Memory is a danger for any new opera production, and a worse danger is a DVD recording that gets you solidly stuck in the past. This happened to me
with the 1960 Rosenkavalier, conducted in Salzburg by Herbert von Karajan, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Sena Jurinac. I got stuck with this performance that in every part
of its concept and execution was, and arguably is, the ideal Rosenkavalier. Nothing I have seen since has come even close, and therefore I had no great expectations for
the new Robert Carsen production at the Met. Exchange Schwarzkopf for Renee Fleming?
Fleming has been the Met star and darling for 20 years, world famous for her silver-spun lyrical voice, and famous (among connoisseurs of theater)
for her poor acting. Carsen saved her and us some embarrassment by guiding the diva toward understatement rather than false emoting as the Marschallin, a married Viennese Princess
who loses her 17-year-old lover, Octavian, to a young girl from an upstart family.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf has owned the role from the moment she took it on. Directed by Rudolf Hartmann and filmed in performance by the filmmaker Paul
Czinner, the great singer-actress conveys the spirit of a whole époque, the reign of the Habsburg Monarchy in the middle of the 18th century. She embodies aristocratic
bearing and cultivation, worldliness and intelligence in her philosophical musings about life and loss. She is in her early thirties and already feels the inexorable march of time
that is robbing her of youth and beauty. After a passionate love night with Octavian, the morning reveals what will separate them. Octavian’s naïve sexual Sturm und Drang
clashes with the Marschallin’s vast experience of affairs and her disenchantment with repetition. In her unwillingness to pretend, she prepares herself for the predictable
loss, “today or tomorrow,” of her young lover. She wants to be generous and let him go with grace, but as she is in love with the charming boy, her dilemma of being
older and wiser is infinitely touching and devastating.
None of this is happening with Renee Fleming in her farewell performance from the role (and perhaps the Met). The fifty-six
year-old singer is certainly charming with her young cavalier, and then a bit moody and sad, but her lovely voice doesn’t reach
into darker, emotional colors or pain. Fleming looks radiant and moves with dignity. The director has helped her reign in her
stereotypical, all-too-beatific smile. One could think that this is a lot. A number of reviewers thought it was not enough. “Fleming
was all glossy surface; of the complex and moving character of the Marschallin she revealed next to nothing. It’s not so much a
matter of acting per se, though her repertoire of onstage affects consists of not much more than ‘wistful’ and ‘morose,’ but rather
her failure either to color the voice or to express Hofmannsthal’s poetic text. She has been singing this part on and off for more
than 20 years, but even at this late date, it sounds like a first sight-reading.” (The Observer)
Fleming knows German and speaks it well, but on camera you notice that her whole face works hard at the pronunciation of
every single consonant and vowel, making the language seem heavy and laborious, and it does not help that Sebastian Weigle’s
conducting drags out the rhythms in her lines and doesn’t hold back the noisy orchestra when he should. Fleming commented
on the physical strain of singing this kind of role in the intermission interview.
Karajan, and the Wiener Philharmoniker, by contrast, plays the score like a chamber piece, in spite of the ample Straussian
orchestra. In their Salzburg performance, under director Rudolf Hartmann’s guidance, the Viennese-inflected German pours
forth as Hofmannsthal wrote it -- like a light-hearted, and yet heart-breaking “Viennese masquerade,” not like classic opera,
but rather like a rapidly spoken conversation, colored with quick innuendos, gossip, dialect, and sparkling like champagne.
This version of the opera in its newly mastered BluRay/DVD format with subtitles is the version for the ages.
The difference between the Octavian of Sena Jurinac and Elina Garanca couldn’t be more striking either. To cast the world’s top
mezzo as Octavian is a big hit for the Met. Garanca has already proved herself with a coldly dangerous Carmen [reviewed in these pages q.v.] and other high-profile roles at the Met.
Canadian director Carson has updated the opera from the 18th century to the eve of the first World War, renouncing whole
layers of nostalgic romance for a cooler, modernist outlook and licentious social behavior. (The morning visitor Baron Ochs von
Lerchenau, who intrudes on the love idyll, jumps onto the Marschallin’s bed to chat with her.) It seems to be Carson’s
knack to abolish romance [see my review of his “pedestrian and utterly unromantic” staging of I Capuleti I Montecchi in these pages. q.v. ]
Modern bad behavior usually conflicts with romance, and Carson’s push into comedy and buffoonery reinforces this
conflict. The minute Octavian saves the piquant bedroom situation by appearing as Mariandel, a chamber maid, Garanca’s comical talents are on full display.
