A Triumphant “Der Rosenkavalier” at Symphony Hall

Nélida Nassar   10.5.2016

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Der Rosenkavalier (the Knight of the Rose), which is set in 18th century Vienna, is a comedy for music in three acts by Richard Strauss with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It opened in Dresden on 26 January 1911, conducted by Ernst von Schuch and produced by Max Reinhardt. (The Boston premiere took place in 1949). The Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg, awakens after a night of passion with her young lover Octavian, Count Rofrano. Her cousin, Baron Ochs von Lerchenau, enters the room to announce his marriage to the young and beautiful Sophie von Faninal. According to tradition, he should engage a nobleman as a courtly rose-bearer to present a silver rose to his beloved. He has entrusted this task to Octavian. The latter fulfills his duty, but he falls under the spell of the baron’s fiancée and devises a scheme to wrest her from his rival.

The magic of Strauss’s opera came back to life under the baton of Andris Nelsons leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A lyrical masterpiece, this mesmerizing tribute to the grace and the spirit of the Vienna of Empress Maria Theresa and Mozart is also a timeless hymn to love. In this performance, attention was paid to every detail, and the characters formed an admirably balanced ensemble, a beautiful example of which was seen in the exchange of glances between Sophie and Octavian as they breathed in the scent of the rose. The minimalist setting consisted of only a Récamier, a few chairs and a side table. Der Rosenkavalier is one of those operas that always seems to attract a talented cast; mediocre productions are rarely seen in major concert halls or opera houses. While the production deserves much praise in this case, the real draw was the enviably high quality of the soloists: soprano Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Octavian, soprano Erin Morley as Sophie, and bass Franz Hawlata as Ochs.

Fleming debuted as the Marschallin in 1995, and it has become one of her signature roles. Her conception of the character of the Marschallin is that of a woman in the prime of life, bright, open to new possibilities, exuding great authority – not a woman already mature, somewhat maternal who has distanced herself from her surroundings, as fenatu other interpreters present her. What characterizes this Marschallin is energy, expressed, for example, in a strong voice which can easily assume a commanding tone (especially in Act III vis à vis Ochs). We of course perceived that, but there was much more in the same vein. Her inflections conveyed a renewed attention to detail, while always remaining in the service of expressiveness and establishing the appropriate tone. This combination of accuracy and poise is rare. Undoubtedly one of today’s best Marschallins, Fleming would stand out wherever she sang, but here one detected a real difference from her other performances. I believe this is because of the conductor. Nelsons pays unusually close attention to the relationship between text and music, allowing the singer – whom he follows step by step – to engage closely with the language and to coordinate her inflections with the orchestra in such a way that the latter, too, seems to breathe with each syllable. Der Rosenkavalier, moreover, owes much to musical comedy, where the dialogue (or monologue) requires not just close attention, but also vitality and natural expression, along with the awareness that there are moments when the words should lead the score.

Rarely have we heard such virtuosity in the Marschallin’s first act monologue, where, in a symphony of colors, the emotion she expresses moves from sarcasm, irony, and bitterness to resignation. The vividness of Fleming’s reaction to the departure of Octavian underscores her heart’s uncertainties as well as the character’s inner contradictions. Fleming’s interpretation is of a rare depth and intelligence, invoking the urgency and naturalness of the theatre at its most intense. Her timber can either whisper or impose; there is nothing metallic or bitter in it, but it can still express triumph. The final trio, where Nelsons adopts a broad tempo, allows the three voices to surrender effortlessly to pure music. It is an amazing trine displaying both exquisite harmony and emotional dynamism of rare intensity.

Fleming has the perfect counterpart in mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, a very measured Octavian (a trouser role), whom we first meet disguised as the chambermaid “Mariandel.” She is fresh, spontaneous and sensible, with an earthy and powerful, yet smooth voice. She has an exceptional ability to soften and tune it enabling her to blend in perfectly with other soloists. A very inventive singer, she seeks harmony, not chances to show off. Her Octavian is among the best, because she knows how to set the right tone and performs her antics without exaggeration but with a comic touch that immediately makes the audience laugh. Beyond her well-modulated singing and her modesty, she offered some totally magical moments, including the two duets with Sophie when they meet in the second act. As for the final duet, it is a miracle of simplicity, fluidity and restraint.

