Cher Public

Through a glass vaguely

Any production of Der Rosenkavalier that can transform the usually excruciating first half of the third act into a hilarious romp already has my vote. Thus Robert Carsen’s occasionally uneven reimagining of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s evergreen masterpiece which opened Thursday at the Met ultimately proved to be a provocative, often enthralling evening despite its sincere but uncharismatic Marschallin. 

The now-retired and much-loved Nathaniel MerrillRobert O’Hearn Met production lasted nearly 50 years being performed over 150 times in the house and more on tour. Set in the prescribed 18th century, it was a solidly traditional approach that served the Met well and never failed to win gasps and enthusiastic applause when the curtain rose at the beginning of the second act to reveal the spectacular Faninal mansion.

Like many versions mounted today, Carsen instead moves the action to the time of the opera’s first performance: 1911. Military uniforms and firearms are ever-present, and the heavy-handed opening tableau of act II features two enormous cannons as Faninal has been transformed into a wealthy arms dealer.

Particularly disturbing was the cataclysmic image that ends the opera and overshadows Mohammed’s unexpected drunken stroll. Carsen clearly wants us to remember that just three years hence Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria’s assassination will forever change the lives of these often frivolous characters forever.

Much preferring Strauss in his more concise mode—Salome, Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, even Daphne, I’ve nearly always found Rosenkavalier to be a trifle blown up to elephantine proportions. There seems to be little at stake in its brittle comedy of manners and its rather uninteresting title character functions primarily as a foil for the more compelling Marschallin and Baron Ochs.

Carsen’s time-shift serves to give rather more gravity to the erotic hijinks by evoking an increasingly decadent society unaware that it is about to be destroyed. I was reminded more than once of Jean Renoir’s magnificent film La Règle de Jeu which chronicles a similar doomed freefall.

This is not to suggest that Carsen’s Rosenkavalier becomes an oppressively dark and depressing journey. Indeed much of the staging is rather traditional although more overtly sensual than the staid Merrill version. The first act opens not with the Marschallin and Octavian lolling in bed but rather in the hallway outside her bedroom where the lovers escape for a post-coital smoke but are soon at it again eagerly rolling around on the floor.

Ochs’s compulsive manhandling of both Mariandl and Sophie verges on attempted rape, and Octavian and Sophie end the opera not chastely contemplating their future but making out on the bed in the third act’s brothel.

And that wild bordello, overseen by the unctuous Innkeeper of Tony Stevenson decked out in outrageous drag, features a much-appreciated bawdy attempted seduction of Ochs by Mariandl. Decked out during the prelude in a loud floral dressing gown and racy garter belts by the institution’s whores, Octavian comes on like a voracious nymphet which completely unsettles the usually omnivorous nobleman.

This slapstick interlude is but one of the highpoints of Günther Groissböck’s revelatory Ochs, an unconventional yet utterly convincing interpretation of a role that often bores me to tears. For once, Sophie doesn’t immediately recoil from her new fiancé because of his looks; it’s only when his extravagantly boorish behavior crosses the line that she reacts with horror.

Tall and handsome, Groissböck sings superbly with a booming bass just as capable of ringing high notes as of the famously subterranean low one that ends the second act.

Although it still had its skittishly girlish moments, Erin Morley’s Sophie was more adult and womanly than usual, and it was she who led Octavian to recline on the bed during their lush final duet. Both there and in the heavenly “Presentation of the Rose” Morley’s seraphic high soprano floated lustrously and blended divinely with Elina Garanca’s warmer earthy voice.

The Latvian mezzo has claimed that these performances will her final ones as Octavian which is too bad as she brings an elegantly regal bearing to the impetuous Count. She also showed an impeccable comic flair entering into the Mariandl persona with real panache particularly in her smoldering Dietrich-ish entrance in the third act replete with top hat and cigarette—and there are LOTS of cigarettes throughout the show!

As Garanca’s voice is growing as she moves into a heavier repertoire, one had the sense all evening that she might be holding back a bit as not to overwhelm her smaller-voiced female colleagues.

The Met has strongly cast this new production with debuting Markus Brück as a vibrantly sung Faninal, initially bristling with braggadocio but eventually mousy and defeated. Alan Oke’s particularly pungent Valzacchi was well paired with the spirited Annina of Helene Schneiderman (also a debut) who unfortunately sounded a bit thin and pinched.

Sophie’s duenna Marianne often squawks noisily while heralding Octavian’s approach but Susan Neves’s big soprano instead rang out impressively. A third debutant Scott Conner made an imposing Police Commissioner and, in a glamorously spotlit guest appearance, a ringing Matthew Polenzani radiated fulsome italianità as the Singer.

