Cher Public

Mit leichtem Herz und leichten Händen

Robert Carsen has given Peter Gelb two of the greatest successes of his tenure. Yet despite being one of the most in-demand opera directors in the world (does any other director have as many productions on the world’s opera stages?), his route to the Met has been as a runner-up. 

Unlike Gelb’s favoured directors, like Bartlett Sher or Mary Zimmerman, Carsen has not been prominent in Gelb’s focus on theatrical values. His brilliant Falstaff only made its way to the Met when Des McAnuff was uninvited from the assignment after his dour Faust. And this sumptuous and humorous Der Rosenkavalier came about because soprano Renée Fleming chose him to direct the vehicle of her sort-of farewell to the company.

Carsen has had two other successes at the Met during the Joe Volpe era. His Eugene Onegin, booed upon its arrival and mourned after its departure, was his only production exclusively commissioned by the Met. His other Met work was his well-travelled Mefistofele, which was staged as a star vehicle for Samuel Ramey. I can’t think of any of Gelb’s favoured directors who have batted four for four. I can only hope that talks about a future engagement are in the works.

Carsen has a penchant for setting productions during the time of the composer’s life. Here, he has imagined the society of Strauss’s sentimental look back through a fin de siècle lens, with the Great War looming overhead.

I was immediately impressed by the high luxurious walls of Paul Steinberg’s set, resplendent in deep reds. The elegant three sets of double doors to the Marschallin’s bedroom delight the eye. The second act set is all black and white with the exception of the bronze colours of the ostentatious Greek wall art, looking both expensive and gaudy. And in both the first and third acts, he hides the main set behind a wall which creates a contrasting, shallow playing space.

We first meet Octavian in this space when he sneaks out of the Marschallin’s bedroom for a cigarette, basking in a moment of youthful afterglow. The wall is used most effectively in the final act. It descends to show Ochs departing the inn, pursued by debtors, and then ascends again to reveal Octavian and his two loves suspended in deep thought. This isolation serves to foreshadow the effect of the great trio.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are as luxurious and chic as the sets, flattering the singers, regardless of body type (a feat which has evaded many a costume designer).

This production was the occasion of two celebrated singers bidding adieu to signature roles. Fleming, the Met’s beloved and most bankable star, was saying goodbye to the Marschallin, while leaving the door open to future appearances in less conventional work. And Elina Garanca, portraying the title character, was saying goodbye to pants roles while moving into more dramatic ones.

This video release (on Blu-ray and DVD) is from the HD broadcast which also happened to be the final performance of the run, becoming a true souvenir of their farewells.

Both artists were able to say goodbye while still on top of their game, though Garanca’s work pays more dividends. The voice has grown and developed a slight hardness of tone at the very top, leaving behind the youthful bloom of the ideally voiced Octavian. But it is still a first-class instrument, suave and even in tone throughout, and utterly suited to Strauss’s music.

As for portraying a young man realistically on stage, I cannot think of any better work in a pants role, so convincing is her body language. It’s a credit to her acting that she looks awkward and unattractive as Mariandel in the first act, despite being a beautiful woman off stage. As well as being convincingly boyish, she suffers adolescent love affectingly. One can believe that she loves no one but the Marschallin even while knowing the she will fall in love with someone else in the next act.

Fleming timed her farewell cautiously, playing it on the safe side (there have been complaints over the years of her saving her voice too much, and only letting it go in the big moments) and is in excellent voice here. There is wear in the instrument but it was so plush at its best, that even with wear, it sounds better than most in their prime. Musically and stylistically, she is completely at home in a role that has served her well for years. She receives a great sendoff from the audience who applauds her first entrance and showers her with a warm ovation at the close.

I cannot say that her dramatic work is as satisfying as that of her colleagues. Though she lived with the role for many years before this production (having also appeared in the Met’s previous HD of his opera), hers is not the revelatory work of one who has achieved deep understanding of a role over the years.

