(Photo AP: Act II of Der Rosenkavalier)
The fact that the greatest composer of the twentieth century, Richard Strauss, chose the final trio from Rosenkavalier as the music he wanted played at his funeral -- conducted by the young Georg Solti -- seems to have created some sort of general impression that the entire opera is owed some taxidermist's form of respect -- like a funeral march for fresh ideas that at this point sort of polarized most stage directors in two fields -- the organza /tulle /wig fans and the not-so-avantgarde-anymore directors who choose instead to degrade the story into an impressively vulgar brothel anecdote in the name of, you know, throwing away that tired organza. It's also interesting to realize how a lot of conductors have divided themselves into two factions, too -- the ones who listened to a lot of Kleiber's Rosenkavalier (let's call them Team Watteau) and the ones who endured a lot of Karajan (let's call them Team Rembrandt).
The late Nathaniel Merrill's production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier opened last night at the Met (where it had last appeared roughly a decade ago). The Strauss package got unwrapped (although everything is actually wrapped in layers of organza and silk tulle, from the windows to the women) and serves as our hyper-real (Frengo would be proud) billet doux to a generic Maria Theresian Vienna.
THE American soprano Renée Fleming was the Marschalin and poured down a sweet, milky base that laid the groundwork for the perfect star -- expressing a deep maturity of the role with such dignified presence. Ambassador Fleming (Paris, we'd say). What we have deep reverence for is that she didn't try to turn the opera into "The Renee Show", rather it was about sharing the spotlight and creating a highly victorious symbiosis between her stage colleagues. It was all very respectful and (un)boastful, but one expects no less.
Susan Graham sang as Octavian with charm and unrestrained energy, allowing the young noble to mark every scene with memorable gestures. Graham and Fleming sang the roles (which they last sang together in 2000 for the premiere) as fresh as ever.
Act III's final duet between Octavian and Sophia was earth-shattering, "Spur nur dich, spur nur dich allein". Gorgeous, tinkling, soaring, but not lofty and with a good weight. The final embrace makes you feel alone in the weight of their love.
(Photo AP: Miah Persson & Kristinn Sigmundsson)
Miah Persson, Swedish Susanna who can kick your a$$ in a bar brawl, sang in her Met debut as Sophie, which she's already sang to great praise in Salzburg and at the SFO. Her Act II duets with Graham were stunning. With her petite & lithe body language, she convincingly played the part of the teen, especially up against Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson's Baron Ochs, who in his MET role debut, -- aka the actual protagonist of this opera -- took excellent authority on stage. Major-Domo's Bernard Fitch cruised through his role in good command. Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas reprises his role as the Italian Singer, affecting a literate (duh), Italian style.
Sadly the production, from the very beginning of Act I -- the decorated boudoir of Princess von Werdenberg, fat cherubs literally posed on the tops of columns, draping ribbons of earthly love across the stage, canary yellow walls with salmon curtains, a pastoral and bucolic infection, like a sloppy kiss on the mouth of what's supposed to be Proper in opera -- and the sets were so achingly glossy that they sucked life out of the characters, rendering them, at times, one-dimensionally and papery.
In Merrill's fairytale (and Robert O'Hearn's sets and costumes) there's neither whimsy or capriciousness, a staging that takes itself too seriously for its own good. Nor were the sets user-friendly, with most scenes unmarked for perspective. Someone should have brushed up on their Brunelleschi 101. Act I's boudoir of the rollicking bedside slap & tickle was literally parallel to the stage and even the monnied private parterre box holders were straining to see the girl-on-girl action. Act II's room in the manor of Herr von Faninal boasted soaring, floor-to-ceiling windows, while Act III opened to a scene straight out of a Disney fable (although there was the most gorgeous, golden yellow lighting thanks to lighting designer Gil Wechsler's madskillz.)
The staging followed literally, word-for-word, Hofmannsthal's libretto. From the little black boy carrying the dish of chocolate to the Princess's Act I finale, deep in thought, her hand resting on her head. Costumes were so elaborate that at times it appeared ironic. Opera Chic loved Octavian's hunter green riding jacket with the gold accents and golden, yellow vest. But her Act II rhinestone cowboy, bedazzled white frac/knickers, was a combo straight from Liberace's secret vault.
Dutch Maestro Edo de Waart took over for our dear James Levine, who was forced to cancel for emergency back surgery to repair a herniated disc. The American Music Director was supposed to celebrate his 50th lifetime Rosenkavalier for the October 13 Metropolitan Opera prima. He'll have his chance to do it on January 1, when he's slated to return after a Les Contes warm up in early December.
De Waart, MD of the Milwaukee Symphony, who made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1998 with Die Zauberflöte, led the orchestra in a mainly solid performance (aside from an overt Act I mutiny), with lovely, swollen color. His politely-elegant version muted the brass in a tamed and cautious manner. His waltzes were graceful without being too, well, waltzy. De Waart gave a gentleman's read of a very visual, transparent composition. A very glassy, vitreous Act I led to Act II's supple, sueded songs and by Act III, de Waart had made clear his firm exposition of the score, a nicely tended arc that culminated to the stirring, shining finale. All without that spark or glisten of mischief, which is fine, as de Waart at least capped sentimentality of neediness.
Act I was rocky, considering all elements combined. The singers at times fell flat, even against the kinetic movements and buffonery of the direction. At times glassy and static, it didn't suffer from lack of chemistry, but lack of enchantments. Like a pantomime, creaky window dressing and duty with a definite lack of passion, spark, and glimmer.
Come on, baby, light my fire. Strauss's music is already there, after all, and La Fleming, and Graham.