Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Edo de Waart
Director: Nathaniell Merrill
Renée Fleming: The Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg
Susan Graham: Octavian
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Sophie von Faninal: Christine Schäfer
I had finished my Met year 2009 with Richard Strauss' ghastly shocker Elektra and according to my own programming I was going to start my Met year 2010 with Richard Strauss' endlessly charming (not to mention definitely safer by all accounts) Der Rosenkavalier, featuring no less than Met veterans Renée Fleming and Susan Graham. You gotta give it to the man, he was VERY eclectic! And all the better for us. After expressing his desire to create a Mozartian opera as far as possible from his two sulphurous previous works, he actually followed through with the help of his Elektra collaborator Hugo von Holmannstahl again. After a convoluted genesis, the final outcome proved so all-around popular that the two men just kept at it and enjoyed one of the most thriving partnerships in all opera history. None of their subsequent efforts, however, would ever meet Der Rosenkavalier's instant and enduring success.
Set in an imaginary 18th century Vienna, the story happily mixes nostalgic fantasy, personal drama and social commentary, all accompanied by a richly romantic score. What's not to love? Neither snow nor rain was threatening to complicate my trip, which was accomplished in a near-record time of 3 hours and 45 minutes, so this time the snafu came from my not noticing the opera's unusual length and that its ending was consequently scheduled at the exact same time I was supposed to depart from New York. Oops.
Der Rosenkavalier's plot is not hard to follow, but can from time to time seem downright contrived and silly. Moreover, the purists will have to forget about historical accuracy as it is first and foremost a completely fictitious story. The tradition of the silver rose has never existed and waltzes were not part of the Viennese life in those days. But never mind. The end result is still a delightful comic opera which, in the right hands, delivers opulent music and transcendental singing... for about three and a half hours (not counting the two intermissions).
And you know you're in good hands when the first scene opens on Renée Fleming and Susan Graham giddily rolling around in bed after an obviously very satisfying night together (Ah, those glorious horns in the prelude were just something else, weren't they?). The fact that these two real-life long-time friends managed to pull it off without bursting into giggling fits is an undeniable proof of their power of concentration, and their acting abilities even extend to the point where one fully fell for Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, the washed-out princess at the ripe age of 32 (?!) while Susan Graham did require a stronger suspension of disbelief for her 17-year old Octavian. Although I will never get used to seeing female singers interpret male parts, I have to say that she did a wonderful job, especially from afar.
The singing was top-notch, of course, with truly arresting moments such as Renée Fleming melancholically asserting that some day her lover will leave her or the ravishingly beautiful final trio when she willingly releases Octavian to the one he now loves. To complete the main cast, Kristinn Sigmundsson was an appropriately boorish and lecherous baron, forcefully trying to woo a sweetly innocent Sophie. Even if, here again, soprano Christine Schäfer's real age made it hard to believe she was such an ingenious creature, the purity of her voice and the clarity of her singing more than made up for the disparity. After all, what is opera, if not make-belief?
The decors and costumes were absolutely splendid, from the sumptuous fairy-tale dresses to the lavishly adorned sets, as easy on the eyes as the music was on the ears. Gorgeous melodies were all over the lushly lyrical score, especially in the form of that infectious waltz that everybody takes home with them, but there were also scenes of earthy comic relief such as the Marchallin's rambunctious visitors competing for her attention in Act I or the spooky fun generated by the "supernatural" apparitions in the baron's private room in Act III. So a lot was going on at all times, and to his credit guest conductor Edo de Waart made sure that musicians and singers were provided enough time and space to let the magic happen, masterfully bringing it all home.
So Der Rosenkavalier turned out to be a very enjoyable and promising, if a bit overextended, way to get my 2010 season going in New York, especially since I did manage to eventually make it back to DC with little hassle on the road and much happiness in the head.