Cher Public

The frailty of everything earthly

If everything you see is great, you are either new to opera or chronically easy to please. Neither condition is anything of which to be ashamed, but the development of standards over a period of years is something to be embraced. Standards make it mean more when something really is worth raving over. 

No matter how much you see, if you go back often enough, you will have one of those evenings (or afternoons, as the case may be) when all the stars align, the right people and the right work come together at the right time, and the result lives up to or exceeds every reasonable expectation. You feel happy to be alive and going to the opera at the time the performance took place.

The Met HD of Der Rosenkavalier on May 13 was a high-inducing performance. There have been equally good performances in this decade-long series, though not many. There has been none better.

Director Robert Carsen‘s view of the 1911 Strauss/Hofmannsthal evergreen has not changed greatly since his 2004 Salzburg staging. Although he has different designers this time (his Falstaff team of Paul Steinberg on sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel on costumes, replacing Salzburg’s Peter Pabst), the outer acts look very similar. Details of the direction have been retained, such as Annina’s larcenous revenge on Ochs at the end of the second act.

Siegmund Freud has been replaced by some military medics following the “duel,” among other minor differences. New choreography for the Presentation of the Rose, while elegant and lovely in itself, seems to be in this production solely because Mr. Carsen wanted to work with the worthy Philippe Giraudeau again.

In a broader sense, Mr. Carsen has been consistent in his approach and his focus. This is Rosenkavalier as a response to its own era. The director has set the opera in an increasingly decadent Vienna on the eve of the Great War, and emphasized humor, sexual politics and the twilight of an era. My colleague Christopher Corwin‘s comparison to Renoir’s La Règle de Jeu, in his review of opening night, is apt.

In the recent parterre box video overview, I commented that Mr. Carsen’s Salzburg Rosenkavalier was “funny, sexy and thought-provoking.” I left it implied, in the context of various productions discussed, that other Rosenkavaliers have tugged harder at the heartstrings. All of this remains the case.

It was the performers and their circumstances that supplied a new emotional dimension at the Met on May 13. Two of our great stars, Renée Fleming (the Marschallin) and Elina Garanca (Octavian), were performing for the last time roles in which they have been good, and roles that have been good to them in return. Beyond that, we had the unusual situation of an HD broadcast of the final performance in a series, rather than, say, the fifth of eight. There was perceptible electricity in everyone’s work, the adrenaline that comes from the finish line being in sight, with no need to save anything.

I have not heard the Met’s orchestra sound better in the 2016-17 season than it did today under the leadership of German conductor Sebastian Weigle. His reading was “deliberate” not in the sense of unusual slowness (the maestro did allow his Marschallin to milk), but in an insistence on the precise articulation of phrases, and in the elucidation of fine details within the blend. I often have complained that the in-theater sound of the Met HDs prioritizes voices to the point that the orchestral contribution is distant and soupy. Even the sound balance seemed improved today.

Maestro Weigle replaced the originally scheduled James Levine, who withdrew at the time he relinquished his position of music director more than a year ago. If anyone missed the guiding hand of the venerable music director emeritus this afternoon, I feel it would have to have been on grounds of sentiment. There was nothing to regret in the response of the orchestra, and Maestro Weigle can come visit New York anytime.

There were two utterly spectacular, golden-age performances, and the opera’s title character, Octavian, seems an obvious place to start. As transmitted to movie theaters, Ms. Garanca’s voice now sounds huge. She commented in her intermission interview, with regard to changing repertoire, that for so long she has played a young boy chasing girls; now it is time to let the boys chase her. On today’s evidence, she is putting away childish things at the right time, while leaving us a parting gift to savor.

Lyric mezzos long ago absconded with a role created by a soprano (Eva von der Osten, an Isolde). We should be so lucky as to have mezzo Octavians of Ms. Garanca’s caliber as the norm. The Latvian’s upper register encompasses Octavian’s higher-lying writing without a hint of strain (near the end, “War ein haus wo” was so juicy and full that I looked forward to Amneris cursing the priests). The bottom is rich, warm, resonant.

There was a point at which I was startled by the beauty of the singing in a most unexpected place—the apology to Faninal (“Ein muss mich pardonieren”) came out in lines of such beautiful continuity and evenness that it seemed a fragment of a lost Schubert lied. What Ms. Garanca did on the stage in this production is a forceful rebuttal, or at least a stiff challenge, to any description of her as a “cold” performer.

