Nathaniel Merrill’s production of Der Rosenkavalier opened at the Metropolitan Opera on 23 January 1969. To put that in perspective, Richard Nixon had been sworn in as President as the United States only a few days earlier. James Levine had not even made his debut at the Met, let alone become its music director.

Alice Coote as Octavian, Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, and Peter Rose as Baron Ochs © Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera
Alice Coote as Octavian, Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, and Peter Rose as Baron Ochs
© Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

Quite a lot has changed in the interim, to put it mildly. “Strauss is in bad repute these days”, moaned the critic of the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg, in his review of the première. Interviewed a few weeks later, Der Rosenkavalier’s conductor, Karl Böhm, deplored the vacuity of contemporary music. Böhm, who had premièred Strauss’ Die schweigsame Frau and Daphne, declared that there “are no modern composers who interest me”. Who did he single out for particular criticism? The man whose anniversary was being celebrated in New York’s major concert halls while I was listening to this revival: Benjamin Britten.

Change, though, only goes so far, especially when one thinks of the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. In this rarefied world, traditionalism is still unchallenged. 44 years after its première, the diamantine glitz of Robert O’Hearn’s sets still shimmer undimmed. I may have been mistaken in seeing actual dust falling from the chandeliers, but the sets continue to look good, more convincing than any number of the Met’s traditional productions. More inventive, too, in the way they allow action to take place behind windows, in cubby-holes, and behind pillars. The costumes still look the same, even if the singers now wearing them are not so legendary. (That opening night had Leonie Rysanek as the Marschallin, Walter Berry as Baron Ochs, and the great Christa Ludwig as Octavian.) Perhaps there were people in this audience who were there half a century ago. Certainly there would have been many who saw the production in earlier guises, its history so long that it comprises a who’s-who of Straussian delight. Take 1976, when James Levine first took the reins: a young soprano named Tatiana Troyanos made her debut, and Luciano Pavarotti took the role of the Italian Singer. (“Mr Pavarotti,” wrote Schonberg, “is a superstar and, as such, must be indulged.”) Or 1990, when Merrill’s production played host to a rare appearance on these shores by Carlos Kleiber.

By now, the decadence of the production has begun to add another, unintended layer to the decadence of Strauss and Hugo van Hofmannsthal’s confection. Beyond its age, there is so much more to Rosenkavalier than Merrill’s production ever saw, especially in terms of class relations. It lacks a knowing sense of aristocracy – a dignity undeserved but maintained regardless – and instead tends to emphasise meritocracy only by completely ironing out the distinctions between Faninal’s bourgeoisie, the gentry of Ochs, and the true nobility of the Countess. Someone, at least, should alter the surtitles, which, in their transcriptions of stereotyped Cockney and Italian accents, are rather distasteful.

This revival is unlikely to stand much comparison with the storied performances of yore. The highpoint was Edward Gardner’s conducting. It lacked that final ounce of empathy and reflection that comes from being not a great Strauss conductor, but a great Mozartean (think Karajan, Böhm and Kleiber). Otherwise, it was virile when necessary, gentle when called for, without ever being heavy or uncontrolled. Best of all was an inerrant sense of pacing, through which Strauss’ most sublime conclusion before Capriccio felt both welcome and deserved.

The cast was decidedly mixed. Bass Peter Rose was a success, as far as the production allows, as Baron Ochs. One often feels that there might be more to Ochs than meets the eye (indeed Hofmannsthal’s libretto suggests as much), but as a straight comedic portrayal Rose was as humorously randy as could be imagined. Elsewhere, there was little that convinced, despite the fine-grained direction of Robin Guarino. Martina Serafin’s Countess was often wayward within her beautifully long sense of line, given to unnecessary flourishes that, alongside her general demeanour, suggested a characterisation altogether too innocent without pushing it either to angry or to vulnerable. Her crucial asides, “nichts” before the trio and “ja, ja” as she leaves, were as breezy as could be.

A late replacement for Mojca Erdmann, Erin Morley had an attractively girlish tone as Sophie, but was rather eager. Alice Coote’s Octavian was the major disappointment, unusually for such a fine singer. She imparted little sense of earnest dignity to the young knight, nor the required self-seriousness, and consistently had problems balancing with the orchestra (a fault as much Gardner’s as Coote’s). This was a case of a good singer being horribly miscast. The more minor parts were generally taken well, with Hans-Joachim Ketelsen’s Faninal nicely bluff.

“The Metropolitan Opera,” wrote Schonberg in 1969, “has long needed a new production of Richard Strauss’s ‘Rosenkavalier.’” We do now, as then.

***11