Bonney‘s experienced but still girlish Sophie.

Octavian smells the “strong scent of roses, real ones,” the drop of Persian attar, before the silver rose is offered for him to smell. Kleiber and the Viennese are filling the air with that perfume, and we see in Octavian’s face and bearing, and hear in Von Otter’s singing, duty becoming discovery, bar by bar, moment by moment. It is quite magical, the sort of thing one goes to the opera hoping to see but rarely sees.

The lanky Swede’s shift to performed femininity for the scenes of Mariandel (most fetching) is exemplary. This Octavian knows women, likes them, and knows what an Ochs would like. Von Otter and Bonney find perfect dynamics and exquisite balance for “Ist ein Traum”—not a sequel to the trio but a hushed, awed postlude, a recession from the opera’s climax.

Moll’s lowest notes have gained in authority since 1982, and sound so easily attained and sustained that he could be depressing keys on an organ. He has not given up much in the rest of the voice. The portrayal is smoothed out, with more water to loosen that mass of earthen tone. Moll again really sings Baron Ochs’s music, and is a crucial element in a performance that looks for and finds truth and beauty in the highest musical values.

“Jesus Maria, steht a Bett drin, a mordmässig grosses!” A Robert Carsen production without a giant bed is a rarity, and he can get it out of the way early in his controversial 2004 Salzburg Festival staging, a first draft of his 2016-17 Covent Garden/Met effort. Carsen’s set/costume designer in 2004 was Peter Pabst, and Carsen himself and Peter van Praet light gorgeously, as usual. The first scene is very sensual. That big bed obviously has seen good use. Octavian and the Marschallin cannot keep their hands off each other, but their connection is more erotic than emotional.

We are in the waning days of the Habsburg Empire, around 1911. The Great War looms, a subtext that more than once becomes overt. Faninal “supplies the Army in the Netherlands,” and Carsen does not imagine this refers to belt buckles or chocolate bars. The Marschallin’s boudoir is all deep red decadence, the kind of overpowering space that is striking at a glance but does not invite long lingering. The Feldmarschall’s mustachioed visage hangs above the bed, observing without knowing. Ochs is a monocle-sporting military bully.

This is a big, extravagant show: the Animal Seller brings a veritable pet store; Octavian enters Faninal’s dining area on horseback; crowd scenes are very crowded. Carsen and Pabst make excellent use of a big stage (the first-act set has parallel chambers), and the director has a good comedic touch, for both comedy of manners and the broader variety. There is resonance too, but it comes as much from knowledge of Strauss/Hofmannsthal’s time as from Rosenkavalier‘s characters.

Sigmund Freud makes a very funny appearance in the second act, as the doctor summoned following the “duel.” He ministers to the overwrought Faninal and then takes notes on the Baron’s self-pitying monologue. The tavern/inn of the third act is a seedy brothel operated by a man in drag, calling to mind the lurid Vienna written about by Stefan Zweig and, more recently, John Irving. (In fact, a character in Irving’s The 158-Pound Marriage is said to have seen Rosenkavalier in Vienna, and “it bored her, though she thought it shouldn’t have.” She might have enjoyed Carsen’s production more.) Octavian gets his male-to-female makeover from the brothel girls.

Act Three features full frontal nudity from supers, and fairly graphic sex from same, but more interesting is the way Carsen turns the text on its head. Mariandel acts the brazen hussy, and Ochs is uncomfortable with her aggressiveness. Ochs had smugly regretted in Act One that the Marschallin could only experience “the defensive position.” Octavian/Mariandel was paying attention.

The servant Mohammed was traditionally a cute little boy; here we have an early example of another modern trend, the young-adult version. Mohammed is one of several servants in the breakfast scene, and he ends the opera drunk and stumbling with a rifle, one of so many young men unlikely to survive the horrors to come. There is foreboding in “Ist ein Traum.” The young lovers are correct. The dream cannot be true.

The climactic trio is dynamically blocked, dramatizing hesitation, uncertainty, shifting emotions and allegiances. The tenor’s number in the levée, too, is inventively done, and oddly moving. Piotr Beczala enters looking like Caruso, and servant girls and society figures alike stop what they are doing, find chairs or seats on the floor and are united for a few minutes. Great singing (and Beczala’s is that, for them and for us too) stops time and holds everyone in thrall.

Carsen and conductor Semyon Bychkov (opening some cuts and going after a bold, colorful reading that can overwhelm) had a good though not legendary cast. Adrianne Pieczonka has done nothing better for pure singing than this Marschallin. She makes lower-lying phrases count for more than some have, and her sound in 2004 was freshly minted, shining. She succeeds by serving Strauss’s music so faithfully and well. She is less of an actor, tending just to hit the marks and display the attitudes. Miah Persson is one of the best video Sophies, physically ideal for this immaculate prom-queen ingénue, with effortlessly sustained and even line.