Fleming’s Marshallin is dignified and sympathetic without projecting complexity. There’s no sense of irony in her performance. When telling Octavian about the passing of time, she is too much of a victim and not knowing enough; she suffers too much in front of her young lover. She is touching when on stage alone at the end of the act, as a Marschallin should be, and again when seeing Octavian move on in the third. She looks stunning in her final entrance and projects easy authority, but lacks true charisma.

This is a moving performance but the emotion is too straight-forwarded. The Marschallin is one of the most three-dimensional characters in opera and is most effective when she’s given a nuanced mix of emotional depth and a knowing understanding. Her loss of Octavian is more interesting when the angst is revealed behind a layer of self-deprecating irony.

Singing the role for the first time at the Met, Günther Groissböck steals the show as Baron Ochs. This is simply one of the great role assumptions of our time. There are many things going on in his acting all at once. His body language projects a mixture of arrogance and clumsiness, sex appeal and vulgarity. All this has the effect of appearing both studied and spontaneous – the work of an artist who has put considerable work into his preparation and is able to deliver the results with breathtaking virtuosity.

Groissböck has the kind of thick, mellifluous bass voice that one associates with this music. He doesn’t have epic low notes, but he does a respectable job of the famous low E at the end of the second act. And he hits the low C in the first act, even if not landing quite low enough on the pitch.

But he also reminds one that the role has plenty of high notes too, all of which he nails. In between the role’s vocal extremes, he sings stylishly and smoothly. His command of the text is simply superb and he tosses off one wordy passage after another with insouciant ease.

Everything about Erin Morely’s Sophie is effortless, from her ingénue charm to her floated, silvery high notes. She is pert but sincere. And her innocence does not prevent her from projecting strength and independence. At one point, she is thrown to the ground and though one feels for her, she is not pathetic. She and Garanca have lovely, natural chemistry throughout.

The supporting cast is all strong. Markus Brück is a firm-voiced and commanding Faninal. Alan Oke and Helene Schneiderman hit all the marks as the wily Valzacchi and Anina, with Schneiderman particularly delightful in the third act. A previous house Abigaille, Susan Neves makes the most of Marianne Leitmetzerin after having first sung the role with the company in ‘93. Scott Conner is an appropriately stern Police Commissioner.

Matthew Polenzani’s slightly goofy, unglamorous Italian Singer’s delivers the difficult “Di rigori armato il seno” with typical musicality and technical aplomb. He is made up to resemble Enrico Caruso and his star status is highlighted by Peter Van Praet’s and Carsen’s lighting and the reactions of the others to his performance. The first verse is a fleeting moment of beauty, frozen in time amid all the clutter.

Conductor Sebastian Weigle (stepping in for James Levine) maintains a light touch, not letting the score get bogged down by its abundant orchestration, while letting the Met Orchestra delight in its many details. But there is room for more depth here. For example, I would have liked a more sardonic bite in Ochs’s entrance. He supports the singers expertly and indulges Fleming while holding things together.

Carsen’s direction is meticulous, giving loving attention to all the details. The various visitors to the Marschallin’s chambers are all given their due. The Marschallin’s and Octavian’s final interaction in the first act is thoughtfully handled. Octavian is overly aggressive in trying to kiss her, his clawing verging on violence, and she is momentarily repulsed before quickly recovering. His behaviour and her resistance explain why the Marschallin doesn’t kiss him before she goes.

In the second act, Carsen makes the interesting choice of shrouding the intimacy of Octavian’s and Sophie’s first meeting with the formality of a number of couples waltzing behind them, sometimes echoing the young lovers’ movements. The youngsters are always being watched while still having an intimate moment.

The opera’s third act can be tedious if not handled well. Here it is not only handled well but made a strength of the production. Carsen has chosen to set the act in a brothel, with the Innkeeper (a scene-stealing Tony Stevenson) a madame in drag. There is genuine comedy in the brothel action, giving a long opera welcome levity in its final act.

The portrayal of airiandel can also add to the tedium of the third act if the singer chooses to whine her way through her lines in a child-like voice. Garanca is anything but tedious. Instead of delivering her “Nein nein” in an affected voice while making googly eyes, Garanca looks and sounds like Marlene Dietrich. And she has fun throughout the sequence without resorting to coarse humour. Interestingly, when on the receiving end of aggressive sexual advances, Ochs is uncomfortable and reticent.

