OPERA NOTES: Thoughts on the Met’s Der Rosenkavalier HD-Cast

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Renée Fleming takes her final bow in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met. (Photo by Jonathan Tichler)

I made it to the repeat HD-cast of Rosenkavalier, which in many ways—especially musically—was one of the Met’s best outings: strongly cast, well conducted by Sebastian Weigle, beautifully played by the orchestra, and sumptuous to look at.  Rather than a full review, the notes below are observations on a few specific areas.

Renee Fleming (the Marschallin)
Renée Fleming had an elegant, classy send-off in a vocally still-congenial role. Whatever this occasion represented (she’s been oddly fuzzy on the details), it seems to be a farewell of sorts—and an appropriate one, by which I mean both that she was in good form… and it’s time.

She looks ravishing in the late-Secession gowns, and mostly sounded lovely, too; if the very highest notes in the trio lacked a little of her former spin and sheen, it was barely noticeable. In fact, her phrasing was cleaner than I’ve heard in past, with very little swooping and scooping.

But Fleming doesn’t make much of the words, and watching her performance in close-up should permanently dispel any sense that she’s an actor. Consider the moment in the first act when Baron Ochs arrives. It’s a complicated bit of theater—the Marschallin assumes it’s her husband who has come, and she frantically tries to disguise all signs of her assignation with Octavian. Later, she’s overjoyed with relief. It’s a couple of minutes that involve a swirl of emotions, and Fleming barely registers any of them. The great Marschallins have found myriad colors in the role—sensuality, imperiousness, anger, regret, charm; Fleming relies on one affect—resigned, great-lady wistfulness. I’m guessing Vera Charles in Midsummer Madness did much the same thing.

Elena Garanca (Octavian)
The real deal, and for me the absolute star of the show. I generally prefer soprano Octavians—my favorites are Sena Jurinac and Irmgard Seefried, and I also love the recorded souvenir of Elisabeth Soderstrom, who along with Seefried is the most youthful and ardent. But Christa Ludwig is high up there—and the rare mezzo with an easy top register and the ability to float can work as Octavian, too. Garanca has all that, and a real sense of theater—she always looks engaged in the moment, fully focused on her scene partners. Carsen’s direction serves her well in some ways (she’s delightfully androgynous in the nightshirt, smoking a cigarette), poorly in others (attempting to channel Marlene Dietrich not only makes no sense on its own, it’s clearly a stretch for Garanca). On the whole, though, a real triumph.

Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs)
I’d heard many raves about Groissböck from people I trust—and the descriptions of this Baron Ochs sounded very intriguing—but I wasn’t won over. He does look imposing in his uniform, and there’s a brutish physicality, especially when he semi-strips in Act II. (It’s not a great face for the camera, though—in close-up, he looks like Wayland Flowers’ Madame puppet.) But a lot of the mugging and fussy shtick he deployed is straight out of the traditional Baron Ochs playbook. I like the concept of a sexier, more dangerous Baron Ochs—but (apart from Groissbock’s gym-toned upper body) I saw little of it here. Maybe another singer will do more—I thought of René Pape, who though a decade older than Groissböck, has far more animal presence. Also, a finer voice—Groissböck has patrician tone in the upper register, but the lower end is patchy.

Robert Carsen (production director)
Updating Rosenkavalier to 1911, the year of its premiere has some logical, and particularly in the first act, it’s a physically beautiful production (the costumes especially). But the shift also removes the wonderfully metaphoric quality that Hofmannsthal created with his 18th Century setting, which looks back to Mozart and Maria Theresa. The opera is—and certainly was in its time—a metaphor. I doubt very much that the opening night audience missed the relevance of Rosenkavalier to their own historical moment. But it was subtle, and required peeling back the layers. Carsen cuts to the chase—for me, it’s like the Cliff Notes edition.

And occasionally, not even that.  Some key images that Carsen substitutes for Hofmannsthal’s are crude or anemic. At the end of Act III, where the stage directions indicate that Mohammed retrieves Sophie’s dropped handkerchief—a delicate, bittersweet suggestion of tears to follow happiness—here instead, there’s a clownish military pile-on.

Carsen’s solution for the Act I final pantomime is even worse—he has the Marschallin wander around the room, put on her hat, pick up a bouquet of roses, and exit. Hofmannsthal’s specific instructions leave her on the stage in a moment of inward reflection—literally, Die Marschallin stüzt den Kopf in die Hand und bleibt so in träumischer Haltung bis zum Schluß.

For decades, directors often had the Marschallin looking into her mirror, which picks up on an earlier moment when she chided her hairdresser for making her look like an old woman. I’m not sure where the mirror idea came from, but I’ve always liked it—it introduces an intriguing hint of narcissism that undercuts the sentimentality. But mirror or no, the point is that she’s not to leave the stage, but remain alone. What Carsen provides is absolutely wrong. The Marschallin isn’t going out into the world; she’s withdrawing from it.

 

 

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