Angelika Kirchschlager‘s vocal presence is high-strung and characterful; hers is a forceful Octavian in the Brigitte Fassbaender mold. Fiery and sarcastic, she acts with flair and relishes her Mariandel opportunities. With Franz Hawlata we are back to a bass-baritone Ochs better suited to the top of the role than to cavernous lows, but Hawlata (also Carsen’s filmed Water Goblin and La Roche) knew the part well, was in good voice for the occasion, and fulfills Carsen’s expectation that there be something “irresistible” about the Baron. This Baron is younger and lighter on his feet than the norm, not without charm. He even gets to dance, and Hawlata does that well too.

For all its excesses and occasional miscalculations, Carsen’s Salzburg production makes Rosenkavalier funny, sexy and thought-provoking. Even some good Rosenkavaliers do not go three for three.

Tomorrow: The recent history of Rosenkavalier on video includes something (relatively) old and some things new.

  • Ivy Lin

    Ah, Miah Persson. One of my favorite sopranos whose career unfortunately seemed to peter out. I remember her being a lovely Sophie when I saw her with Fleming and Graham. But she had such a fresh, unaffected charm.
    This is the revival I heard her in:

    • Bill

      Persson has some Donna Elviras scheduled in Barcelona
      for the early summer and is engaged at the Lucerne Festival.
      perhaps she is pre-occupied with family matters which hamper her desire to appear everywhere. She was indeed a lovely Sophie

      • Camille

        Miah Persson has just been featured in two high profile events at Carnegie Hall in the last couple months—first, as a delightful Poppea in the Monteverdian opus during the “La Serenissima” convocation, and in what was to have been a joint recital in Zankel Hall with a baritone—who cancelled—and in which she gamely soldiered on as a solo recital. Schumann, mostly, and asshe got me to sit through Frauenlieben und -leben without feeling nauseated--an accomplishment by a very able and talented performer. I look forward to hearing her again someday.

        • QuantoPainyFakor

          Bored by Schumann!!!!!!!! Chérie, have you taken leave of your senses?

          • Camille

            Had Robert actually been Herr Henreid,
            that would have been entirely a different matter!

            One wonders if he lit up a cigarette and proferred it to Clara/Kate as he did to Camille/Bette??? Someday I’ll try to watch this old chestnut. The manner in which Clara/Kate glided down the staircase as if magnetized by the (late) Brahmsian œuvre certainly did spill the beans about how this all was to end.

            I still love “Stille Thränen” and the piano quintett and that interlude in the Lenz Symphony, and a variety of few other things, but find a lot of his music heavy sledding at this late date. I’m sorry he lost his marbles, though, and left poor,
            noble Clara with that raft of Kinder to
            support, none of whom seemed to have inherited their parents’ remarkable talents. And I am grateful to him for having been generous to other composers--a rare talent.

            I leave you with my beloved Artur’s interpretation of one of my deep favorites in remission of my sins—


            • Porgy Amor

              Those late-in-life Rubinstein collaborations with the Guarneri Quartet are so wonderful. I don’t care if he plays too loudly here and there. If I’m going to hear any pianist play too loudly, I want it to be Artur!

              Their Dvorak Quintet has brightened many a day for me.

            • Camille

              He is one of the great loves of my musical life and can never play loud ENUF for little me!

              In vain do I search out another who can play Chopin’s intricate mazurkas as does he! There was recently a Polish pianist--Piotr Somebody--heard @
              Carnegie, and who had some of what Artur had in those infernal mazurkas. Some…/

        • Nelly della Vittoria

          I was at both those Carnegie Hall events too, and am chiefly glad someone shares my sneaking feelings about the liebe und leben.
          In dreams — where all problems of dates and contracts melt away in the ether — it’s still last season and the Met’s Anne Truelove in TR’sP is Miah and not the arithmetically-challenged young person we got instead.

          • Camille

            Ooooh--too bad, NellyDella cara, that we didn’t get to clutch our pearls together on that one. ‘Twas a bitter wintry night, as well! After having heard Clara’s songs I was relieved she carried on as pianist and not as Komponistin.

            In my dreams there would be no Liebe und -leben—-!!!! Shush--don’t tell!
            Arithmetically challenged--? Could the child not count the Stravinskian meter, or

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              Too bad, yes!
              As for whatsername, I just mean she got lost in the later measures of “I go, I go to him” and shouted the broken chord, descending scale and climax of the last Time cannot alter an ever-loving HEART! before the orchestra had time to play any of it.