The ending of this opera has drawn attention and I’m not entirely persuaded by it. During the final measures when the page Mohammed (here a teen rather than a young boy) typically runs on stage to fetch a handkerchief, we see him traipsing on stage drunk and swigging from a bottle. Behind him, an army proceeds towards the audience with one of the large cannons previously seen in Faninal’s house.

On the final notes, Mohammad and the army collapse to the ground. This gesture is meant to close the loop on the notion of a society on the brink of war and devastation. While I do no object to the concept, I find the execution unconvincing. The frothy music is at odds with the notion of impending war and there is not enough music to allow the idea to be fully realized.

One of the most striking features of this production is the presentation of Baron Ochs. Physically, Groissböck is not the typical man cast as Ochs. He is handsome and well built. He doesn’t have a big belly and there is no attempt to give him a fake one. The opposite is true. At the end of the second act, as he’s recovering from his injury, he dresses down to his undershirt, revealing bulging biceps. Yet, he is as repulsive as any Ochs because of his behaviour, not because he’s old and fat. This modern take on the character proves even timelier than was probably intended.

Since the accusations against Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #metoo movement, operas with sexism and misogyny in their storylines are being viewed in a different light. In Le nozze di Figaro, the Count’s behaviour towards his wife and the women in his employ was always to be disdained by the audience, but now has an extra resonance.

This production preceded the #metoo movement, and Groissböck’s take on Ochs preceded this Carsen production (first seen in Harry Kupfer’s 2014 Salzburg production). But by putting the focus on his behaviour rather than his physical appearance, this production is particularly resonant and the timing of its recent video release makes this interpretation all the more timely.

What struck me as I watched this production is how it belies some of the clichés that people have about opera. Here is an old-fashioned story, in a piece that looks back more than forward, with the title character a pants role. Yet, watching the vibrant performances and the deftly directed action, I was often impressed by how contemporary it all felt.

There is no park and bark, no banal gestures. Singers look at each other when addressing one another; they listen when not singing themselves; and no one’s eyes are peeled on the conductor. A non-opera fan could watch this and laugh out loud, or get swept up in the adolescent romance of its young lovers, and feel repulsed by the brutish Ochs – without experiencing any of those things at an artificial distance that can sometimes be a by-product of opera.

If a measure of a production’s success is that it presents the opera in a relatable, engaging manner, then this production is a triumph. Here’s hoping that Carsen is given an opportunity to continue his perfect batting average.

  • Ivy Lin

    Wonderful review. I agree that this was one of the best-assembled casts the Met put together in years. In addition to all that you say I want to add that I thought Erin Morley really made Sophie a likable young lady instead of a naive brat (which has been the usual portrayal).

  • CwbyLA

    Great review Ali. I pretty much agree with all of the things you wrote. This was a fantastic production from an outstanding groupmof singers. For once Rosenkavalier felt like a true ensemble opera as opposed to all the attention being given to Octavian and Marschallin. In addition, the typically boring business in the second act was genuinely engaging and funny. Kudos to Carsen and the entire cast.

  • One thing I appreciated about the Carsen production was that at no point did I feel the opera was too long, which it has in a number of other productions I have seen.

  • fletcher

    Great review -- I loved seeing this, my only recent visit to the Met. A small but important point, at least to me: Steinberg’s enfilade wasn’t visible from much of the left side of the auditorium. A fine but limited effect. I think I missed quite a bit of detail from my seat in Dress Circle -- I didn’t even know the sets had that depth until looking at photos later. I’ve always liked Carsen’s work, especially that Paris Rusalka.

  • PCally

    Terrific review, summing up exactly what my reservations about Fleming in this role has always been.

  • Porgy Amor

    A wonderful review, and now the third rave here for this production (Christopher Corwin’s for the opening night, mine for the HD). I’m trying to recall anything else that three of us have liked so much in a year’s time.

