By James L. Paulk
NEW YORK – The arrival of a new Robert Carsen production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera is by itself a major development. There are few musical experiences more satisfying than a well-sung Rosenkavalier: The text is a very human meditation on aging, love, and fleeting time, and the exquisite score is aimed directly at the heartstrings.
These performances are momentous for another reason: Renée Fleming, the opera world’s beloved reigning diva, has announced that these will be her final portrayals of the Marschallin, a role she has pretty much owned for more than 20 years. Reports surfaced that she would retire entirely from the opera stage, but these were quickly disavowed by Fleming. Her remarks suggested a more fluid situation, leaving behind her signature roles but seeking out new projects and performing more as a concert artist.
Carsen’s production is shared with other companies and arrived after a run at London’s Royal Opera, also featuring Fleming. At the Met, it replaces Nathaniel Merrill’s 1969 production, a sumptuous confection of old Vienna and an example of the sort of expensive realism favored here before the arrival of Peter Gelb, the Met’s general director, whose efforts to shake things up and bring the Met’s production style into the modern era have often resulted in exciting artistry but have also included notorious misfires.
Carsen has updated things to 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere when, not incidentally, the world was about to plunge into the Great War and the old aristocracy portrayed in Rosenkavalier would collapse. This concept serves primarily to broaden the opera’s focus and to expand a meditation on the ephemeral nature of our lives and loves into a broader look at society. Carsen also milks the new setting for gimmicks and occasional heavy-handed metaphors, such as the giant howitzers that come and go: We learn from the program notes that Faninal, the father of Sophie, whose engagement to Baron Ochs sets the opera into motion, is a wealthy arms dealer. In the final moments of the opera, the walls recede to reveal an army facing the audience preparing to fire, led by the Feldmarschall himself.
Paul Steinberg’s first-act set includes multiple portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph gazing down from the crimson walls of the Marschallin’s vast boudoir. In the second act, Faninal’s nouveau riche taste is displayed via ostentatious modernist interiors.
The farcical third act is particularly challenging to pull off nowadays and usually winds up being rather silly and boring at the same time. Carsen has eliminated the boring part, staging the scene in a gaudy, surreal bordello full of sight gags, randy burlesque, and such touches as simulated fellatio. It all might have been a bit too much for some of the Met audience, but it was brilliantly choreographed and genuinely funny.
Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes for the men consist mostly of rather drab uniforms, while the women’s outfits range from gorgeous gowns to an over-the-top Marlene Dietrich Blue Angel parody for Octavian in the bordello scene.
Sometimes the various staging concepts seemed a bit random. The Rosenkavalier libretto is powerful stuff and its characters are richly drawn, portrayed here by a formidable cast. For these reasons, with the exception of the bordello scene, the updating and other touches didn’t have the same power as would be the case in a more open or abstract opera. But on the whole, this was a serious, provocative alternative approach.
Despite the problems, this was a night of exquisite singing all around: a beautifully matched cast that worked together and turned Strauss’ many ensembles into clock-stopping wonders.
Fleming is an artist of daunting talent, gorgeous and poised, with mesmerizing stage presence. The voice has never been huge, and in the first act especially there were times when the sound failed to adequately fill the cavernous house. She sounded a bit drier and patchier than was once the case. But there is a warmth and poignancy in her voice that has long made her uniquely compelling in this role.
Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča was a sexy, androgynous Octavian. A hyperactive seventeen-year-old boy in her scenes with Fleming, she showed Octavian maturing in the second act, and became the comic center of the third act. The voice is large and radiant. Garanča has indicated that these will be her last performances in trouser roles as she moves on to heavier territory.
Erin Morley performed the role of Sophie with a sublime soprano and high spirits. Günther Groissböck was a revelation as Baron Ochs. Instead of playing the ridiculous and elderly caricature usually seen in this role, he came across as rakishly sexy despite being something of a jerk. His powerful bass voice projected confidence and élan.
As the Italian Singer, tenor Matthew Polenzani arrived onstage dressed as Caruso and presented the Marschallin with one of his recordings before singing with panache and ping. Tenor Tony Stevenson performed in ridiculous drag as the proprietor of the bordello.
Sebastian Weigle’s conducting reveled in detail and kept things moving at a quick pace.
As the production team arrived onstage after the opening performance (April 13), lusty and prolonged booing emerged from a surprising number of patrons. They were joined in battle, of course, by an even louder cheering section. The Met’s dissenting fuddy-duddy element may be losing ground but they’ve got strong voices, and Rosenkavalier is one of their favorite operas.
The Saturday, May 13, matinee performance of Der Rosenkavalier will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met’s Live in HD series, which is now seen in more than 2,000 movie theaters in 71 countries around the world.
James L. Paulk is a freelance critic based in New York.