With the final production in their 2016/2017 Live in HD series, the Metropolitan Opera have truly outdone themselves. Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier exceeds expectations on both musical and theatrical fronts, as director Robert Carsen’s vision brings this beloved piece to life in a way that resonates with audiences all over the world, more than 100 years after the opera’s debut.
The production is sumptuously set in pre-Great War Vienna, where the Marschallin Marie Thérèse (Renée Fleming) is in the throes of a passionate affair with the young Count Octavio (Elīna Garanča) while her husband is away. The pair are disturbed by the Marschallin’s cousin, the Baron Ochs (Günther Groissböck), who has come to ask the Marschallin to recommend a Rosenkavalier — a nobleman to undertake the traditional task of presenting a silver rose to the Baron’s future wife, Sophie (Erin Morley). Octavio disguises himself as a chamber maid when Ochs arrives, and the latter immediately starts flirting with this ‘girl’ he perceives to be a young servant (and therefore fair game despite the Baron’s impending marriage to Sophie, whom he has chosen simply because her father has money). The Marschallin recommends Count Octavio for the rose mission, and Octavio subsequently falls in love with Sophie when he meets her to give her the ceremonial bloom.
It comes as no surprise that Fleming (for whom this broadcast marks her last ever appearance as the Marschallin) delivers a stellar performance. Her voice mesmerises the listener with its subtle power and extraordinary dynamic control, particularly in duet with her young lover, and her portrayal of the staid noblewoman anxiously bemoaning the loss of her charms to time (‘Die Zeit im Grunde’) is faultless. When Fleming sings, it’s as if she’s only ever been in that particular moment, giving voice to this particular character, with no hint of any parallel thought process governing where to move, when to breathe, or what the next line should be.
Garanča, in the trouser role of the young suitor Octavio, could send the most weather-beaten heart aflutter with her supremely believable portrayal of the sensitive, passionate gallant. She wins over the audience before so much as a note has been sung, as she enters in a night shirt, lights a post-coital cigarette, cocks an aristocratic eyebrow, and looks at her surroundings with an air that can only be described as ‘well pleased’. Her warm mezzo tones soothe and excite simultaneously as her rounded, mature voice fills the auditorium and blends perfectly with Fleming’s soprano. Particularly in the final act, Octavio’s transition to chamber maid is accompanied by an entirely new accent and voice —and hips with the kind of exaggerated sway one could imagine a man would employ when attempting to impersonate a woman. A fine performance, in short.
Morley’s young, resonant soprano is a delight, and Groissböck’s bass acrobatics leave quite the impression. Matthew Polenzani, in the cameo role of the Italian Singer in the first act, very nearly steals the show with his confident, lyrical rendition of Di rigori armato. Marcus Brück, in the role of Sophie’s father Faninal, delivers a world-class performance —his character’s heart attacks seem entirely plausible given the seriously challenging vocal material he has to get through.
Carsen’s staging complements the singers’ performances perfectly. Everything —from the lavishly-decorated, damask-draped Viennese apartment where the action starts, to the dangerously evocative corridors of the brothel in Act III— serves to highlight the genius of the music. The clever lighting design in the last act deserves special mention, as do the elegant choreography and staging in the scene where Octavio and Sophie meet for the first time.
The Met’s Der Rosenkavalier is a beautiful, sensual production that presents the fears and follies of the aristocrats and bourgeoisie of pre-War Austria in a way that doesn’t make fun of the serious issues or sweep the uncomfortable realities of life in that time under the (decidedly plush) rug, yet also allows the audience to believe in love for a few hours, as the glorious music lets us believe that every smart young Sophie might eventually find her own dashing Rosenkavalier.
Der Rosenkavalier, part of the Metropolitan Opera’s current Live in HD series, will be screened at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront between 10 and 21 June. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.co.za.