This was a truly heroic Octavian: upright, suave, thoughtful. We can see why the Marschallin will feel his loss, and why Sophie is so lucky to have him enter her life. The operatic stage features no more beautiful face, either as boy or girl, and the mezzo’s Marlene Dietrich impersonation for Mariandel’s Act Three mischief was limber, funny and extremely sexy. The troublesome stretch of Act Three prior to the Marschallin’s arrival, which passes like a sentence of hard time when director and performers are not up to it, has never been more entertaining to me.

Nearly matching Ms. Garanca was Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs. I first saw this promising portrayal in Harry Kupfer‘s wistful Salzburg production of three summers ago, and it has matured wonderfully since then. Again Mr. Groissböck is a highly plausible Ochs of a superficially desirable type—young, tall, athletic and handsome—but repellent in words and behavior.

Mr. Groissböck expertly delineates Ochs’s journey through Carsen’s inversion of the third act, one of the production’s masterstrokes. Ochs is forced to assume “the defensive position” he had smugly regretted was the lot of women. He finds himself fending off the sexually voracious Mariandel, and when depravity is revealed all around him, and it is beyond his control, he wants to flee a hell of ironic punishment.

Mr. Groissböck’s mellow, colorful instrument is most at ease in the Baron’s higher-lying writing, of which there is a great deal in this long part. If there are lower notes he sounds happy to greet and leave, he cheats nothing while making his rounds. His is a highly musical reading of a part in which many a bass has gotten by on desiccated parlando shtick. Just as Ms. Garanca had me anticipating future Amnerises, Mr. Groissböck’s cries of “Mord! Mord! Mein Blut!” and his yelps of pain made me think of Boris Godunov haunted and expiring.

I join Our Own JJ in looking forward to much more at the Met from this performer, who first created a stir by making an incestuous Water Goblin riveting, and now has twice made Baron Ochs improbably likable, in two very different productions. It seems there is not much beyond him.

Sophie von Faninal is the hard-luck assignment of the four principals, the shortest part and the one Hofmannsthal gave the fewest facets. Once in a while you read appreciation for some soprano who was “unexpectedly” feisty in the part, which shows how challenging it is to review singers in certain roles, because anyone who knows the libretto should expect Sophie to be feisty with Faninal and Ochs. It would be unexpected if she were other than feisty.

What was unexpected to me in Erin Morley‘s Sophie for Mr. Carsen was a certain sophistication and precocity. In a lesser production, this might have seemed an off note, a 36-year-old soprano playing a 36-year-old Sophie. Here, it works well. I could imagine this was a Sophie who learned from plays and literature how worldly women spoke, behaved and moved. In a later era, such a young woman would be influenced by ladies of movies and television.

Ms. Morley spoke of loving to sing “high, floaty stuff,” and such writing does show her to best advantage. The middle voice is more nondescript and projects less strongly. She looked lovely, creating beautiful stage pictures in scenes with Ms. Garanca, but also establishing a connection that was both emotional and sensual. Carsen’s very physical staging of “Ist ein Traum” thus paid off.

Ms. Fleming has done some of the best work of her career in Mr. Carsen’s productions (Alcina, Rusalka, Capriccio and a revival of Eugene Onegin that was overseen by others). She has named him as a favorite director, and it was at her request that he returned to Rosenkavalier at the ROH and the Met in 2016-17. It seems fitting that “the people’s diva” and “the diva next door” is taking her leave of “mainstream” opera, as she calls it, as a good team player.

Ms. Fleming must have been aware of the filmed Salzburg Rosenkavalier with Adrianne Pieczonka, and thus must have had an idea that Mr. Carsen’s would not be the most Marschallin-focused Rosenkavalier possible, even within strictures of the characters’ respective stage time. It is to Ms. Fleming’s credit that she wanted to be part of something good, a strong production of the opera under consideration, rather than a personal showcase.

At moments on Saturday, one could feel that the clocks had stopped. Ms. Fleming’s high notes still sound with remarkable beauty (the earliest evidence was “Das möcht ich sehn,” the Marschallin’s vow of immovability), and no part of her range has suffered in accuracy of pitch. Inevitably, her seniority and long service were detectable. Broadcast conditions mitigated audibility concerns that might have been an issue in the house in less congenial passages, but microphones also highlighted a growly quality from the lower middle down, where the grit and grain have collected.

