Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera live relay, January 2010

Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera live relay, January 2010. At the end of Ronald Harwood’s recent play Collaboration, on Richard Strauss’s ill-fated collaboration with Stefan Zweig, we find Strauss holed up in his villa awaiting the arrival of allied troops. When they enter he quickly tells them, “I am the composer of Rosenkavalier“. Indeed it is probably Strauss’s best-loved opera among all the wonderful gems that he produced, and this performance did it full justice.

I saw this opera less than three weeks ago at Covent Garden, so comparisons are inevitable, and I hope you will forgive me for making them. The Metropolitan Opera comes out ahead of Covent Garden, mainly because of Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, and Susan Graham as Octavian. In the Royal Opera’s recent revival we had Soile Isokoski and Sophie Koch in these two roles, with Lucy Crowe as Sophie, and Peter Rose as Ochs. Thomas Allen was Faninal, just as he was here, though he came over better in this production at the Met. I want to write that Renée Fleming is a diva, but that word is debased by its association with attention-seeking sopranos of unpredictable disposition, so I prefer to call Ms. Fleming a goddess. She may be the best Marschallin currently available, giving the role great depth of feeling and emotion. She also looks terrific, and her glorious costume in Act III matched the drama of her entrance to resolve the mess in the tavern. This is a high point of the opera, and the only comparison in the last four Rosenkavalier productions I’ve seen was Anne Schwanewilms a few years ago in Chicago, again in a stunning dress, worn with superb poise. But Renée Fleming is far more than just an elegant lady, and her soliloquy on the passing of time in Act I was done with immense sensitivity and feeling. What a performer! She was well-matched by Susan Graham as Octavian, who transmuted so well from a feisty young man to a pretty young chamber maid that one could understand Ochs’s desire and confusion. His role was very charmingly portrayed by Icelandic baritone Kristinn Sigmundsson, a huge man who showed himself a cultivated boor, but never a clown, and his lyrical singing was a joy to witness. Sophie was performed by the attractive Christine Schäfer, who looked a little too mature for the part of this ingénue, though her voice contrasted well with Fleming and Graham. I must say I preferred Lucy Crowe at Covent Garden, arguably the best Sophie I’ve ever seen, and when it comes to comparisons, Graham Clark at Covent Garden was a superb Valzacchi. The Met hired Thomas Allen, so why not Clark too? Their Valzacchi here, whose name was not in the cinema cast list, was miscast. He was too young to sing of Annina as his niece, and too small to restrain Octavian in Act II, making that little scene appear too contrived.

Overall, however, this was a great cast, and the conducting by Edo de Waart was sensitive to the singers, well-paced and never over the top. In this respect it was quite different from the recent performances at Covent Garden, where Kirill Petrenko used the musical dissonances in the score to create a marked shrillness in some scenes, such as the levée in Act I. This performance was noticeably smoother, but both interpretations are valid. The stage sets by Robert O’Hearn were excellent, and his costumes were very good, but I did prefer the Covent Garden ones for Sophie, and for the Rosenkavalier in Act II. Altogether this production by Nathaniel Merrill is very effective, but as Domingo said in his interval address, and as they say every time in these wonderful Met broadcasts, a cinema screening is no substitute for the real thing on stage, and that is particularly true for this opera with its multitude of stage action. You really have to see it in the opera house, even if you don’t get Renée Fleming — it’s a stage drama, and a glorious one too.

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