In her Met quasi-farewell Fleming strikes sparks with Garanča in new “Rosenkavalier”

April 16, 2017
By Eric C. Simpson
Elīna Garanča and Renée Fleming in the Metropolitan Opera production of Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier." Photo: Ken Howard

Elīna Garanča and Renée Fleming in the Metropolitan Opera production of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” Photo: Ken Howard

One of the main offstage story-lines at the Met this season has been the impending retirement–or not–of Renée Fleming from the operatic stage. The soprano herself has been coy on the subject, insisting that she will continue to tour, but offering no definite comment on the widespread speculation that her Marschallin in the Metropolitan’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier will be her final stage appearance with the company.

If this is to be her Met farewell, then Thursday night’s Rosenkavalier performance will stand as a memorable ending to a storied stage career. This is certainly not the instrument that audiences heard a decade ago; the shine has worn off the soaring brilliance on top, and a good deal of power has been lost. Yet the Marschallin is not a role that pushes a soprano voice to its extremes; Fleming sounded perfectly at ease in the part, showing focused warmth in her tone, and an easy flutter where she needed to move nimbly. This was some of the most accomplished, secure, and musically sensitive singing she’s done at the Met in years.

Fleming has a deep, nuanced feel for the role. For all the glamour that she radiates, there’s a melancholy wisdom about her interpretation that is deeply moving. In her first monologue in Act I, one could hear regret and resignation in her singing; a moment’s consideration of her lover’s discarded cap seemed to comprise a world of competing emotions.

Much of the success of a Marschallin depends on how convincing a rapport she builds with Octavian. One could hardly have asked for a better pair, and the strength of the relationship between Fleming and Elīna Garanča was a wonder to witness. By now we’ve seen Garanča give definitive performances of a number of roles at the Met.

And yet, it would be tempting to say that she was born to play Octavian and no other. It almost goes without saying that the role compliments her voice, a taut stable instrument, consistent throughout, with ample power at its top.

What set this performance apart, though, was how vividly she inhabited the role. For four and a half hours, Garanča was a seventeen-year-old Austrian nobleman. Passionate, headstrong, a little hotheaded, but also dutiful and collected, she was capable of tender affection, and occasionally moved to a moment of boyish silliness. Remarkable, too, was the change she managed to create in the character–the relationship she had with the Marschallin, the first blooming of impetuous adolescent desire, was entirely different from that she manifested with Sophie, the woman to whom a more mature Octavian pledges his abiding love. This was a complete portrayal in every sense, and a gift to watch.

This revival was Erin Morley’s second time around as Sophie at the Met, and she has grown considerably in the role. Hers is an earnest portrayal, but no ingénue–delicately flirtatious with Octavian on their first meeting, she was fierce with her father and her brutish fiancé, yet able to appear truly wounded, as well. Vocally, Morley boasts a quick, lively, soprano that flutters gracefully through this difficult, high-flying part. She has a lovely, light pealing top, but, even more impressive was her ability to cloud over a high note ever so slightly, giving us a full, warm, long pianissimo. Morley has a lovely voice and a promising future, and to hear her together with the two other lead women in the opera’s magnificent closing trio was bliss itself.

Those used to the old Nathaniel Merrill production will remember Baron Ochs, the Marschallin’s cousin, as an elderly, roly-poly lech with an exaggerated opinion of his own romantic talents. Günther Groissböck’s take on the role is a different beast altogether, a detestable, swaggering, Bluto-like jock, an infantry captain surrounded by toadying junior officers. He plays this interpretation brilliantly, bellowing away with his lean baritone and showering the rest of the cast in emotional abuse. Octavian was surely not the only person in the theater with a mind to run him through with a sword.

A textbook celebrity cameo, Matthew Polenzani makes an entertaining appearance as the Italian Singer, strutting about, Caruso-like, and sporting a marvelous, golden tenor. Markus Brück debuted as a blustering, officious Faninal, Sophie’s opportunistic father. As the gossip-mongers Valzacchi and Annina, Alan Oke and Helene Schneiderman were deliciously mischievous, a slimy pair who could have stepped out of a vaudeville act. Schneiderman made a particularly strong impression, bringing a perfectly smooth, caramel mezzo to her role.

Susan Neves was a picture of devotion as Sophie’s governess Marianne Leitmetzerin, though her sound grated on Thursday. Tony Stevenson’s Innkeeper became an unexpected star of Act III thanks to his antics as the drag-queen proprietor of Vienna’s hottest brothel. A third newcomer, Scott Conner, was a fearsome, firm-voiced police commissioner, and James Courtney was endearingly flustered as the notary.

After a rough opening flourish that sounded like a nose-blowing, the Met orchestra had a banner night under the baton of Sebastian Weigle. The players were in great voice, able to weave gorgeous, thick cloth in Strauss’s most sumptuous material, but also to tease out the subtleties of the score. They cast a spell with the rose presentation, reaching heights of romantic fervor and then dissolving into a gossamer shimmer.

When the 1969 Nathaniel Merrill staging was finally retired a few years back, it was the longest-tenured production in the company’s repertory. That’s a tough act to follow, but Robert Carsen has given a playful, stylish, invigorating new realization of the piece. Carsen follows the current trend of setting operas at the time of their premieres, but this Rosenkavalier goes beyond gimmickry–placed in 1911, this production shows us the last gasp of the Austrian Habsburgs, a grandly decadent society that seems doomed to imminent upheaval. The transformation of Act III’s “private room” into a full-blown brothel may seem obvious, but it turns the scene into a deliriously wild romp with far more comedic force than a by-the-book staging.

To be sure, this new Rosenkavalier is not without its missteps. Some will be scandalized–as indeed were a number of boo-birds at Thursday’s premiere–by the return of strippers to the Met’s stage, as though nudity in a bordello is too much to bear. The decision to hold Act II’s engagement party among artillery pieces in an armor drill hall is bizarre. In the most disastrous blunder of all, the back of the set opens during Sophie and Octavian’s final, euphoric embrace to reveal the gruesome fate of Ochs and his goons in a slow-mo infantry charge (since the audience apparently can’t be trusted to make the right inference about the Great War), which ought to be scrapped immediately.

Yet for a production that gets to the conflicted soul of this masterful opera, one could hardly do better than Carsen & Co. have done. The Met’s new staging brilliantly captures the work’s various personalities–from the silly to the sublime to the unbearably poignant. Moreover, Carsen clearly has a gift for the subtleties of scene directing–his actors were completely alive to each other, to the point that hardly a moment felt pre-blocked. The Met could use more of this truthful style of acting, which here contributes to a deep, rich exploration of a complex and intensely beautiful piece. It took until mid-April for the Met to find its can’t-miss show of the year, but with such an outstanding cast, winning staging, and brilliant orchestral playing, the company has a genuine late-season hit on its hands.

Der Rosenkavalier runs through May 13 at the Metropolitan Opera. Kathleen Kim appears as Sophie on April 28 and May 1.

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