    This would be one of my first choices for Rosenkavalier on DVD/Blu-ray, along with the note-complete Kupfer/Welser-Möst (it nicely complements this one, but the Met’s has the better Sophie) and the Schenk/Kleiber ’94. Not that I would want to lose Czinner/Karajan, Schenk/Kleiber ’79, Carsen/Bychkov, or Wernicke/Thielemann.

    • It seems to me that this opera is particularly well represented in the video catalogue. The two Keliber ones are on my wish list. I’d love to have Jones’s Marschallin’s and Moll’s Ochs on video.

      • Porgy Amor

        Elektra and Rosenkavalier are two of the luckiest of the “warhorses,” in what has been filmed. A lot of greatness and not many outright duds. The comparatively few Frau ohne Schattens give a strong representation as well (I cannot speak for the most recent of the four, from the Mariinsky).

        Carsen may actually have been the third choice for the Falstaff, if rumors have anything to them. I had initially heard, way back when, that it was to be Jack O’Brien’s followup to Il trittico. Then McAnuff’s name was attached, as you note. I am glad it worked out as it did.

        • And we’re still all waiting great (or even very good) Trovatore on video.

          Carsen the third choice? Good lord. Mind you, i would welcome a return from Jack O’Brien after his Trittico but I’m glad we got the Falstaff we did. I won’t soon forget that second act.

          • Pia Ngere-Liu

            What about the Vienna Karajan?

            • You know, I didn’t even know if its existence until today. Musically, it looks absolutely top drawer. I don’t know what the production is like.

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDEoYLg-yJE

            • southerndoc1

              Herbie sent himself a big bouquet of roses.

              That’s sweet.

            • Porgy Amor

              I have this one. It is goodish, maybe even one of the best available, but not the world-beater the names involved might promise. Karajan’s way with this score had grown heavier-handed and stiffer than in his performances of the ’50s and ’60s; he still stuck by every mutilating traditional cut, and his stage production does nothing to counter the prevailing view that he was a conductor and not a director. One can get a sense of a scene and let the eye wander for a long time, secure that nothing much will happen. Cossotto’s old-fashioned scenery chewing will not be to all tastes, but it puts a few tears in the fabric of overriding staidness. Good voices in good shape, and stylish performances with them. Domingo’s “Ah, sì ben mio” is a marvelous piece of singing, and I care about that more than I do “Di quella pira”…a good thing in this case (the latter is tight and chancy).

        • Ivy Lin

          Parsifal is another opera really well represented on video. And major portrayals and productions have been captured.

          • Unfortunately not Warlikowski’s in Paris. Or at any rate, it has not surfaced.

  • Niel Rishoi

    Excellent, detailed, thoughtful review, Ali. I will acquire this for sure, thank you for elaborating so thoroughly. It makes a difference in a review.

    • Thank you, Niel. I don’t buy a lot of operas on video but I’m very glad to have this one on Blu-ray.

  • PATRICK MACK

    This is great writing Ali. I especially appreciate the thought you put into capturing Fleming because there’s always been something ‘not there’ with the ‘there’ (kind of like Te Kanawa). You know she’s engaged but you just wish there was more going on. I guess I’m one of the few people who haven’t seen this production in total as yet. In spite of their already loading it up on the On Demand app. I will get around to it. I too appreciate Carsen’s work and wish we saw more of him. Bravo.

    • Camille

      Make that one of TWO people who hasn’t seen it yet! All the carrying-on and talking and Big Deal made out if it all just non-plussed me into not going to it and yet—, I do look forward to looking into it someday and figured there would be this DVD coming out eventually. Guess part of my problem was not really wanting to say goodbye to Mme Née-Née, too.

      I have that same problem with her, too, with the lack of “there” there. When I try to remember performances, I can remember very little of the actually stage persona, strangely enough. In fact, all I remember of her 2000 Rosenkavalier was her curtain call and the finale of Act I in which she dissolved into a little puddle of tears, an affectation I did not care for or feel consonant with die Marschallin’s proud nature. All I remember of her Susannah was how ill-fitting and unflattering that schmatte she was wearing appeared.