She goes all out with mincing and pouting and other drag-inspired antics as if Octavian had grown up in dresses and
heals. She clearly had great fun turning the lecherous Baron’s head, but there is no rapport, no erotic tension between
Octavian/Mariandel and the Marschallin, no sense of danger and stolen delights behind the visitor’s back. The Austrian bass
Günther Groissböck, who sings and plays Baron Ochs with perfect pronunciation and glee, is not the usual heavy, buffo bass
cast in this role. He looks strapping, but of course turns out as outré and vulgar as the traditional kind of Ochs (the German
word means ox), hamming it up. At times he and Garanca seem alone onstage in a jolly game of who will steal the show.
Another oddity of the period-change is the militarized atmosphere of pre-1914 that turns Ochs and his retinue into
military men and makes a little soldier out of Octavian. With a severe male haircut and clad in uniforms, Garanca achieves the
astonishing illusion of being a full-blown young man. Only her voice gives her away. It’s a fascinating act of body language,
movement and acting, done to perfection and surely considered very cool, given the present trans fashion on TV and in the news.
And yet, something gets lost in the trans-ition. When the character of Octavian is too much a man, the erotic games of
disguise, of androgynous slides and slippings from masculine to feminine and back, have been settled in a one-sided way. The
result of a perfect male impersonation can be admired, but doesn’t make your fantasy work by sending both signals simultaneously (as does Sena Jurinak) and engaging you in an
erotic hide-and-seek game that calls you to decide moment by moment which gender dominates or charms you more.
The updating runs into blunt absurdities in Act II, when the palace of Sophie’s nouveau riche and newly ennobled father
Faninal displays big canons in the foyer. A horde of military men mills about fondling their weapons, and a dozen or so coupled
dancers in white waltz as if to demonstrate what a romantic thing an engagement could be, all drowning out the focus on the
young Sophie who has no idea that her ambitious father is going to hand her over to Baron Ochs like chattel.
The scene is a mess and one hardly notices Sophie’s emotional trajectory, her touching qualms between humility and pride as
she awaits the messenger with the silver rose—the symbol of an artistic berothal. Young coloratura soprano Erin Morley has the
easy high, finely spun voice for the character, moves and acts well, but seems to lack the radiant youthfulness and stirring
vulnerability of Anneliese Rothenberger’s Sophie in the Karajan performance. That ought to make her irresistible to Octavian, her Rosenkavalier.
Absurdity then takes over most of Act III, when Carsen’s drive for “anything new at all costs” changes the tavern, where
Octavian/Mariandel plans to compromise the Baron, for a bordello. Instead of fighting off Ochs’s pursuits in a séparée
while making him look guilty of the seduction of a minor, Mariandel appears in the getup of a prostitute with an ugly wig,
playing the sexual aggressor to make the Baron lose his nerve. (Why the forever skirt-chasing Ochs would lose his nerve in a
whore-house, or get panicky when several peep-show windows light up at once, is a question nobody asked.) Now Garanca’s
antics are over the top, and all traces of androgyny and eros have gone down the drain. No wonder then that the final trio of the
Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie is not particularly moving: the orchestra is too loud, the voices labor a bit, and the musical poetry has fled to the rafters.
A thing to applaud, however, are the many kisses exchanged between Octavian and his ladies: Garanca makes the sexy best
out of these tender moments. Too bad that the happy end for her and Sophie has to happen on a bordello bed, as if the start of
the opera in a Princess’s bedroom wasn’t enough for the director. He even lets the Marschallin and Sophie’s father walk out past
the couple that is smooching on that bed. One could hardly deviate further from the artistic intention of Hofmannsthal/Strauss’s Rosenkavalier. Vulgarity was supposed
to leave the stage with the exit of Baron Ochs. But Carsen keeps it there to the end, parading it as his updated “modernism.” At
the opening performance, he was heartily booed.
q.v. - Carmen: http://www.scene4.com/archivesqv6/feb-2010/0210/renatestendhal0210.html
q.v. - I Capulati e I Mantecchi:
For more comparisons, see my review of the 2007 San Francisco Opera Rosenkavalier:
A YouTube comparison of the final trio “Hab’s mir gelobt”:
Salzburg Karajan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31CtNc0Zp2c
Met excerpt - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWoXyXH4KPE