A sense of occasion often accompanies revivals of Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera. The current staging boasts the first outing of Lise Davidsen as the Marschallin, as well as Simone Young’s return to the company after a 25-year absence. In the weeks leading up to the premiere, rising mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey replaced Isabel Leonard in the title role, marking her most significant assignment yet in the house. All in all, though, the sum was less than its considerable parts.

Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs) and Lise Davidsen (Marschallin)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Much of the blame can be laid at the feet of director Robert Carsen. By transporting the action from the mid-18th century to 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, he over-emphasizes the twilight-of-empire themes at the expense of the libretto’s rich interpersonal storytelling. Whereas libretto Hugo von Hofmannsthal embedded distasteful commentary about the aristocracy within the well-appointed contours of Viennese society, Carsen creates a world that is gauche and cruel on its face, a choice that cheapens the work. (Paula Suozzi staged this revival, retaining many of Carsen’s original touches.) He also misjudges several key moments, as when the Marschallin here gingerly leaves her bedchamber after Act 1... as if her first instinct after wrestling with mortality was to do a bit of shopping.

Erin Morley (Sophie) and Samantha Hankey (Octavian)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Some elements of the staging can be enjoyed on their own terms. The lighting design that Carsen created in collaboration with Peter Van Praet is evocative and suggests inner conflicts that the performances themselves don’t fully characterize. Brigette Reiffenstuel’s sumptuous costumes come close to capturing an air of elegance that the production otherwise lacks. But even more than the most obnoxious regisseur imaginable, Carsen seems intent on missing the point of the work whenever possible.

In the pit, Young seemed a willing co-conspirator in stripping the score of its usual grandeur. She de-emphasized Romanticism with quick tempos, blaring brass and bombastic percussion that muted the Straussian sense of sweep and suspension. Even quieter introspective moments sounded like they were being frogmarched. Within the context of the production, Young’s choices made a certain dramaturgical sense, but they also robbed the opera of one of its defining features: a musical sound world with one foot in the ethereal realm and the other planted on earth. Here, it’s all terra firma.

Samantha Hankey (Octavian)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Amid the morass, Davidsen managed to debut a highly credible Marschallin. Closer in age to the character than many of her recent predecessors at the Met, she presented a woman keenly aware of the sands of time slipping through the hourglass, wistful yet resigned to ultimately being jilted by her young lover. (Although this production crassly has the Marschallin depart the final scene on the arm of a younger man, Davidsen smartly chose not to play the moment as a cougar sizing up her next conquest.) Davidsen’s large voice suits the Met’s cavernous auditorium well, though she demonstrated a more carefully controlled dynamic range than I’ve heard from her in the past, with many passages of ravishingly soft singing. The Marschallin’s Act 1 monologue was introspective and narratively driven.

Samantha Hankey (Octavian) and Lise Davidsen (Marschallin)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Hankey’s voice suits Strauss perfectly, with a supple middle register and enough heft to consistently cut through the large orchestration. Her characterization was oddly wan, though, and didn’t fully come alive until the third act, when she assumed the disguise of the chambermaid Mariandel with insouciant abandon. Hankey’s wavering young Count made an odd match for Erin Morley’s mature, headstrong Sophie, who spun beautiful high notes that were frequently covered by Young’s barnstorming orchestra.

When this production debuted at the Met in 2017, Gunther Groissböck made for a refreshingly sinister and even dangerous Baron Ochs. Sad to say that his conception of the role has now devolved into the familiar hoary country bumpkin tropes, and his vocal mannerisms have taken on a fair bit of crooning. By contrast, American baritone Brian Mulligan – like Hankey, a late addition to the cast – sang splendidly as Herr von Faninal, with precise German diction. Small roles were cast with distinction, although René Barbera sounded somewhat constricted in the Italian Tenor’s aria.

Lise Davidsen (Marschallin)
© Ken Howard | Met Opera

Carsen’s Rosenkavalier replaced a longstanding production by Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn that favored pomp and circumstance over narrative virtues. Attempting a corrective, this staging goes too far in the opposite direction. Surely there is a happy medium still waiting to be found, which honors the sublime beauty of Strauss without losing the story’s inherent grit and understanding that time will come for us all.