      I don’t know but it seems she is happiest in concert/recital mode. She seemed so ReLIEVED to be standing on the concert stage recently, so much more relaxed even than another CH recital heard two or three years ago. All that opera stagework left far behind to flourish in her comfort zone. I don’t know. That’s just how it strikes me.

      Very nice to have this carefully considered guide to this important edition of the Rose Cavalier. As I cheated myself of seeing the famous Garanca Octavian, I’ll be sure to watch, as much for a non-boring and sexy Baron Ochs, kind of an anomaly with this opera. So thanks for your hard work and fine considerations, kashania.

      • Interesting point about Fleming the recitalist. She is not without charisma and is at ease communicating with her audience. But she’s limited as an actress and seems to be most comfortable working with Carsen (despite my reservations, this is still a clear cut above her usual acting).

        • ChesterS

          I think she gives a great performance on the ’09 Wernicke/Thielemann Baden-Baden DVD. There is a lot there in the interplay with Koch (well supported by Thielemann.)

          • Porgy Amor

            That is true. She is dramatically better than her average in that one. Wernicke was seven years gone by 2009, but his production was one of the strongest in the direction of the Octavian/Marschallin interaction in the final third of Act One, and it is well revived here. I was happy that that one got the DVD/Blu-ray treatment for Fleming, rather than the business-as-usual remounting of the Met’s Merrill/O’Hearn that shortly followed (much as I would have enjoyed having a keepsake of Graham’s Octavian).

            Here is the Albert review of the Baden-Baden:

            https://www.classicstoday.com/review/unforgettable-rosenkavalier/

            • August

              PA, a correction of the late Albert Innaurato’s Classics Today review is warranted. He wrote that Fleming was involved in the new Wernicke production in Salzburg back in ’95. But this is patently false, as the Marschallin then was Cheryl Studer. And Fleming was not the understudy either. Here is the audio of the premiere. Cheers.
              https://youtu.be/e_KfaaUztWA

            • PCally

              Surprisingly iffy singing for Salzburg standards, no one is at their best. Anyway, Fleming took the production to Paris in 1998. Schwanewilms took it to Madrid and Milan around 2010.

            • August

              PCally, could be. First time essaying the role and all that. But iffier than Stoyanova and Pieczonka and who knows who else, also in Salzburg?

            • PCally

              Most definitely iffier than either of those two ladies who, whatever one may feel about their interpretative abilities and textual specificity (one of Studer’s greatest strengths IMO), certainly sound much healthier and effortless in their respective recordings than Studer does here (Pieczonka, whatever one might think of her sound, sings it just about perfectly) and are generally among the most consistent singers I’ve encountered live (both have lost some ease up top but they are both in their fifties. Studer is 40 in that video). I’ve also seen both Pieczonka and Studer live in the part after the performances you’re referring to and the former was certainly in more stable voice.

              And of course I was talking about the whole performance in general, not just Studer (there are other singers in the world). Murray, a singer like Studer whose best work I’ve adored, sounds really wobbly and unstable whenever she goes above the staff, and the rest is nothing special. So in every other regard the other Salzburg performances would win in a landslide.

            • Bill

              PCally -- I have seen Anne Murray as Octavian in Vienna and did not like her very much vocally -- I encountered her even more often there as the Komponist (with an exquisite Benackova twice as Ariadne and the remarkable Gruberova as Zerbinetta) and
              though Murray thought the role out practically and acted in appropriate manner she was vocally a very unappealing Komponist -- just not the right voice for the role as it seemed neither radiant nor very steady each time I heard her in Richard Strauss .

              Studer, in my opinion, sang a very moving somewhat mature Marschallin but on the occasions I heard her at the Met she had intonation problems on the highest notes which marred her otherwise stately and wise (and with excellent diction) performance. I always liked Studer and when in top form
              such as a sold out lieder recital of all Schubert at the Musikverein (large hall) or as Elsa she was singularly radiant and effective.
              I did not hear some of her disasters such as
              Ballo in Vienna or her Aida two roles she should not have bothered to endeavor.