Ms. Fleming sang parts of the role on Saturday with obvious emotion, and twice I was aware of her reining herself in, guarding against being overcome. She sang as though holding on, not wanting to let go of a departing friend, which just about sums it up. This was not the best-sung Marschallin of her career on technical grounds, but I do not believe anyone went in expecting that from a 58-year-old soprano on an emotional occasion.

I could criticize her on some expressive levels—sometimes I wished for a lighter touch, a wider palette of irony, sharper contrasts that really never have been hers to command. It is to her credit that such thoughts did not come to me often.

Ms. Fleming admirably played her role in the production, and in the opera: the one character of the five major figures whose aspirations are in the past. Unlike Octavian, the Baron and both Faninals, the Marschallin is never excited about something yet to come. She looks back wistfully, considers the future only with anxiety, sings of wanting time to stand still. No wonder she has been, from the beginning, the favorite of opera audiences.

I will not comment on every member of the large, generally good supporting cast. Matthew Polenzani sweetly sang and amusingly acted the Italian tenor’s brutally difficult number. He was done up as a white-suited faux Caruso, as Piotr Beczala was in Salzburg, but Mr. Polenzani sported the iconic moustache.

Markus Brück was a rather blunt Faninal, with more voice than some (albeit with a quaver that may or may not have been a character touch), but not finding the humanity of the best. Bass Scott Conner, in his first Met role, was a Police Commissioner to notice. Twenty-four years into his Met career, tenor Tony Stevenson appeared to be having a great time with the Innkeeper’s drag act.

The production received a mixed response on its opening night last month, and I doubt this greatly troubled Mr. Carsen. He is a savvy professional who has worked all over the world for 30 years and has heard it all. His Eugene Onegin was savaged by many here 20 years ago, and was cherished by the time of its replacement. I predict his Rosenkavalier will settle in nicely and that new casts will welcome its opportunities.

Staging a work such as Rosenkavalier means making choices, and Mr. Carsen and his team intelligently met the challenge here, delivering something valid, entertaining and worth discussing. The premiere cast brought that work to life on the stage and created the illusion of life being lived on the stage. This happens less often than we might hope. I hope Mr. Carsen returns soon and often. If Peter Gelb would like to contact me privately, I will supply names of three repeatedly engaged directors whose future workloads can be lightened to make room.

As everyone notes, Rosenkavalier is a “bittersweet” opera, and I was keenly aware today of how that bittersweet quality can be found all throughout it. I suppose we all have realized that the accompaniment to “Nein, nein” (Mariandel’s coquettish vow not to drink wine) returns as the beloved trio’s climax. The frivolous and the profound both are part of life; there is no separating them, and one may even lead to the other, Strauss seems to be telling us. The ridiculous Ochs’s visit prompts the Marschallin’s reverie, and everything that follows.

It had never hit me before Saturday afternoon that even one of the most musically joyful moments in Rosenkavalier has a darker tinge. “Bleiben?” Sophie asks in the second act; “…was sie Ist!” replies Octavian. His love is predicated on the keeping of an impossible promise, that this young woman remain exactly what she is on the day he met her. Did the Feldmarschal once have such an expectation of Little Resi? But we do not see things clearly at 17.

I also thought about the people around me at the HD screening. It was a senior-heavy crowd, as they usually are, and I overheard some conversations, initiated some others. I heard of a Rosenkavalier a woman attended 40 years ago with her now-late husband, and of favorite singers, favorite operas, memorable performances.

I heard much appreciation for the HD series. I talked with a woman from Germany who was seeing and hearing Mr. Groissböck for the first time, and adoring him (she approved of the cast’s pronunciation in general). I heard prolonged applause at the end, for singers and players unable to hear that applause.

These operagoers are more than just the canes and walkers and oxygen tubing we notice first; they are an awesome repository of life experience and wisdom. They are still showing up for something new, and many of them are taking it on its terms.