            • Armerjacquino

              That blows one of my favourite theories out of the water: that nobody has ever sung that scena badly. Every (recorded) version I’ve ever heard- Upshaw first, and subsequently Lott, one-hit-wonder Cathryn Pope, Gueden, Fleming, Deborah York, Damrau… they’ve all nailed it.

              Surprised to hear Layla Claire made a hash of it; she’s one of those singers I’ve only ever heard positive things about. Although at the time I vaguely wondered why it wasn’t Oropesa.

            • Armerjacquino

              Random weird thought. If they still did the old-style lipsynched opera films, Ellie Kemper would be the Anne Trulove of everyone’s dreams (but they’d cast Anne Hathaway).

            • Nelly della Vittoria

              There’s a great deal to be made of that scene, for sure. I agree about some of the singers you mention, and a lot of people have demonstrated that they have the notes (I even want to hate the Schwarzkopf taping but can’t because it’s too shapely for my contempt), but here as elsewhere in opera, incandescent, self-sacrificial lyric courage — I suppose I mean Gilda, but it’s a kind of Teresa-of-Avila plus Jeanie-Deans-in-Walter-Scott quality — is a rare commodity. How many singers can conjure it?

              Also my memory may be exaggerating Layla Claire’s flub, but a flub there was, at that unfortunate moment.

    • I’ve seen two of Persson’s performances and enjoyed both. An excellent Susanna in the (also excellent) McVicar Nozze with Schrott and Finlay and a lovely Anne Trulove in the Glyndbuorne Rake’s Progress. Glad to see that her career is still going. Young soubrettes can sometimes go out of fashion quickly in this business.

      • Daniel Swick

        She sings the fuck out of Poppea in the Jacobs Agrippina from Paris…I think it’s a Carsen production. Just reams of pearl tone and she looked like the prettiest blonde girl evarrrrr.

        • David McVicar directed.

          • Daniel Swick

            Ah, I knew it was something like that :)
            Ermann and Antonacci are also wonderful in that production. The idea of a coke snorting Nerone seems like rather too obvious a choice but Ermann makes it absolutely work.

    • PCally

      Persson also recently sang a very a successful run of turn of the screw at la Scala. It’s one of her best roles, fortunately preserved on DVD (as is a lot of her work thankfully, including the poppea Camille enthuses about).

      LOVE Persson and I’m glad to see she has fans. I think many were dissaponted by her met Fiordiligi on opening night, where she apparently struggled, but when I went later on in the run I thought she was lovely, albeit very obviously better suited to a smaller house and a bit challenged lower down. I think she’s easily the finest Sophie I’ve seen live and my personal favorite along with popp, Bonney, rothenberger, Gueden, and hartelius. I may be one of the few who actively loved Schafers Gretel, but Persson was excellent as well. And her unnoticed met Pamina was terrific.

      • Nelly della Vittoria

        I noticed the Met Pamina! I went to the Met specifically to notice her.

    • Cameron Kelsall

      New York-based people tend to equate a lack of presence at the Met with a lack of career. Persson is doing just fine and is arguably in the prime of her career.

      • Liz.S

        Well, granted there are some disconnects bet. “I only go to the Met” folks and regular concert goers but this is not a phenomena you observe only in NYC.
        I remember, for example, london (or some other European city) -- based classical music critics complained that Berlin Phil picked “unknown guy” Kirill Petrenko, but many opera fans in Berlin, München, many Met fans who cares about who conducts, fans of Chicago SO or Cleveland Orch went “huh?” to that sort of remarks.
        After all everybody knows what s/he knows and doesn’t know what s/he does’t get to know everywhere you go

  • Thanks for the second instalment, Porgy. I look forward to the grand finale (it better be grand!).

    I don’t buy a lot of opera videos but I do want to fill the Rosenakavalier hole in my library.

    Reading about the second Kleiber video, I’m wondering why I haven’t made an effort to see it. I don’t have Lott in anything but your description is appealing. I like von Otter and she comes off very well in this review. And I love me some Moll and Bonney, not to mention the great maestro.

    I’m a big Carsen fan as well and this production sounds very intruiging. I’ll be interested to see how his Met production is and how it differs from the one you describe. I’m sure it will also be released on video, though I’m not keen on a late-career Fleming version when there are so many more enticing options out there (but I am looking forward to Garanca and Groissböck a great deal). Having said that, Fleming does have a good track record with Carsen as an actress.

