There are several things wrong with the new Robert Carsen directed Der Rosenkavalier that just opened at the Met, but the singing is not among them. Announced as diva Renée Fleming’s farewell to the stage and then retracted and somewhat confused by Ms Fleming herself, judging by her vocal performance in the cavernous Met, she is not ready for retirement.
Over the past ten-or-so years, her problems have outweighed her glories: the irritating mannerism of scooping into notes and going for what (in jazz) is called the “blue note”, has become torturously invasive, and the once full, rounded, luscious sound itself has gotten slimmer. This has thrown her one-size-fits-all acting – although she always looks beautiful – and superficial insights into the spotlight. Well, her “farewell” Marschallin is another story. There was not a note in the role that wasn’t cleanly placed and refulgent; her use of chest voice was for emphasis, her control over and use of dynamics just right. She still doesn't really color the text and she skims the Marschallin's true feelings – one recalls, at the Met, the searing Leonie Rysanek, the womanly Régine Crespin, the poetic Evelyn Lear and the classy Felicity Lott – but in all, she triumphed.
This triumph was almost despite Mr Carsen’s production. The first act does not suffer too much from the updating to the imminence of World War I, but Paul Steinberg’s bright-red walls hung with giant paintings are cool and museum-like rather than sensual. By Act 2 – Carsen probably taking his jump-off point from one line in the first act that tells us that Faninal is supplying arms to the Netherlands – the grand room in which Ocatvian presents the rose sports two giant howitzers. Ochs’ retinue are soldiers. During the Presentation, sixteen dancers waltz slowly, removing all intimacy and stillness from the scene. (The eight lackeys who serve the Marschallin her breakfast are a warning that the stage will be over-populated.). And the obnoxious last act now takes place in a whorehouse, where Octavian, dressed more like Marlene Dietrich than a sweet serving maid, fits right in and torments Ochs; innocence is gone, and it’s fifty-shades-of-decadence-to-come. There are plenty of half-clad bodies acting alluringly at one another. Princess Marie-Thérèse showing up in a whorehouse? I doubt it. The opera’s final tableau, after the lights dim on Octavian and Sophie going at it in bed (where’s the Duenna when you need her?), is of soldiers aiming guns at the audience, and bodies dropping.
All of this takes the attention away from the Marschallin’s fears and introspection and places them elsewhere. Mr Carsen’s focus is on Baron Ochs – and his kind. The choice of Günther Groissböck to play Ochs – young, dashing, somewhat scary in his military-type demeanor on top of being vulgar – rather than the usual bumbling fatso, lets us know where Carsen feels the world is going. Groissböck is magnificent in the role, his basso wonderfully profundo. In the last act, he talks down and acts threateningly to the Marschallin who, by the way, has dyed her hair platinum since we saw her in Act 1, and leaves on the arm of a policeman. So much for the Old Order and the philosophy of accepting one’s age.
Octavian is Elīna Garanča, utterly convincing throughout, refulgent of voice and acting up a storm in the whorehouse, legs akimbo. She even smokes her cigarette in Act 1 like a young guy. And if she and Ms Fleming seemed to be having more fun than lust, ask Mr Carsen. But Ms Garanca’s every move was right, and at least her love and caring for Sophie was clear in this context. Erin Morley’s Sophie was lovely in all ways; it takes, really, just complete control of the notes and dynamics and appealing looks to succeed in the part, and Ms Morley had them. Markus Brück, in his debut, was a big-voiced, expressive Faninal, nouveau riche to the core. Matthew Polenzani, dressed and made up to look like Caruso (he signed one of his recordings for the Marschallin) was a fine Italian tenor, despite coming in just south of his first B flat. Alan Oke’s Valzacchi and Helene Schneiderman’s Annina were marvelously nimble co-conspirators.
The divine Met Orchestra made the score sound matter-of-factly easy – even the horn parts – and Sebastian Weigle’s leadership, while lacking the type of plush cushioning that both Karl Böhm and James Levine brought to it, was right on the money.
The end of an era? Probably not for Renée Fleming, but in Carsen’s view, there went Imperial Vienna. Close your eyes for a four star performance; listen and watch it for a three.
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