A memorable account of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier: Soloists, Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Metropolitan Opera Chorus (chorus master: Donald Palumbo), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle (conductor). Metropolitan Opera House, New York, 23.12.2019. (JQ)

Camilla Nylund (Marschallin) and Magdalena Kožená (Octavian)
(c) Karen Almond/Met Opera


Production – Robert Carsen
Set designer – Paul Steinberg
Costume designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting designers – Robert Carsen & Peter van Praet
Choreographer – Philippe Giraudeau
Revival Stage Director – Paula Suozzi

Cast included:

The Marschallin – Camilla Nylund
Octavian – Magdalena Kožená
Sophie – Golda Schultz
Baron Ochs – Günther Groissböck
An Italian Singer – Alok Kumar
Faninal – Markus Eiche
Valzacchi – Thomas Ebenstein
Annina – Katharine Goeldner

Robert Carsen’s production of Der Rosenkavalier is a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires and Teatro Regio di Torino. Various Seen and Heard colleagues have reported on the production as seen in all of those opera houses bar the Teatro Regio di Torino. Mark Berry saw it at Covent Garden in December 2016; he found the production rather frustrating and was not too happy with the conducting of Andris Nelsons (review). Jonathan Spencer Jones saw the production in Buenos Aires in July 2017 (review) and a couple of months earlier, in May 2017, Jim Pritchard experienced it from the Met in a cinema relay (review). Incidentally, the performance that Jim witnessed has been preserved on DVD (074 3944) and Blu-ray (074 3945) by Decca. Doubtless the reason Decca were so keen to release the 2017 performance was because it featured Renée Fleming, one of their star artistes, as The Marschallin and Elīna Garanča as Octavian; both singers were performing their respective roles for the last time before retiring them from their repertoires.

On a Christmas visit to New York I had the chance to see The Met’s revival of Carsen’s production. Of the principals who featured in 2017 only Günther Groissböck, as Baron Ochs, remains in the cast, though a number of the smaller roles featured the same artistes as in 2017.

Carsen has updated the production to 1911, the year of the opera’s composition. Visually, the production is very handsome: Paul Steinberg’s sets are opulent and convey the ambience of fin d’époque Vienna very well, as do the elegant costumes designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel. I found much of Carsen’s view of the opera convincing; it seems to me that the updating works. That said, there are one or two heavy-handed touches. Faninal has achieved wealth and, recently, ennobled status though his work as an arms supplier to the Imperial court. The point is rather rammed home by Carsen at the start of Act II when the great hall of Faninal’s house is found to contain two large artillery cannons; these have to be trundled off the stage before the silver rose can be presented and this all seems something of a waste of effort. Right at the end of the opera, as Octavian and Sophie cavort on a large bed, we see Mohammed reeling drunkenly at the front of the stage while behind him Ochs’s men, in their military uniforms advance towards us only to fall down dead. Presumably, this illustrates that the world of 1911 Vienna will soon be ripped apart by World War I. I suspect, too, that at the start of Act III some patrons may be repelled by the very frank depiction of the house of ill repute in which Ochs attempts to seduce Mariandel, though I thought it worked as a symbol of the excess prevalent among the upper echelons of pre-World War I society.

The cast for this revival is a strong one.  Günther Groissböck reprises the role of Baron Ochs. He doesn’t seek to portray Ochs as an elderly roué. Rather, this baron is middle aged and clearly believes – however erroneously – that he is still in his prime and ready not only to lead his followers as their commander (they are all dressed in grey military uniforms, like Ochs himself) but also to impress any young ladies who may cross his path. This Ochs is surely depicted as a 1911 anticipation of the #MeToo age, and when she encounters him Sophie reacts accordingly. Groissböck’s swagger and bluster come across well and he sings the role with energy and bravado.

The chief object of his desire is Sophie, here sung by the young South African soprano Golda Schultz. I was very taken with her performance. Her clear, silvery soprano gave consistent pleasure – the high-lying lines in the Presentation of the Silver Rose scene were gorgeously spun – and she characterised the role expertly. She was clearly and understandably repelled by Ochs’s boorish advances in Act II and reacted strongly. Earlier in the act, and at the end of Act III, her interactions with Octavian were delectably sung and acted.

I must admit I was slightly apprehensive at the prospect of Magdalena Kožená in the role of Octavian. She is a fine singer but I remembered seeing her in Peter Sellers’ stagings of Bach’s St Matthew Passion and St John Passion.  On both occasions I admired her singing very much but felt that her acting was over the top. Perhaps, though, the responsibility for that lay more with the director because I had no reservations whatsoever about her approach to the character of Octavian. Her singing was as persuasive as one would have expected while her acting was admirable. In Act I she was the epitome of a young man about town, breezily confident having won the affection of the Marschallin. Unlike his worldly-wise lover, Octavian can’t envisage circumstances that would end his idyll with the Marschallin, but his resolve is soon tested to breaking point by the sight of Sophie. Kožená was marvellous at the Presentation of the Silver Rose, dashing and gallant at first but soon smitten by Sophie. If anything, though, she was even finer in the opera’s concluding act. Her assumption of the character of Mariandel was highly diverting as she led the lecherous Baron into her web of deception, but it was in her contribution to the famous trio that her performance peaked. She conveyed most convincingly the conflicting emotions of Octavian, torn between the Marschallin and Sophie, before Octavian commits irrevocably to the younger woman. The duet between the two young lovers was as ecstatic as you could wish.

But for all the dramatic and vocal excellence on display in this performance, one artist stood out. Regal of bearing and equally regal of voice, Camilla Nylund’s portrayal of the Marschallin stole the show. Her singing was simply sumptuous, and her characterisation was moving. Right at the start, even while basking in post-coital happiness, Nylund made it clear that the Marschallin is a realist; she knows that one day Octavian will leave her for a ‘newer model’, making her enjoyment of the here-and-now all the more bittersweet. Properly disdainful of her boorish cousin, Ochs, she maintained her dignity during the exchanges between them. Rightly, though, Nylund saved her best for the end of the opera. She tugged at the heartstrings in the great trio, partly through her highly engaging acting and, even more so, through her wonderfully expressive vocal delivery. Hers was an unforgettable assumption of what is arguably Strauss’s greatest operatic role.

The presence of Sir Simon Rattle in the pit represented luxury casting indeed. He hasn’t appeared at the Met all that often: he made his house debut comparatively recently, conducting Pelléas et Mélisande in 2010 and he returned in 2016 for Tristan und Isolde. Even though he may be an infrequent guest in the house he has clearly built up a following among the Met’s patrons for he received a vociferous welcome before so much as a note had been sounded. The Met Orchestra played superbly for him and, as so often with a Rattle performance, I relished the amount of inner detail that he brought out, seemingly without effort. I admired the urgency that Rattle brought to much of the score. The music never sounded harried or rushed but he did not succumb to the temptation to luxuriate in Strauss’s opulent textures for their own sake. Instead, the opera was impelled forward with refreshing vigour and sweep. The flair that Rattle exhibited in his conducting justified the warmth of the reception that he and the orchestra received.

Strauss’s glittering, opulent operatic masterpiece was given a memorable performance. There are two more performances in the run, on 1 and 4 January. Get a ticket if you can

John Quinn

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