Of all the myriad and glorious joys Renee Fleming has brought to the operatic stage, none is more sublime than her Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, and the Met Opera’s plush and updated new production provides a showcase for her definitive performance in one of the opera’s most poignant roles.
Fleming owns nearly every role she has undertaken – Rusalka, Manon, Thais, Desdemona, to name but a few of the 22 she has sung – but the Marschallin is almost a signature part. And paired with a bravura performance by the Latvian mezzo Elina Garanca as the Marschallin’s young lover Octavian, this is a Rosenkavalier not to be missed.
It is also a final chance to see one of our greatest sopranos sing one of the most moving characters in the repertory. The eight remaining Met performances will be the last in which Fleming sings the Marschallin. But audiences around the world will have the chance to hear her final one on May 13 when the Met simulcasts it to over 2,000 theaters in some 70 different countries as part of its Live in HD series.
Der Rosenkavalier is basically a bedroom sex farce interspersed with philosophical musings on the inexorable march of time and the personal ravages that flow in its wake. If that sounds incongruous, Strauss was not a predictable composer. Known as a leading avant-gardist – he had written Elektra just two years earlier – Strauss wanted to try his hand at comedy and Rosenkavalier started out as a sort of German opera buffa.
But at some point during its writing, the character of the Marschallin – the wife of the Austrian Field Marshal who is having an affair with the young count Octavian – took on more complex human frailties and became the emotional center of the opera.
It is toward the end of the first act, when the Marschallin, suddenly feeling old, tells her teen-aged lover that he will one day leave her for someone younger and prettier that Rosenkavalier moves to a higher plane, pondering the mysteries of life and love and the inconstancy of time. These are themes Strauss returns to in a plaintive final act trio in which the Marschallin faces the inevitability of her own prediction.
If anything, Fleming sings the Marschallin with even greater depth and pathos than her last appearance in the role some seven years ago. Her great aria “Hab mir gelobt” is sung with such a palpable sense of loss it is like a benediction.
Robert Carsen’s new staging gives full rein to the bawdy aspects of the opera while preserving the meditative sides. He has moved the original setting in the 18th century to 1911 – the year the opera premiered in Vienna, the eve of World War I, and the closing years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
And the German conductor Sebastian Weigle, in only his second outing in the Met pit, leads the exceptional Met Orchestra in a galloping run through much of the score but slowing to a walk for the reflective passages.
At the outset the Marschallin and Octavian are cavorting in her boudoir after a night of romping in bed together. They are interrupted by Baron Ochs, a country cousin who is in fact a boorish oaf and lecher. In an effort to disguise their liaison, Octavian quick-changes into a maid’s costume only to have the Baron start chasing him/her around the bedroom.
The Baron wants to propose to Sophie, the young daughter of a nouveau-riche businessman named Faninal, who in Carsen’s updated staging is an arms merchant. To secure his engagement to Sophie, he needs a knight to deliver a traditional silver rose to his intended and the Marschallin suggests Octavian.
When Octavian and the Baron arrive at Faninal’s house there are a couple of World War I era cannons and mortar launchers sitting in the reception room, the men in the room are carrying rifles, and the wall is decorated with an Etruscan-like frieze depicting Roman soldiers in battle.
It doesn’t take Sophie long to realize that the Baron is a sex-crazed lout, and for her and Octavian to fall in love. A plan is devised to lure the Baron into a trap and foil the planned marriage. The bait is a suggested assignation with the Marschallin’s maid (Octavian in disguise) at a secret rendezvous. In this staging, that venue is a Viennese brothel.
In the chaos that ensues, the Marschallin shows up herself, and the Baron gets his comeuppance. But the newly kindled passion between Octavian and Sophie fulfills the Marschallin’s prophesy and she is left alone at the end.
Carsen’s production is a sumptuous one with a lot of red velvet on walls hung with portraits of bygone Habsburg nobles and old cavalry charges. When a parade of supplicants invades the Marschallin’s bedroom in Act I, a group of women dressed in elegant frocks look like guests arriving for high tea at Downton Abbey.
At the brothel, a bevy of scantily clad women lap dance and otherwise writhe sensually for a room full of customers, and some old sepia photos – dirty French postcards circa 1911 – have replaced the Habsburgs on the walls. One jarring note is a curtain tableaux with a line of soldiers holding rifles, an unnecessary reminder at this point that the Great War is around the corner.
Garanca is splendid as Octavian, full of ardor first for the Marschallin and then for Sophie. The soprano Erin Morley is tender and vulnerable as Sophie and the Austrian bass Gunther Groissbock is marvelous as Baron Ochs. The German baritone Markus Bruck makes a fine Met debut as Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani delivers a star turn as the Italian tenor.