Unfortunately the role of the Princess Werdenberg which dominates the first act has become over-freighted with such legend and expectation that it’s difficult for any soprano, particularly one nearing the end of her operatic career, to enjoy a complete success. Despite her long-standing and sterling credentials as a Strauss singer, I remain unconvinced that the Marschallin is the best fit for Renée Fleming.

Thursday’s premiere was the third time I’d heard the soprano in the role at the Met—the first in 2000 was vague and unmoving. Although she beautifully negotiated the role’s high-lying music, the many important conversational exchanges failed to come across. Her 2009 assumption opposite her longtime Octavian Susan Graham and Miah Persson’s Sophie was more pleasing, played with a touching dignity.

As guided by Carsen, her favorite director, Fleming gave an earnest portrayal but one that also exposed her chronic shortcomings as a stage creature. While the initial interchanges with Octavian swelled with convincing languor, her bantering repartee with Ochs lacked wit and sparkle and the all-important monologue was heavy and unconvincing.

Perhaps admitting defeat, Carsen staged the entire levée with Fleming’s back to the audience! He did craft for her a marvelous act I exit during which the Marschallin soulfully dons her coat and hat and slowly leaves for church.

The Marschallin’s usually sure-fire grand third-act entrance went for little although Fleming looked smashing, but the regal hauteur that one expects here never materialized though wistful resignation came more easily to her. But Carsen having her pass by Octavian and Sophie kissing on the bed as she left made for an unnecessarily painful moment.

The upper part of the voice remains in very good shape if a bit careful and reduced in size and there was far less scooping and swooping than had once been the case. The “silberne Ros’n” at the end of act 1 was ravishing as was the final trio where she joined Garanca and Morley in an utterly transporting, time-stopping moment, a mere 21 years after she first sang that music at the Met during the Levine Gala.

But it must be said that since much of the Marschallin’s music lies low so she has to push into her weaker middle and growly lower registers where the sound can get a just bit ugly as in the second “ja” of her final iconic “Ja ja”.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle accompanied his diva with an occasionally indulgent baton but otherwise led a sumptuous, fleet reading of the rich score which included the standard stage cuts. One had little reason to regret James Levine’s withdrawal from this new production. Except for a few stumbles during the “Presentation of the Rose,” the orchestra played beautifully particularly in the vividly orgasmic opening pages.

Carsen’s able collaborators included Paul Steinberg whose striking first-act set for the Marschallin’s expansive red-walled bedroom covered with forbidding male portraits (most likely of the Prince’s ancestors) was wittily mirrored in the third-act bordello which contained a nearly identical bed—this time a Murphy-model uproariously revealed by the faux-horny Mariandl.

The costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel contributed many grey uniforms for the men in addition to some striking ladies outfits, particularly for the stylish impromptu fashion show during the levee. Philippe Giraudeau’s elegant choreography for eight couples accompanying the “Presentation of the Rose” was more distracting than helpful.

All in all, one must be grateful to Fleming whose “maybe-maybe not” Met farewell prompted this intriguing and much-needed new Rosenkavalier. The rather vociferous booing that greeted the production team frankly surprised me; I wasn’t initially convinced but the flair and seriousness of Carsen’s work eventually won me over.

One does wonder how it will play though during subsequent revivals particularly without the stupendous Groissböck as Ochs. But in the meantime eight more performances remain (although two feature Kathleen Kim as Sophie instead of Morley) with an HD transmission scheduled for May 13.

Photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

  • La Cieca
    • Liz.S

      “A Star Is Boring” -- I love you to death! :-)

    • questocor

      Ravishing, beautiful, timeless. I think that are the sweetest words you have ever used to describe Fleming’s singing. Of course her acting was boring because the Marshallin is an aging women who accepts that time is against her while everyone else around her has all the fun. duh!

      • Armerjacquino

        Because it’s only possible to appreciate someone’s art if you want to fuck them? Which century did you crawl out of?

        • questocor

          Yes, that’s the only way and I’m from the ’80s.

      • Liz.S
        • Camille

          This was much appreciated as it was not only very funny, but also explained somewhat about the most entertaining thing about the little bit I managed to catch the other night (Act III) — listening to Groissbeck’s patois--Wienerisches Maskerade par excellence, hahaha! I certainly would not know which dialect he was speaking in but he was funny as hell, even over the radio.

          If any opera could benefit from a blue pencil, it would be this one. I just can’t take the whole Sachertorte in one sitting.

