NEW YORK CITY: Der Rosenkavalier
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In Review > North America

Der Rosenkavalier

The Metropolitan Opera

In Review Met Rosenkavalier hdl 717
Elīna Garanča and Erin Morley, right, in the Met’s new Rosenkavalier
© Beth Bergman

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA welcomed Robert Carsen’s production of Der Rosenkavalier to New York on April 13, marking the company’s first new staging of Richard Strauss’s comedy since 1969, when the Met’s long-serving, very traditional Nathaniel Merrill–Robert O’Hearn Rosenkavalier first bowed. The Carsen Rosenkavalier presents an equally handsome but considerably less benign view of the opera, its wistful charms undercut by the mordant wit of Carsen’s direction.  

Carsen has set Rosenkavalier in Vienna in 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, rather than in the eighteenth century, as specified in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, thus moving the story from the sunny high noon of the Hapsburg empire to its twilight. The sets by Paul Steinberg are imposing, the costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel suitably lavish and (in the case of some of the Act III ensembles) decorously decadent; the lighting, by Carsen and Peter Van Praet, is beautifully judged. The stage action is devised with precision and point, as is Carsen’s wont: the very busy world of the Marschallin’s levee in Act I unfolds with masterful clarity, and the relationships between characters are maintained with rigor throughout the performance.

Carsen’s resolutely unsentimental view of Der Rosenkavalier was inadvertently upended by the presence of his Marschallin, Renée Fleming. Fleming has done some of her best work under Carsen’s direction—their collaborations on Rusalka and Handel’s Alcina remain high-water marks in the careers of both artists. One of the Met’s most important singers and most beloved stars for more than two decades, Fleming first introduced her Marschallin to Met audiences in 2000; by the end of the current season, it will rank as her most frequent Met role. Although she evidently has no plans to retire from singing any time soon, the Carsen Rosenkavalier is Fleming’s farewell to the Marschallin; it was impossible not to feel some measure of nostalgia as Fleming, still looking and sounding lovely, finished her monologue in Act I and exited her bedchamber through a corridor of doors that opened and closed with breathtaking exactness as the strings and flutes in the orchestra faded away.

The emotional impact of Fleming’s participation aside, the night belonged to Elīna Garanča, a superlative Octavian. Garanča looked and sounded ravishingly handsome as Count Rofrano: every note and every movement was delivered with surpassing grace, and her comic timing as “Mariandel” was devastating. In Act III, which Carsen set in “a house of ill repute,” Garanča's glamorous, leggy siren was a mite too expert in her seduction of Günther Groissböck’s unconventionally virile Baron Ochs, but this was a glorious performance, one of the best Octavians the Met has heard and seen in recent memory.

Carsen’s staging of the day of Sophie’s engagement in Act II was the least traditional and most troubling aspect of his Rosenkavalier. The director established the bourgeois Faninal as a purveyor of arms and weaponry, and the reception hall of Faninal’s home was filled with huge field guns—an image that was at odds with both text and music. The presentation of the rose was augmented by a demi-chorus of dancers who were an unwelcome distraction from the alluring singing of Garanča and Erin Morley, who flavored her gossamer-toned Sophie with an interesting dash of petulance.

The large cast of principals under the knowing, if occasionally heavy, leadership of Sebastian Weigle all acquitted themselves with distinction, but special praise belongs to Matthew Polenzani, who delivered star-quality singing in his cameo as the Italian Singer (here costumed à la Caruso), and to James Courtney, whose sly characterization of the Notary has enlivened Met Rosenkavalierssince 1982.  —F. Paul Driscoll 

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