WROCLAW: Der Rosenkavalier
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Der Rosenkavalier

WROCLAW
Opera Wroclaw
12/12/14

In the final weeks of 2014, Opera Wroclaw had the honor of presenting its final Richard Strauss premiere during the composer’s sesquicentennial year. This leading Polish opera company, founded after World War II in the former Prussian city of Breslau, delivered a worthy new production of Der Rosenkavalier (seen Dec. 12), a work incomparably more popular than Die Frau ohne Schatten, the other Strauss opera being done in Wroclaw this season. 

Georg Rootering’s production was a mostly traditional, if visually gratifying, affair. In a move that brought Harry Kupfer’s recent, lackluster Salzburg production to mind, Rootering set the action during the era of the opera’s composition, rather than the Vienna of Maria Theresa. The director’s boldest visual idea was a mobile-like construction of three circles that rotated to reveal mirrored surfaces during the climaxes of the first and third acts. This set piece seemed to symbolize how the fates of the three main characters intersect and was as elegant as it was clever. For act two, the stage was dominated by a large elevated disk, which seemed to open up a window to the sky-like backdrop. Rootering used a split-stage for most of the third act, which allowed the audience to observe the comings and goings of all those who will intrude on the Baron’s tryst. The one interpretive touch that seemed untoward was to have the Baron’s lackey Leopold fetch the Marschallin himself.  

Generally speaking, the company’s ensemble members faired better vocally than the guest singers brought in for the premiere. The great exception here was the winning German bass-baritone Franz Hawlata as a surprisingly naturalistic Ochs.  This was a role he seemed to have in his bones. Hawlata did not try and make the Baron’s crass music sound more mellifluous than it was and make a charmer out of the old lech; nor did he overplay the Baron’s vulgarity. He was simply in his element, delivering a fully-rounded performance that was enhanced by evocative vocal acting. The evening’s other main guest was American soprano Meagan Miller, who made a less-than-convincing role debut here as the Marschallin. The undifferentiated brightness of her voice and a preternaturally cheery demeanor — especially in Act III — put one in mind of The Merry Widow. During the closing trio, she remained oddly aloof from her fellow singers, with a resulting lack of harmony and coordination which made me wonder whether she had been given ample rehearsal time. Her lack of gravitas or of magisterial presence made this an unfortunately routine-sounding account of a great and profound role. The other imported singer was the rugged baritone Boguslaw Szynalski, a frequent guest to the house, as Faninal. He made a strong first impression with a rousing act two entrance, but quickly seemed to run out of steam. His leathery voice, with its grainy texture, was often difficult to hear.  

Among the company’s homegrown singers, Anna Bernacka’s Octavian shone most brightly. The young Polish mezzo, whose repertoire includes Cherubio, Nicklausse and Elvira, threw herself passionately into the role with full-blooded and muscular tones. She adroitly and sure-footedly inhabited Octavian’s various moods, from ardor to impetuousness and from tenderness to mischievousness. It was the evening’s most incisive performance, every bit as entrancing as the hard stare of her deep blue eyes. Joanna Mosckowicz was an uncommonly forceful Sophie. Her surprisingly mature-sounding voice — she is only thirty — did not get in the way of a convincing performance as the teenage naïf. Unfortunately she failed to hit her stratospheric notes during the Presentation of the Rose, something that would easy be a deal breaker for a lesser performance; in Mosckowicz's fresh, determined and otherwise vocally-assured account, however, it was just an unfortunate slip. 

Other ensemble singers brought the work’s minor characters to vivid life. Nikolay Dorozhkin and Jadwiga Postrozna were winning as the Italian schemers Valzacchi and Annina. Ewa Tracz struck a fine balance between pride and ostentation as Marianne. Comic tenor Aleksander Zuchowicz did double duty as the Pet Vendor and the Innkeeper, while Igor Stroin was bittersweet and subdued as the Italian Singer. 

Ewa Michnik, Opera Wroclaw’s Intendant and chief conductor for nearly twenty years, presided over a technically flawless account of the score that could have benefited from more dramatic forward-thrust and bounce. Especially in the first act, she kept things going with clockwork regularity. The musicians were in tip-top form, with every section of the orchestra sounding radiant and expertly prepared down to the two off-stage harps. Unfortunately Michnik’s plodding tempi and unvaried phrasings bogged things down for much of the evening, most egregiously during the first act. Michnik has been a serious and galvanizing presence throughout Wroclaw’s cultural renaissance over the past two decades. As the city readies itself to become European Capital of Culture in 2016, she would do well to inject her company with a little more Viennese elegance. spacer 

A. J. GOLDMANN

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