I love the prelude to Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, especially the first soaring phrases.  British guest conductor Edward Gardner gave a balanced, stirring, detailed, and exciting version of the score, played with gusto and verve by the Lyric Opera Orchestra. 

On Tuesday evening there were a disappointing number of empty seats in the Civic Opera House, but the audience seemed to much enjoy the performance in the beautiful, traditional sets and costumes (by Thierry Bosquet) that originated with the San Francisco Opera and were first seen at Lyric in the 2005-06 season.

Director Martina Weber made the traditional production work well for the most part, and it was a pleasure to see Strauss’ romantic comedy in the sumptuous costumes of 1740s Vienna.  And, in an unusual move, Lyric invited the audience to watch the scene change between Act One and Act Two, somewhat “Met in HD”-ish.  Most of the crowd stayed to observe the shift from the Marschallin’s salon to the Faninal house.

This was a Rosenkavalier that aspired to excellence and almost achieved it.  Virtually all of the singing was excellent, but the full depth of the dark undercurrents that lie behind the bubbly comic romances are not yet fully explored.  Soprano Amanda Majeski sang the Marschallin with tonal beauty and a natural grace and nobility, but I kept wishing that she’d go a step deeper in a characterization that could have used more emotional maturity.

She did manage to bring much more nuance and introspection to the duet with Octavian that ends Act One, but her monologue reflecting on the aging process was touching more than moving.  Her lush soprano was very much in evidence in Act Three, soaring splendidly in the glorious final trio.  Still, I think Majeski could be a major exponent of this role with a few more years of experience.  All the tools are in place.

In Act Two, in the wonderful “Presentation of the Rose” music, Sophie Koch as Octavian and Lyric debutante Christina Landshamer as Sophie sang with silvery beauty, but the chemistry between to two was simply nonexistent.  The moment when these two are supposed to fall in love at first sight fell flat; in fact, in their first duet scene accompanied by Sophie’s Duenna Marianne, Ms. Koch appeared to wish to escape the room rather than being overcome with passion.

She also seemed a bit too cool in general, though she was appropriately coltish in the Marschallin’s bedroom in Act One.  Ms. Landshamer has a lovely, limpid soprano but seems rarely to engage, or even look toward, her scene partners.

The performance of the evening was that of British bass Matthew Rose as an unusually interesting Baron Ochs.  Rose really sang the role without the usual ”barking,” and succeeded in playing the often-bawdy comedy of the role without going over the top.  There was some real blue blood in the veins of this Ochs, not just the Marschallin’s bumptious “country cousin.”  Rose really anchored the production and kept the occasionally annoying “Mariandel” business a real comic gem.

Excellent support came from the hilarious Italian “intriguers” Valzacchi and Annina, played with style and fine comic timing by Rodell Rosel and Megan MarinoLaura Wilde was a bubbly and big-voiced Marianne (Sophie’s duenna).  Martin Gantner was a sturdy Faninal, though the voice was perhaps a size too small for the vast Civic Opera House.  The Italian Singer was delightfully sung and acted by tenor Rene Barbera.

However flawed the presentation, what audience could not luxuriate in the thrilling melodies of Strauss, including the great waltzes and the remarkable writing for female voices throughout? Despite my quibbles with some performances, I found the rather long evening thoroughly enjoyable.  And I certainly hope that Lyric Opera will have further engagements for Gardner, whose work was exemplary.

Photos: Cory Weaver