            • August

              I thought Studer’s Marschallin at the Met way back far more insightful and better formed than Fleming’s. Some faulty intonation here and there did not bother me in the least in the face of her unique assumption. But she did sing a matinee which was not broadcast in which she sang with a frog lodged in her throat. It happens. I did not know about her all-Schubert recital in Vienna. I know she sang an all-Brahms Liederabend at La Scala and all-Richard Strauss programs at Villa Wahnfried and St. Petersburg, Russia. Those were in ’07. The Brahms earlier in the late ’90s, early ’00s?

            • Bill

              I agree with you -- Studer seemed very
              natural singing the Marschallin -- kind of like
              Claire Watson who was remarkably appealing
              and natural in the role. Fleming’s movements always seemed to me to be a bit studied (and unvaried from performance to performance).
              I place Studer’s Marschallin to be more akin to that of Elisabeth Gruemmer -- not as glamorous as some others to envision but
              very affecting as Crespin also was -- slightly muetterlich but with vocal warmth. Jurinac had a bit of this as well -- the whole performance filled with melancholy and wistfulness but that was Jurinac as Donna
              Elvira or Jenufa as well.

              Studer’s Schubert lieder recital was when she was at her peak -- not later. She sang Schubert songs very much associated with Seefried. Studer’s diction was particularly fine. Apparently Studer went to Europe for the first time specifically to study the interpretation of lieder, not opera, and went for a summer to Baden-Wien where her teachers were Hotter, Seefried and Fassbaender --
              Seefried told her (freely translated) “Child, why are you studying lieder? -- you are an opera singer” Hotter arranged for her to audition with the Bavarian Opera and that opened up opportunities for Studer that perhaps she had not originally planned for.

            • August

              Nice anecdotal information. That’s quite a pedigreed lineup.

            • August

              Bill, AFAIK Amelia never entered Studer’s rep. I think you meant the Trovatore Leonora?
              https://youtu.be/9MamTn7FSaU

            • Bill

              August -- your are absolutely correct. It was Trovatore -- Studer sang only 2 Leonoras of the new production, cancelled her next premiere in Wien which was all 3 roles
              in Hoffmann did not return to the Staatsoper for a number of years but came back as a replacement for Benackova as Elsa and had a triumph. Studer’s replacements in the Hoffman (with Domingo and Terfel) were Dessay, Fritoli and Coelho.

            • PCally

              I saw two studer Marschallins at the met. Being a big fan of her early work and having never seen her live I was very disappointed. I thought despite her undoubtedly moving way with the text and obvious serious thought she put into the role, she looked, sounded, and acted blowsy and matronly, crooned and talked a lot of the music, and couldn’t even come close to reaching the money notes at the close of the first act and the beginning of the trio. The second night was better but other than basically being sympathetic I didn’t really get anything special out of Studers performance and while I am not in favor of using singers looks as a major factor in their success, her singing and dramatic choices didn’t really compensate for a serious deficiency in glamour and charisma in a part that basically screams for it. I am not a fan of Fleming in this part and I actually thought her initial run at the met was very misguided dramatically but she was undoubtedly in her vocal prime and looked absolutely stunning. Later I saw studer sing Sieglinde in Vienna. She was in better voice but still shaky and once again, her onstage deportment enthusiasm couldn’t overcome her evident vocal flaws (the way someone like waltraud meier could often do in the part).

            • spiderman

              I agree. Lot of strain already in Studers voice. The trio is not, well, beautiful.

    • Luvtennis

      Couple of things -- I think Renee is a singer and musician first. The acting is dutiful and diligent and professional, but I don’t think it’s essential to her. Ditto Kiri. And I think this aspect of their artistic personas is more EVIDENT because of their personal beauty. It’s so easy to want more of them than was in their nature to give.

      • CwbyLA

        I remember a piece that was written by Zach Woolfe in the New York Times a few years ago. He compared several divas, including Opolais and Fleming, in their stage and HD performances. He noted that while Fleming came across well when viewed from the auditorium in the acting department, she seemed artificial on HD. I think there is definitely truth to that.

  • Great stuff! Thanks for a thoughtful, nicely written review