United States The Met: Live in HD – Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Sebastian Weigle. Broadcast live to the Odeon Chelmsford, Essex, 12.5.2017. (JPr)
The Marschallin – Renée Fleming
Octavian – Elīna Garanča
Sophie – Erin Morley
Baron Ochs – Günther Groissböck
An Italian Singer – Matthew Polenzani
Faninal – Markus Brück
Production – Robert Carsen
Set designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting designers – Robert Carsen & Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Philippe Giraudeau
Live in HD director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD host – Matthew Polenzani
With any Der Rosenkavalier staging the choice mostly becomes one of deciding to concentrate firmly on either Viennese nostalgia or on Viennese decadence. Chocolate-box nostalgia is better served by setting the work in an opulent Hapsburg palace during the mid-eighteenth century. The alternative – as Robert Carsen brings us here (reviewed at Covent Garden last December) – is fin de siècle Vienna around the time of the opera’s composition (c. 1911) when times were changing in many strata of Austrian society.
In composing Der Rosenkavalier Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal – respectively the greatest German composer and librettist of the early twentieth century – were collaborating together for the second time. Rosenkavalier has become one of Strauss’s most popular operas despite critical opinion turning against it in its early years and the fact that composer and librettist both became somewhat dissatisfied with elements of their creation. It is clear that they gave us not only a poignant portrait of human relationships and class envy, but also something of a neo-Baroque comedy of manners and a successor to Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. In the first scene, having the ‘trouser role’ Octavian dressed up as a maid is clearly a homage to Cherubino. But the liberalism of the early twentieth century is also reflected by having Octavian and Sophie unite to drive out the old aristocracy and its decadence as typified by Baron Ochs.
Updating works to a point, especially as a number of things in Der Rosenkavalier do seem remarkably modern: the Marschallin’s self-consciousness, the very open and frank sensuality in the opera, as well as, its scathing critique of blundering masculinity. The Marschallin’s arrival in the last act supplies one final twist too. She calls the whole plot simply ‘a farce’ and by displaying her moral authority and dispensing the noble and traditional values of discretion, benevolence, and personal self-sacrifice in magnanimously pardoning the young lovers who have conspired against her, she orchestrates the expected happy ending. It is now when the various social strata coalesce and there is the juxtaposition of a princess, a count, a baron, a newly-ennobled Faninal, with the various servants of different rank, that the librettist and composer’s choice of a period setting actually makes better sense and we come full circle since we are clearly in the mid-eighteenth century.
Paul Steinberg’s sets and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes draw us to Vienna on the cusp of World War I and as the curtain rises Octavian emerges into a hallway from the bedroom in post-coital bliss and needing a cigarette. Still in her nightgown the equally-satiated Marschallin joins him. A wall rises taking us inside the bedroom with its huge bed and we are in a typical Viennese palace though as the back door opens – because of all the portraits on the walls both inside and outside – it looks more like we are in the galleries of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum. Baron Ochs forces his way past servants, and comes barging in and insisting on seeing the Marschallin. The Baron has arranged a marriage to Sophie, the daughter of Faninal – shown here as an arms dealer – in order to help alleviate his financial difficulties. Boasting of his success at seducing the peasant girls on his estate, he asks the Marschallin to recommend a young man to serve as his Rosenkavalier (Knight of the Rose) and take Sophie the traditional silver engagement rose and she suggests Octavian. He also cannot keep his hands off ‘Mariandel’, a young chambermaid, who is actually Octavian in disguise.
Everything soon descends into near-bedlam, as the Marschallin receives various petitioners and is entertained by an Italian tenor (costumed as Caruso). This is the first time when it becomes apparent that Strauss and his librettist had no clue how to edit themselves to prevent them dragging out a scene longer than necessary. Der Rosenkavalier is far from my favourite opera, though the waltzes can weave a certain magic. I must be a little controversial here however: for me this opera is no masterpiece and I am still amazed that since there used to be a twentieth-century tradition of cutting performances, no-one takes responsibility for doing this today. At well over three hours of music, there is much too much here for such a slim story with just four main characters.
