Director's Cut #7:  Der Rosenkavalier

Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal
Metropolitan Opera, 20-29 January, 2000

I've previously thought of Der Rosenkavalier as an opera in which thirty minutes of sublime music are obscured by three hours of annoying chatter. The Met's current revival (seen January 20 and 24, 2000 and heard in live broadcast January 29, 2000) convinced me that the sublime music wins. Familiar with the opera from attempts to listen to previous Met broadcasts, the recent New York City Opera production (by Jonathan Miller), and a live performance recording with Lisa Della Cassa and Senja Jurniac under Herbert von Karajan, I went to the season premiere filled with trepidation. Would I be awake for the third act trio? I don't know if credit should go to the strong cast (Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, Franz Hawlata, Heidi Grant Murphy), or the remarkably crisp, specific staging by Bruce Donnell, or the idiosyncratic reading of the score by James Levine, but my interest was held and my emotions engaged.

The idea of Der Rosenkavalier has always appealed to me:  loving someone so truly that one loves even his love for another. But this noble ideal seemed to be in simplistically easy reach of the wise, graceful, somewhat cool Marschallin. At least that's how it sounds when listening to Della Casa with her shimmering lightness of touch. I've also listened to Elizabeth Schwartzkopf in an excerpt from the role. For many, Schwartzkopf, in her day, owned the Marschalin. In the first act scene, from a live Met performance, I hear the grandest of dames, a woman who knows the world and it's patterns well, rather pointedly putting Della Casa's Octavian in his place. I sense a great deal of love there and I would be interested to see the film of her in the part to get a better sense of her unique impact.

To her credit, Renee Fleming does not take the easy surface road with this character; she goes beneath the artifice of refined manners to explore the private Marschallin - a young woman in her mid-thirties who is realizing that her youth is past. The day we become aware that we are no longer "one of the kids" is an awesome one. To be sure, there is a sense of loss, a nostalgia for the feeling that there is all-the-time-in-the-world for anything-at-all to be possible. And, long valued chiefly as objects, women are partiularly prone to be overwhelmed by the fade of youth's exuberant bloom. On the other hand, owning this maturity one feels a solid power, a serene faith in the intrinsic worth of right actions. Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal capture the Marschallin on the cusp of those feelings and Fleming shows us how uneasy a place it is. Vocally, she employs a rich warmth of tone that adds to the emotional intensity of her work. She appreciates the scope of the first act and allows us to see the Marschallin change in situations ranging from passionate intimacy, to relaxed familial socializing, to social formality; she finds the right bearing, the right color for each. This approach allows ample room for the Marschallin's growth.

Nowhere is she more moving than in her monologue after Baron Och's exit when she ponders the mystery of how one life can include the "little Resi" she remembers; die alte Marschalin she imagines; and the passionate woman with a young lover she now is. "How can God decree it so?", she asks. ("Wie macht denn das der liebe Gott?") "How are we to bear it?" Her answer is to live in the moment, knowing that there is a time for everything and that "all the difference" lies in discerning and doing the thing right for each time.

Susan Graham's mezzo delights with a remarkably rich, smooth timbre and she has a masculine ease in the pants-part of Octavian that permits a detailed portrayal of his emergence into young adulthood. The confident, boyish impulsivity of the first act gives way to an earnestness of intent that is moving in its sincerity. Franz Hawlata is a winning Baron Ochs although he occasionally goes a bit over-the-top in playing the more bumptious aspects of the character. Here is an adult male who has never made the transition from boy to man. As Sophie, Heidi Grant-Murphy spins some beautiful pianissimo singing and offers a simple characterization of an ingenuous young woman with starry aspirations.

The Met's production is thirty years old (!) but still works beautifully. The first and second act sets are particularly impressive in their appointments without overwhelming the action of the opera. I'm sure it helps that many of these singers have worked with each other in these roles before, but Bruce Donnell seems to have inspired a real sense of ensemble that is sadly rare in Met revivals. Although his use of slapstick is a bit carried away for this tender comedy, Donnell's staging is a worthy contribution to a wonderful performance. James Levine leads the orchestra in a reading that is notable for an intimate focus on the gorgeous textures of Strauss's score.

With these performances I became aware of the precision with which Strauss captures both the quotidian hubub and the soulful essence of living. The music of Ochs is full of the chaotic impulse of the unobserved life. The awed phrases that end the Marschallin's great first act monologue have a spaciousness that catches my breath and lets me hear the beating of my heart. The resolute calm with which she dismisses Octavian at the end of the act is capped with a flash of grief that brings a stab of pain followed by a sharp tear of regret. The tender discovery of young love shines a shy face through the exquisite formality of the Presentation of the Rose. And, finally, the great trio in the third act brings us out of the contraints of space and lets time stand still while we are lifted high on a stream of pure love.

I still think there are pages of this opera that need to see the scissors, but, stretches of clatter notwithstanding, Der Rosenkavalier's strengths prevail, and the result is an evening of emotionally vibrant music and theatre.

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Copyright:  © 2000 Kent D. Cozad
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