Morley, as Sophie, has a young, crisp voice, capable of producing commanding high notes; she will melt your heart immediately. Her singing is almost flawless, with the exception of the initial duet in Act II, which was a bit of key. Her appearances in Act III were memorable thanks to her acting abilities: she expressed just the right measure of fear or disappointment, and made the appropriate childish or sulky gestures. The ultimate trio, where she is joined by Fleming and Graham achieves a wonderful balance, as Octavian makes his final, heartbreaking choice, while Sophie and the Marschallin contend for him. In her duet with Fleming, which was tender and elegiac, she proved to have a surprisingly powerful voice.

Hawlata’s timber and elegance were impressive. He has an exceptional ability to hit very high notes, and an equally impressive capacity to hold bass notes well beyond the norm. Nelsons clearly pushed him to reach the maximum of his possibilities, resulting in an Ochs who must surely be among the best ever heard on stage. Beyond his bluster, he conveys a certain bonhomie. Although he well interprets the crude old lecher, constantly desirous of young women, he also displays a lively and even rather friendly Ochs who is genuinely funny in a role that can easily turn into a series of clichés. His monologue in Act II is perfect.

Baritone Alan Opie presented a stylish Faninal in his scene with Hawlata. He is a fine singer who holds the stage nicely, but his portrayal is traditional and possibly a bit too reserved compared with those of the principal singers. Valzacchi and Annina (tenor Graham Clark and mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel) are pillars of the opera, with strong stage presence. Henschel is quite elegant, and Clark is an interesting mime. The rest of the cast, who all performed admirably in the ‘smaller’ roles, including tenor David Cangelosi (the Marscallin’s Majordomo); tenor Ronald Naldi (Faninal’s Majordomo); baritone David Kravitz (a notary); bass David Cushing (a Police Commissary); the three orphans (soprano Kelley Hollis; mezzo-soprano, Thea Lobo; alto Sara Beth Shelton); and Stephen Costello (an Italian singer).

Nelsons, a very experienced opera conductor, is particularly illuminating in works originating in the close collaboration of writer and composer, such as Der Rosenkavalier. He is aware that the rhythm of the text, its word plays, and its metaphors determine the way we hear the score. When he conducts Ochs, the latter’s voice becomes almost instrumental, while in the great duets (those of Act II between Sophie and Octavian) he shows a particular concern for the fusion of music and words, but always makes sure that the music does not obscure them. The end result is a phenomenal clarity with numerous contrasts, all in the service of the text.

We will no doubt speak about this delicious Der Rosenkavalier for a very long time to come as it was nothing short of a miracle. The principal roles were exquisitely depicted, and I am still in awe about this comedy in music concert which, with only the most minimal props and costumes, so convincingly conjured up the world of these fictional characters. As a reminder of their shared past in these roles, Graham brought along the silver rose from the Nathaniel Merrill’s now-retired Metropolitan production for which she and Fleming are renowned. Since this was likely Fleming and Graham’s final Rosenkavalier together, one could not imagine a more touching farewell. In sum, this was one of those rare occasions when near-perfect cast and a great orchestra created an unforgettable operatic performance. The audience broke into the loudest uproar I have ever heard at an opera.

Andris Nelsons, conductor
Renée Fleming, soprano (Marschallin)
Erin Morley, soprano (Sophie)
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano (Octavian)
Franz Hawlata, bass (Baron Ochs)
Alan Opie, (Faninal)
Irmgard Vilsmaier, soprano (Marianne)
Michelle Trainor, soprano (Milliner)
Jane Henschel, mezzo-soprano (Annina)
Graham Clark, tenor (Valzacchi)
Stephen Costello, tenor (Italian Singer)
David Cangelosi, tenor (Marschallin’s Majordomo)
Neal Ferreira, tenor (Animal Seller)
John McVeigh, tenor (Landlord)
David Kravitz, baritone (Notary)
David Cushing, bass (Police Officer)
Tanglewood Festival Chorus
Children’s Chorus