          • Liz.S

            Carissima Camille -- so you had the best piece of the 1er night :-)

            Groissböck indeed sounded so funny and so much full of life.
            Ochs as Don Giovanni with lots of tongue in cheek wits -- I find it such a fascinating insight!
            The shame is that I probably don’t fully understand the intricacies and may have been missing some of the laughs Austrians get to enjoy all my life.

            He seems to be very charming and funny also off stage, right? Eva-Maria and Mattei’s reactions are priceless :-D

            • Camille

              Well, it is well to remember as did--who was it, jj in the observer??? That the original name of die Oper was OCHS, etc., etc.—I had forgotten that fact. Perhaps I will survive the second act for the first time without going into a deep Erda like slumber as is my wont.

              When I look at that Singer’s Roundtable it makes me realize how stupid I was not to go to that seminar--I remember considering it and then forgetting all about it in the excitement of those performances. It’s kind of sad, and now appears strangely ominous in retrospect, that the star of the show did not attend--his understudy, Mr Westbroek I think, did the honors. What a shame his thoughts on the role and the production are not recorded. A great and terrible loss for the opera world, just terrible.

            • Liz.S

              I myself am not attending as often as I like to -- it tends to conflict with Carnegie’s Sunday afternoon concert or some other prior commitments

              Really, it’s a huge void not having him around any more. I was really counting on him as the go-to Wagner hero at the Met. It’s painful. His Tannhäuser was my last but I will forever remember him as Walther with that biiiig smile…
              He was funny in interviews -- remember “I just do it” to whatever interpretational questions Fleming was throwing at him during HD intermissions?

              He talked about his views about other (Wagner) roles and productions & lots more before (if my memory serves me not too much re: Tannhäuser per se though.) I remember the difference bet. his and Dasch’s views on regie was interesting…

              For you -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6G8PfnwRdQ

      • QuantoPainyFakor

        Tell me that’s NOT Elina G.! Who is it?

  • Porgy Amor

    Wonderful work, Christopher.

    Perhaps admitting defeat, Carsen staged the entire levée with Fleming’s back to the audience! He did craft for her a marvelous act I exit during which the Marschallin soulfully dons her coat and hat and slowly leaves for church.

    All of that is straight out of his Salzburg ’04 playbook, when he had Adrianne Pieczonka.

    Carsen said in his speech at the Guild event on Sunday that he had done Rosenkavalier once and never expected to return to it, but Fleming wanted him for her ROH/Met whatever-we-should-call-it and he was not going to say no to her. So I think he had an idea about the piece and he hasn’t moved from it much in 12-13 years. The designs for Act Two are very different, but not much else is, from what I have gathered.

    Still, it was — as I said in the video overview piece — a funny, sexy, and thought-provoking Rosenkavalier in 2004 (if not the tidiest or the most emotional one), and it sounds as though that holds today.

    • ines

      Tommasini today puts his views on the other side of the balance, of course… I thought, that it was almost comical, how the Met radio commentators ( mary jo and will?) ignored the boos. On other occasions they say … we have a standing ovation etc… but boos -- nothing… like in denial…..From german, austrian or italian radio we here comments about a divided audience etc.

  • PCally

    Both this and JJ’s review more or less sum up exactly how I felt about the evening, although I’m not sure I would classify Fleming as boring per se (but I’m also generally a fan, though a qualified one). I just happen to think that this particular role (and Strauss in general, though I understand this is minority opinion) happens to exacerbate all of her worst and most mannered tendencies. It’s an interpretation that has grown from when she first sang it here (that performance was remarkably over the top and maudlin and vocally there was some weirdness, though the sound itself was at it’s peak) but now it’s so ironed out and way way way too polished to really have any real impact emotionally. This is just my opinion.

    LOVED the rest of the cast and like Porgy I really do think the production really holds up well, especially that ending of act one, which Pieczonka handles literally perfectly on the DVD, timing her exit exactly to the beat of the music. I wasn’t Levine’s biggest fan when it came to this particular opera, but I though Sebastian Weigle just sort of sped through it.

    • questocor

      This opera is long. What you think was fast may have been plus or minus mere seconds.

  • Christopher, this is the fifth review I’ve read of the production and it might be my favourite. It’s the one that gave me the most complete sense of being there. Thank you.

  • southerndoc1

    On Sirius last night, sounded like the audience applauded the new Act 2 set pretty enthusiastically. Force of habit?