Faninal represents ‘new money’ and his reception room – decorated in ‘Secessionist style’ – is dominated by two huge wheeled cannons and his lackeys carry weapons. Striving to be upwardly mobile he wants to marry off his daughter to a baron regardless of how impecunious he is. After a hint of the Vienna Opera Ball there is love-at-first-sight when Octavian presents the silver rose to Sophie who is suitably appalled when she meets Ochs. All is resolved in Act III and Octavian plots to embarrass the philandering Ochs. The libretto asks for a private room in an inn, but Carson and his associates take us to a high-class brothel where scantily-clad women ‘entertain’ customers of various backgrounds. The innkeeper (Tony Stevenson) is in drag and looks like the lovechild of Danny La Rue and Lily Savage and Mariandel (Octavian in disguise once more) looks and sounds like Marlene Dietrich. Much fun in the backstage interviews was had with the scenario of a girl playing a boy playing a girl in this opera. In the end the Marschallin returns to restore the status quo leaving on the arm of a police commissioner (Scott Conner) suggesting that as one affair has ended another might be beginning. Once again this would have been an ideal end to the opera, yet there was still an apparent need for a final love duet for Sophie and Octavian, though admittedly it is sublime and ecstatic.
An opera which – regardless of its undercurrents – is a comedy of manners needs something of a comedian in its pivotal role. Günther Groissböck had all the low notes (and high ones) and the vocal stamina a Baron Ochs requires, but comedy does not seem his forte and Wotan at Bayreuth in 2020 is likely to be much more his ‘thing’. Carsen makes Groissböck’s Ochs somewhat younger than we usually see, and though suitably pompous, boorish and guilty of self-aggrandisement, it remained, for me, a rather cartoonish and mannered ‘one-note’ performance. It was revealed that soprano Erin Morley had a baby just prior to rehearsals for this Rosenkavalier and as Sophie she was an utter delight. I don’t know any history of the singers of Sophie becoming the Marschallin in future years, but given the passage of time I can imagine this happening to Erin Morley.
Both Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča were retiring their roles in this opera and I may well ‘retire’ this opera too and not see it again. Renée Fleming considers that after 70 performances as the Marschallin it is now time to move on at this stage of her career, and for Elīna Garanča it is a case of her voice changing and there are new challenges ahead. Intriguingly she revealed how she had been singing the role for seventeen years and two months, which is exactly the age Octavian is supposed to be! There is a rather sentimental, elegiac, atmosphere to Der Rosenkavalier and when reflecting on the ‘passing of time’ Fleming captured this perfectly without giving the impression that she found it as easy to sing the part as she once did. Perfectly utilising her darkly-seductive voice Garanča was the undoubted ‘star’ of this performance, and this young mother of two gave an uncanny impersonation of a love-struck teenage boy. I didn’t see as much dramatic chemistry between Fleming and Garanča as I would have preferred, but perhaps the occasion got to the more senior singer, and this would be understandable.
Factoring in all the eye-catching cameo roles (especially Markus Brück’s stalwart Faninal and Tony Stevenson’s amusing Innkeeper), the fine chorus and magnificent orchestra, this was an outstanding company achievement and a fitting end to the Met’s 50th anniversary season. In the pit Sebastian Weigle and his musicians conjured up the sumptuous Straussian sound world with dazzling effect at times; bringing out all the echt-Viennese lyricism and drama that was occasionally lacking from some on stage. My final words are left for the Met’s very popular singer, Matthew Polenzani, who was luxury casting as the Italian tenor; he sounded radiant whilst grandstanding as a conceited divo and signing a copy of his latest recording for the Marschallin. Remarkably by the interval Polenzani had changed out of costume to be the affable host of this Live in HD transmission.