Der Rosenkavalier MetHD Review – It gets better every time I see it

Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
MetHD Live, January 9, 2010
Met HD Encore, January 27, 2010
MetHD Summer Encore, July 25, 2012
Cinemark, Palo Alto, CA 

I published my first Opera Nut review in Splash magazine in March 2010, but I was already writing a few “Opera Commentaries” and sharing them with a small group of friends (see The Forming of an Operanut).  One of those Commentaries was written after seeing the MetHD Live performance of Der Rosenkavalier in January 2010.

Scene from Act I of Der Rosenkavalier

Last month I so enjoyed seeing it for the third time that I wanted to share my impressions with my Splash readers.  Here then is my original Commentary, unedited except for the addition of a few photos, followed by some additional remarks based on my latest viewing.

RenÉe Fleming as the Marschallin and Susan Graham as Octavian

We are in old Vienna during the reign of Maria Theresa and Octavian, a young Viennese blade, is crawling out of the Marschallin’s bed having had an orgasm during the overture and we are not quite sure what kind of sexual coupling has taken place since he is not a young blade at all but a mezzo-soprano in trousers, or rather shortly to be in trousers once he puts them on. . . .

Susan Graham as Octavian (in disguise as Mariandel) and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs

Thus begins the description in A Night at the Opera – An Irreverent Guide . . . by Sir Denis Forman, Random House 1994.  And if you’re confused now, just wait until the mezzo-playing-a-Count becomes a mezzo-playing-a-Count-playing-a-chamber-maid a little later in the scene.

In the Met HD production I saw this morning it is all done with good humor and extreme good taste – and with great acting expertise.  But what else would you expect from RenÉe Fleming and Susan Graham, especially when they have been playing their roles together for years? As always, I appreciated being able to clearly see all the subtle emotional changes in the close ups of their faces. Honestly, if I lived in New York and if there were a Met HD Theater next door to Lincoln Center and if prices were the same, I would still go to the HD performance at least two times out of three.

A Strauss opera, even a Strauss comic opera, is different from most of the operas I see. The music is relentless.  With only a few exceptions individual arias don’t stand out, but the total musical effect is overwhelming.  I walk out of Rigoletto singing La Donna è Mobile, but I walk out of Rosenkavalier with my head full of a mixture of melodies, harmonies, and dissonances swirling about with no possibility of actually vocalizing it.  They are both good feelings – fortunately I don’t have to choose but can go to both Verdi and Strauss.

The plot is less banal than that of many operas, and the Marschallin has a very complex character.  Amidst all the humor of the details of the plot, there is a serious undertone of the tragedy of aging.  And to me, the true sadness is that aging is regarded as a tragedy.

RenÉe Fleming as the Marschallin, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs, and Susan Graham as Octavian

Despite her maturity in facing it, the Marschallin is unhappy about it; the oafish Baron Ochs simply refuses to admit its existence; and I’m sure that Octavian will go on being 17 as long as he can.  And that is sad because it is all so unnecessary.  There is so much good in being older that it’s a shame to lose sight of it in mourning the loss of youth.

End of sermon.

I enjoyed it so much that during the intermission I bought my ticket for the Encore performance at 6:30 on Wednesday, January 27.  I strongly recommend that you do the same.

Additional Remarks, August 2012

RenÉe Fleming as the Marschallin and Susan Graham as Octavian

Probably the above review makes sense only if you are already familiar with the plot of Der Rosenkavalier.  In case you are not, here’s a brief synopsis.  The Marschallin (RenÉe Fleming) and her page Octavian (Susan Graham) are having a passionate affair.  He, a mass of raging 17-year-old hormones, thinks it is love.  She, probably in the throes of menopause, is more realistic and enjoys it while it lasts.   Her cousin, Baron Ochs (Kristinn Sigmundsson) is a dirty old man who is supremely confident that he is god’s gift to young women – an opinion not shared by the women.  He has arranged a marriage with Sophie (Christine Sché¤fer), teenage daughter of the nouveau riche socially ambitious Falinal (Thomas Allen) which will not only gratify his lust but will be financially advantageous.

Christine Sché¤fer as Sophie and Susan Graham as Octavian

Baron Ochs asks his cousin to send an envoy to his father-in-law-elect, she sends Octavian, and when Octavian sees Sophie is mutual love-at-first-sight.  Since it’s a comic opera, at the end true love triumphs and pompousness is thoroughly deflated.

Thomas Allen; photo courtesy the Wikimedia Commons

As is to be expected from the Met, the singing is uniformly excellent.  The acting is superb. In the supporting role of Faninal, Thomas Allen is the epitome of an insecure nouveau riche, obsequious towards his social superiors, arrogant towards his social inferiors, and eager to sacrifice a substantial part of his fortune and all of his daughter’s happiness to his own social ambitions – but in the end he relents and shows a heart of gold.

Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs and Christine Sché¤fer as Sophie

Christine Sché¤fer’s Sophie manages to combine a delightful naivety with a certain quiet dignity in resisting Baron Ochs and in her relationship with Octavian.  And it should be obvious from the picture that Kristinn Sigmundsson has mastered the role of the oafish Baron.

Susan Graham as Octavian

Susan Graham is amazing.  Off stage, she is a charming woman who boasts more than half a century of living.  On stage she is utterly convincing as the 17-year old Octavian, as an amorous page, disguised as a chamber maid, or as the exalted Cavalier of the Rose delivering the symbolic silver rose to the Baron’s intended bride. Susan is a boy whose voice hasn’t changed yet – and you better believe it.

RenÉe Fleming as the Marschallin

As for RenÉe Fleming, what can I say.  I have admired her acting ability in role after role, but here she is not acting the part of the Marschallin, she is the Marschallin.  Every stance, every gesture, every facial expression show that RenÉe is thinking the Marschallin’s thoughts and feeling the Marschallin’s emotions.

RenÉe Fleming as the Marschallin and Susan Graham as Octavian

All of which makes the final scene of the opera so poignant.  The Marschallin sees immediately that the two young people are in love.   She is sad, but she knew it would happen someday.  She not only subsumes her sorrow, but actively persuades Octavian and Sophie to embrace each other.  There is no guilt.  Our affair was beautiful while it lasted, but you did not end it.  It had run its course.  Now it is time for youth to build their own happiness.

Anyone can have a noble title – it’s an accident of birth.  But not every noble acts like a noble.  That takes Class.  RenÉe Fleming aka The Marschallin has Class.  And I feel ennobled by being a vicarious part of her nobility.

Photos, except as noted: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

The Metropolitan Opera
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Cast and Production Team

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in on August 8, 2012.

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