We often hear fretting along the lines of “What if this were someone’s first Rosenkavalier?” or “What if this were someone’s first opera?” What is less often asked is “What if this were someone’s last?” Some of the people around me Saturday will not see another Rosenkavalier. Indeed, I may not; no one guarantees us any number of years. If I never saw any other opera, I would feel I went out on a high today. There is a long list of things in life that time erases and memory mocks. Great performances such as Saturday’s will never be on that list.

There are no further live performances of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met this season, as the 2016-17 season is now part of the theater’s glorious history. The HD broadcast will receive an encore presentation at most participating theaters on Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. Eastern. Check local listings, and if you did not go on Saturday, do not miss a second chance.

Photo Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera.

  • PokeyGascon

    Thank you for the lovely, touching review. I attended the HD feeling very fragile and the piece had a huge cathartic impact on me. It is not an opera I ever considered a favorite but Saturday the 4+ hours seemed to fly by. You review had me in tears again.

    • Williams

      Oh Gawd! What a weeper. At one point my companion asked me if I wanted a towel. Felt silly until a glimpse behind us revealed the entire grand tier bawling their eyes out.

  • basso.profundo

    “As transmitted to movie theaters, Ms. Garanca’s voice now sounds huge.”

    Oh, I see.

  • An absolutely beautiful review, Porgy. Many have talk about the opera’s interplay of drama and comedy, but you do it so eloquently.

    I heard around 50-60% of the radio broadcast and it sounded very good to my ears. I’m glad you highlighted the Orchestra and Stephan Weigle’s work which I found particularly fine.

  • Porgy -- one of the most beautifully written reviews I have ever read on PB. I have already shared it with a number of my operaphile friends.

  • I am amazed at how many talented people write for this site. This delicately-written review sparkles with wit and insight.

  • Rowna Sutin

    Chiming in with the chorus: this is a beautifully written account of an HD Broadcast I was going to miss, and have now decided to see in encore. On the road between CT and NJ I read it to my better half, a certain Mr. Opera, who was very taken in with the elegant and understated prose. A great review, Porgy!

  • DonCarloFanatic

    Beautiful, sensitive review. You’ve convinced me to go see the encore.

  • emmett

    I preferred to remember Ms. Fleming at her very best, for me it was in Eugene Onegin. And decided against her last performance.

    But i was so impressed with the performances in Cyrano, I bought a second ticket to return Saturday night, at 8:30, to see if Alagna was still as compelling as Cyrano as I thought on first hearing him the opening night, May 3.
    He was, perhaps even better then my first hearing, or maybe it was simply that the opera is so obscure I needed a second performance to take in the music.

    It is a better opera than I realized on first hearing.

    But more exciting was the extremely high quality of Alagna’s performance. He is known to sometimes sing sharp. I did not hear that in either performance.
    i don’t speak French but it was clear to me that being a fluent French speaker, he was doing justice to the language and the rewrite of the Rostand lines.

    He owned the role. He managed to be sexy and heartbreaking.

    James Jordan wrote a pitch perfect review in the Observer, which was one of the reasons i decided to spend another three hours with Alfano.
    Couldn’t agree more that Jennifer Rowley sang beautifully, acted more beautifully, and reminded me of Beverly Sills.

    The orchestra was exciting and Armiliato looked ecstatic at the performance.

    To have two outstanding performances, superlative casts, on the same day
    (the late start for Cyrano was to reset the stage from Rosenkavalier)

    reminds me of what the Met is capable of.

    But why these were so late in the season baffles me.

    Next year looks so uninteresting, with conductors not even on the ” B “….. can’t wait for Yannick.

    • CwbyLA

      you made a mistake and you should have seen this performance of Rosenkavalier.

  • fletcher

    I’m really glad the HD broadcasts don’t do audience reaction shots because I was in a dress circle box weeping openly through most of the performance. Thank you Porgy for a beautiful review.

  • Luvtennis

    Wonderfully written review!

  • manou

    Porgy -- amor.

  • Torna Ulisse

    Thank you, Porgy (I loves you) for the flavour of attending the HD. We get it so late here in Oz (two months away) and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see it yet. But I’m planning to watch the ‘traditional’ Covent Garden production with la Te Kanawa at a friend’s, then appreciate the inflection with La Garanca and La Fleming’s Adieu in Carsen’s version. And will be especially attuned to the Sages around me. Thanks for sharing the love xx