The Metropolitan Opera is staging Der Rosenkavalier, the Strauss masterpiece (one of them). The company is doing the opera till mid-May. I attended the night of April 17.
There are some works I describe as “performance-dependent.” They depend on a fine performance for their greatness—even their goodness—to come out. The Bach B-minor Mass is not performance-dependent. You could hear it performed by a couple of drunks on kazoos, and you would know it was an immortal masterpiece.
This Strauss opera is performance-dependent, in my judgment. Stravinsky said (or is said to have said), “Every year, thousands of people go to see Der Rosenkavalier and are bored.” Some of the longest, most tedious hours of my life have been spent with Der Rosenkavalier. But also, some of the most delicious. A good performance of Der Rosenkavalier is one of the most enjoyable experiences in opera.
On April 17, the Met gave us a good one.
The Met’s Baron Ochs is the Baron Ochs of our day: Günther Groissböck. I have written about him in this role at least twice, so I will go light. What people like about him is that he is not a traditional Ochs: fat, buffoonish, past-it. He is youngish, sleek, and dangerous.
I, too, think Groissböck is a marvelous Ochs, and there is no one else I would rather hear or see in this part. His facility with the language—this is a very talky role, in a very talky opera—is a wonder. But may I remind you, the libretto does specify that Ochs is fat. A “gross thickness.” Anyway . . .
Groissböck was natural, assured, and captivating, as usual. But his low notes were hard to hear.
Which reminds me of something: Der Rosenkavalier is, in some ways, a chamber opera. Even literally. Act I takes place in a chamber—a bedchamber—and Act III takes place in a private room at an inn. (Act II takes place in a house, though a big ol’ one.)
And the Met? A big ol’ house.
Conducting the opera was Sebastian Weigle, a German maestro. He was competent from beginning to end. But I kept asking for more. More sensuality—in the opening, for example. (I found this music rushed.) More crispness. (The pizzicatos at the end of Act I were a mess.) More exuberance. More sweetness. More of that which is Viennesey (to borrow a word from Ira Gershwin).
But again, Weigle was always competent. And he is especially to be praised for keeping the music going. Except in one instance—an important one: the beloved, rapturous trio. I thought it was too slow and careful. You must not handle this music with sugar-tongs.
Der Rosenkavalier is sung, obviously, but it is also played. The story of the opera is told in the orchestra. The Met’s players satisfied at every turn. Woodwinds chirped gaily and saucily. And the concertmaster, Nikki Chooi, made a notable contribution. He was one of Strauss’s soprano voices.
Playing the role of Octavian—and it is a pants role (although a pants role that becomes a dress role)—was Elina Garanca, the famous Latvian mezzo. From my seat, she looked quite like a young man. How is this possible, from the glamorous Garanca? Well, if you can make Isabel Leonard look like a boy, you can make anyone look like a boy.
(Not long ago, I saw Miss Leonard as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, by Mozart—an opera that serves as precedent for Der Rosenkavalier.)
Garanca sang with a dark voice, which added to the impression of masculinity, however youthful. She sang and acted with understanding, and the skills to carry out that understanding.
Erin Morley, an American soprano, was Sophie. She was sweet, as Sophies often are (and must be). But she was also spunky, as Sophies too seldom are, in my experience.
In what I would call luxury casting, Matthew Polenzani was the Italian Singer, who walks on and walks off, cameo-like. Of course, he sings while on. I’m always startled at the beauty of Polenzani’s voice, no matter how recently I’ve heard it. Strange.
The Italian Singer is made to look like—made to be, I gather—Caruso in this production. The production is by Robert Carsen, the Canadian director. There is much to hail in it. It is always interesting to look at, I think. I’m especially fond of the dancing—particularly in Act II.
Now, Act III is absurd enough the way Strauss and Hofmannsthal (his librettist) wrote it. Carsen makes it more absurd. He also makes it absurdly porny. I reviewed a version of this production in Salzburg, many years ago, and the Met’s is less porny. It is practically staid, compared with Salzburg. Still—I think a whorehouse in this production is a misfire.
This opera has a perfectly fitting ending. Strauss and Hofmannsthal could not have done better. The Marschallin’s page, Mohammed, scurries in to retrieve Sophie’s handkerchief, and scurries out. In this production, however, he staggers in drunk and falls flat on his back. Okay.
One more point: A friend of mine said, “Have you noticed that the taking of a group photo—an old-timey group photo, complete with popping flash—has become a cliché in opera productions?” Now I have.
Well, I have not written about the Marschallin, Renée Fleming. With these performances at the Met, she is bidding farewell to this role, one of her most frequent. Is she bidding farewell to the Met? To the opera stage altogether? That is unclear. In any case, I will write about her in my forthcoming chronicle for the magazine.