  • Ramon Figueroa

    Look at that picture of Troyanos. That’s just pure glamour. And the voice went right alongside it. That video with Kiri was my first exposure to the opera, and I love it in spite of its flaws. When Kiri comes in in the third act in full Marschallin drag, it is a moment worthy of a Norma Shearer movie. There is something about Te Kanawa’s vacancy that makes her opaque to me rather than boring, and it draws me in, even though many times I feel that, in the words of Dorothy Zbornak, beneath that thin veneer of superficiality there is, miraculously, an even thinner veneer.

    • Magpie

      Hi Ramon. I kind of agree about Kiri. I remember watching that Rosenkavalier and thinking that Kiri was boring, boring, boring- albeit with a beautiful voice; especially beside Troyanos who is just wonderful. It was later in life that I started to see something “Catherine Deneuve-esque” in her performances. As the saying goes: still waters run deep. I feel that there is something just under the surface, or a gesture just at the edge of my peripheral vision, that is for me to discover, and it does draw me in. I will revisit that video.

    • Armerjacquino

      I feel that with Te Kanawa, as with Fleming, discussions always seem to miss or underestimate the fact that we are dealing with voices of rare and extraordinary beauty. I’m not canary-fancying here, and neither would be my Marschallin of choice, but in a part with so much glorious vocal writing, to be able to produce such tonal beauty isn’t chopped liver. Both portrayals could I think be fairly described as boring in the dramatic sense- but when either singer rolls out ‘silberne ros’n’ or the opening of the trio, shoot me, I’m not bored.

  • Lindoro Almaviva

    I am loving this.


    I worshiped Troyanos.

    I sang in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus for two years and we did Stravinsky’ s Oedipus Rex with a phenomenal cast. John Aler, John Shirley-Quirk (who was on the staff at the Peabody I believe) Troyanos as the Jocasta and James Earl Jones was the narrator. I told all of my friends how impressive Troyanos was going to be and how excited I was to be on the same stage with her. She was really amazing in rehearsals. We were in awe.

    At the performance she came out in a black velvet gown, straight up and down, with a red satin cape that trailed behind her at least 10 feet maybe more. Turned out she’d been ‘marking’ at all the rehearsals. Holy mother what a voice. I got her autograph and fan-boy’d all over her after the performance. She was very kind.

  • Bravo, Porgy, how clear, coherent and concise you are!

  • Liz.S

    Persson’s pretty much very active and I was happy reading many posts about her.
    Is anybody going to see Aa’s new work at DNO or in Lucerne?

    • Cicciabella

      This was a very interesting, multimedia chamber opera. Van der Aa shot the footage himself and also prepared the prerecorded music (he’s got many talents apart from composing). Persson was just wonderful in this. In fact, as commented below, Persson is pretty much wonderful in everything she does most of the time. She’s not a “big” name because for that you have to sing big Verdi, Puccini and Wagner parts, and she is a light lyric: one of the distortions of the operatic market. Persson is a complete performer, and she is “on” from the first second. As opposed to someone like Harteros, for example, who is obviously hugely talented, but either takes time to catch fire or remains placid, and sometimes lagging behind the beat, for the whole performance. Thanks to whoever put the Munich Chenier out there I was able to watch the streaming. I don’t think the doll’s house set was ideal for web streaming, but productions need to be seen live. In any case, the voices were worth it, but both Kaufmann and Harteros seemed cautious in the first half. I almost gave up, then they both switched on and the second half was a treat. Salsi sang well but his voice must sound more attractive live, judging from the huge applause he got. I couldn’t hear any beauty in it. He will be Rigoletto in Amsterdam next month, so I will be able to hear him live. Some voices are just not for the microphone.

      • Liz.S

        Thank you, Cicciabella! It must have been an interesting theatrical experience, and again I’m happy to find so many here speak highly of Persson :-)
        I didn’t know Aa also filmed the material himself. He seems to be very popular along with Janine Janson in Netherlands, right?

        A friend of mine just told me -- Blank Out will be also performed at Armory in September.

        Heads-up Persson fans in the vicinity of NYC :-)

        • Cicciabella

          Well, Janine Jansen is a household name in Holland. Even people who never visit a concert hall will probably know who she is. As anywhere else, contemporary classical music (including opera) is much less popular here than the standard repertoire. Even so, there is always an abundance of world premieres in Amsterdam, in different genres. The king of Dutch contemporary opera is still Louis Andriessen. Van der Aa is probably the most talented among the young composers.

  • MisterSnow

    I was lucky to see one of von Stade’s last Octavians (at LA Opera with Sumi Jo and Ashley Putnam). I was looking for a videoe souvenir of her on YouTube and came across the unusual combination for the trio.