Shout-out to Peter Gelb: Kill to get back Kirill! Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper has been on a roll lately being dubbed by the New York Times the “world’s best opera company.” But its leadership is moving on but first a victory lap at Carnegie Hall which concluded Thursday night with a sumptuous Der Rosenkavalier spectacularly conducted by Kirill Petrenko, the soon-to-be new music director of the Berlin Philharmonic.
As opera has been essential to Petrenko’s development, we can hope that the BPO’s production each year at the Baden-Baden Easter Festival may not be enough for him and the Met can entice him back as it has done with his Berlin predecessor Sir Simon Rattle.
Strauss’s stage works are programmed rather regularly outside the opera house; I’ve heard Salome, Intermezzo, Die Liebe der Danae once and Elektra, Die Ägyptische Helena and Daphne twice each that way. But I hadn’t noted a concert performance of Rosenkavalier before those given by the other BSO (Boston Symphony Orchestra) several years ago. Coming so soon after the Met’s brilliantly successful Robert Carsen production, one wondered why Munich and Carnegie had picked this particular Strauss work—oh for another Petrenko specialty, Die Frau ohne Schatten!
Perhaps a feeling of summation reigned as the Staatsoper had just concluded a series of four Rosenkavalier performances, the final round for its celebrated Otto Schenk–Jürgen Rose production which premiered in 1972 under Carlos Kleiber. In any case the outstanding evening proved a proud showcase for the company as manifested by outgoing Intendant Nikolaus Bachler beaming and nodding majestically during the second intermission.
How odd a German company would present this important cornerstone of its famed Strauss repertoire to New York with a such strongly Anglophone cast—a Canadian Marschallin, a British Ochs and Americans as Octavian and the Italian singer, But these artists all have strong ties to Munich as, for instance, Angela Brower was formerly a member of the opera house’s ensemble, as was the Sophie, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller.
I had heard disappointed mutterings that the company’s reigning diva Anja Harteros wasn’t appearing as the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, but not from me as I find her frustratingly opaque. She was not simply avoiding New York but busy with a new production of Tosca at the Salzburg Easter Festival.
Even more Americans appeared in Rosenkavalier: tenor Kevin Conners shone in three small roles—both the Marschallin’s and Faninal’s Major-Domos as well as the Innkeeper and Helene Schneiderman (the one cast member not in the Munich run) made a much stronger showing as Annina than she had in her Met debut last year at the opening of the Carsen production.
Her partner in intrigue Ulrich Reß sneered effectively as a pungent Valzacchi while the imposing Peter Lobert thundered as the Police Commissioner. Markus Eiche made a surprisingly handsome and virile Faninal but Miranda Keys squalled as his dithering duenna Marianne Leitmezerin.
I usually greatly enjoy Lawrence Brownlee but his full-bore star-turn as the Tenor was unappealingly monochrome. Now in the 32nd year of his opera career Peter Rose remains a canny, refreshingly subtle Ochs. His was an annoying, occasionally crude interloper but he never let one forget that he was a nobleman albeit a vain and tactless one.
I’d seen him in the role at the Met in 2005 and again in 2013 and it must be admitted that time has taken its toll—the voice has become much reduced in size and the top and bottom are now gingerly approached. But he resolutely held onto to his long, steady low E at the end of the second act until Petrenko playfully tapped him on the shoulder.
When I saw Müller announced for Sophie, I was unhappy. I had been at her awkward Met debut last season as a charmless, timid Marzelline. Proving once again that one shouldn’t judge a singer by just one exposure, she proved a fiercely forthright Sophie with probably the biggest (if not the most beautiful) voice of the evening. Though she had all of the notes, she didn’t use much dynamic variation particularly on those very exposed highs of the duets with Octavian. While being grateful for her vocal security, one longed for more softness, more float.
Brower, on the other hand, brought a wealth of nuance to her pugnacious and eager yet fragile Rofrano. Her sizable high mezzo easily handled the role’s challenging extremes with the top often taking on a glinting shine. An inventive actress she was vividly alive to the constantly shifting world around her and quick to react. Unfortunately she fell into the common trap of adopting a “funny” pinched voice for Mariandel which as always got old very quickly. But happily she blended beautifully with her soprano partners.
Adrianne Pieczonka embodied a Marschallin much to my taste as I tend to find the beloved my many character an annoyingly self-absorbed and condescending creature. She may have been altogether too low-key for some but Pieczonka’s cool, bemused Princess treated Octavian with a wise detachment refusing to let sentiment cloud her better judgment.
The monologue had a delightfully off-hand manner rather than being freighted with “Important Insights.” Her Leonore last year at the Met at the same performance as Müller’s debut had fallen flat, charisma-free and stodgily sung. She was, however, in fine voice Thursday, the middle rich and expressive and with a lovely spin in that essential “silberne Ros’s” phrase at the end of the first act. If louder high notes didn’t freely shine, they were secure and without the obvious effort one noticed in her otherwise terrific Met Chrysothemis.
The three ladies together delivered an exceptionally powerful final trio, sent airborne by Petrenko’s careful nurturing. He kept the orchestra soft and yearning and steadily built the tension and volume until a supremely moving climax exploded unlike any I’ve heard since Kleiber’s at the Met in 1999. Throughout the splendid orchestra played its heart out in a brisk but ravishing reading that finished a full 15 minutes before its announced end-time.
While Sebastian Weigle led a lively and satisfying performance from the Met pit last season, having Munich’s top-notch group onstage in that warmly welcoming Carnegie acoustic under Petrenko’s unfussy yet detailed direction inevitably put Strauss’s glittering instrumental writing to the forefront occasionally overshadowing the fine, if not absolutely top-rank cast. And Petrenko’s austere but expressive body language was fascinating to observe throughout.
I was surprised to realize I had attended all but one of Petrenko’s Met engagements, missing only his “how did they ever come up with that for a debut” Merry Widow in 2004. Both his runs of Ariadne were superb, particularly the Violeta Urmana–Diana Damrau–Susan Graham edition the year after Widow and his lithe Zauberflõte featured the best mother-daughter pairing of the Taymor production–Damrau in one of her final Queens and Genia Kühmeier in her sole Met engagement to date.
His fiery Khovanschchina six years ago was extraordinary, one of the Met’s finest evenings of the past decade, but Munich then snapped him up and he hasn’t been back. However this engagement, his Carnegie Hall debut, served to again reminds us of what we’ve been missing and that we need Petrenko back more regularly in the US.
So, yes, Mr. Gelb, kill to get more Kirill!
Photos: Stefan Cohen