  • Luvtennis

    My first experience with Fleming was the Sony recording of Armida. It was love at first listen. A gorgeous timbre, a formidable comprehensive technique, full-throated passionate, fearless. I thought I had found my new diva. But almost immediately after that initial response, something changed. I listened to Rosmonda and was dissatisfied. What had been full-throated sounded careful, and over-managed. I had the same reaction to the Mozart recordings with Solti, but there the top of the voice had taken on a metallic quality that might have been an artifact of the recording process. In any event, she did not appear to be developing the way I had imagined after that Armida. The came the VLL recording and again dissatisfaction. I felt there was so much more there that wasn’t coming across. Then onto the first two aria recitals and things seemed back on track. And so it went, glorious moments when she seemed comfortable in her artistic skin that alternated with performances that were contrived -- technically irreproachable but unmoving and even off-putting. Through it all and in the face of often harsh criticism, she remained good-natured, professional and successful, so I admired and defended her without loving her.

    As she enters the final stages of her operatic career, I still have no answer for my reaction to her. Part of me wonders if the birth of her daughter might have affected the voice. At other times, I felt she suffered from not having a great conductor with time and interest to guide her. Price had HvK. Sutherland had Bonynge. Lately Netrebko has appeared to benefit from the interest that Muti and Abbado have taken in her as she moved into their orbit by virtue of tackling the big Verdi roles. Sometimes, I think it is her personality or her eclectic rep choices. She never reallly settled into a style because she sang so many different styles -- yes, she sang a lot of Strauss and Mozart -- but she also spent a lot of her prime tackling the “bel canto (sic) rep and the French rep and the Slavic rep… I just don’t think she ever let herself get comfortable.

    Ultimately, who knows. What is clear though is that she has been a consistently reliable professional. Prepared for her close-ups while only rarely achieving transcendence. Still I admire her as a gifted musician -- even if one might violently dislike what she did with those gifts -- and love her as a seemingly wonderful, funny, smart and giving person. Maybe that’s enough.

    Godspeed, Renee.

    • ER

      wonderful comments, luvtennis. Agree wholeheartedly- she was utterly reliable and frequently sounded and looked gorgeous, but she never transported me to the other side.

      Your point about not having a single conductor-mentor (although Levine did play a big role in her development) or having too many fachs to really sink her teeth into one, may have been part of this.

      Her place in the operatic annals are assured, though.

  • Camille

    Mme Fleming has sounded altogether better than anything I’ve read would have led me to believe, at least tonight, and via Sirius. She has the words much more and the registers are melded better in the middle voice and sings with real intention in her expression…I am very pleasantly surprised and encouraged. On the other hand, and as much as I prize Garanca’s singing, it is easy to hear why she is now retiring this role as it is far too full and womanly a sound and hardly androgynous enough at this point. Groissböck a barrel of fun. Mid third act--right now Annina has entered.

    • Olivero Fan

      I think what doesn’t come across on Sirius is the diminution in size of Mme Fleming’s voice. Da geht er hin, went for nothing because we couldn’t hear it. It sounded like she was husbanding resources which she finally let out in act 3.

      • Camille

        That’s so?!? It’s usually the case that she is better just heard than seen and heard. That very part of that scene was especially good and came over so well on Sirius. She must know where all the microphones and sweet spots are hidden.
        Very interesting.

      • Luvtennis

        She IS 58 after all…. ????

  • Joe Murray

    I went last night. The production was the most entertaining Rosenkavalier I’ve seen. I usually doze during each act, but I was awake the whole evening.

    I liked how the Act 3 bordello paralleled the Act 1 bedroom, and thus obvious Ochs/Marschallin parallels. Difference is, I suppose, that she’s got class and he’s a boor. (I loved how she so deftly flirted with her new beau at the end.)

    My friend whispered to me right after the trio: “our first opera this season where no one died”. She spoke two minutes too soon.

    The walls part, drunken Mohamed gets a gun, and there are dying soldiers upstage. I get it: WWI. I loved it. I always envisioned Octavian and Sophie being happy. But will he die in WWI? Or would Octavian and Sophie become the next generation of Oxen and Marschallins? It left me disturbed, and I really liked the feeling.

    • Porgy Amor

      Thank you for that report. The mixed response on opening night notwithstanding, I think this one is going to settle in nicely there. Perhaps when the day comes for it to be replaced, it will be as it was with Carsen’s Onegin (which also got a lot of boos at first) — people will not want it to go, and will find the next thing less interesting.

      Whether Octavian himself dies or not, the idea is that he is part of a generation that is in for tragedy and destruction. All of the people in the opera are in the twilight of something. “Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein,” indeed.

      The Salzburg DVD with more or less the same production (a different set/costume team, but generally the same look in the outer acts) is good, if you want a keepsake. The latest reissue of it is about $10 at Amazon.