Robert Carsen’s 2017 production of Der Rosenkavalier updates the opera from its mid 18th-century setting to 1911, the eve of the devastating First World War. Over the top sets with large rooms and colorful furniture, the Marschallin’s enormous bed, cannons in Faninal’s house and an overpopulated bordello are meant to signal the decadence and impending doom of Viennese society. The last scene shows a row of advancing soldiers, led by Mohammed, in slow motion death as the bed an embracing Octavian and Sophie retreats to the back of the stage. A successful execution of this exaggerated and gratuitous production needs an ensemble of performers able to embrace the sense of drama with a mixture of humor, cynicism, hope and resignation. Friday’s revival was a resounding success in carrying out the vision of the production team, with two newcomers to the production, soprano Camilla Nylund (making her Met debut) as a radiant Marschallin, and Sir Simon Rattle on the podium.

Camilla Nylund (Marschallin)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

With a cast fluent in German, one fully appreciates just how complex the interplay of words and music is in Richard Strauss’ opera, especially the works that are the result of his collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Rosenkavalier's seemingly endless conversations and monologues came alive with Nylund’s clear and nuanced articulation of the text. During the Marschallin’s Act 1 monologue, she expressed the mature woman’s bewilderment at the passage of time and vagaries of life with subtle glances, gestures, vocal color and phrasing. We witnessed a transformation of the character who, after an encounter with a young lover, moves from an authoritative female head of an aristocratic household to an anguished woman. It was a tour de force performance. Nylund’s Marschallin also showed an uncharacteristic display of strong emotion in Act 3, commanding Ochs to realize that his game was up and that he should retreat, in no uncertain terms. Nylund's was a complex and conflicted Marschallin whose emotional strength was truly the underlying core of the opera.

Magdalena Kožená (Octavian) and Golda Schultz (Sophie)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

A statuesque and beautiful presence on stage, Nylund has a crystalline and radiant voice that bloom into exquisite high notes, a perfect instrument for the noble lady of the old order. Magdalena Kožená, her lover Octavian, expressed her emotional impetuousness in idiomatic singing. Her middle voice had beauty and warmth, while her high notes tended to be forced. The Marschallin-Octavian duet that follows the Marschallin’s Act 1 monologue unfolded as a series of heartbreakingly beautiful exchanges between two people who see their future in completely different directions. Never was the Marschallin’s admonition of Octavian to live and love “lightly” voiced with such poignancy. Golda Schultz as Sophie, who is more of a feisty and rebellious young woman in this production than an obedient tool of her father’s ambition, was a wonderful surprise as she embodied spontaneity and independence in voice and appearance. She sang with unforced expressiveness, openness and youthful voice. The final trio, with the Marschallin relinquishing her lover to Sophie, was a pure delight, with three voices tracing their own melodies while blending with one another. Nylund again demonstrated strong leadership, her voice leading the trio and never diminishing as the orchestra swelled to its conclusion.

Günther Groissböck (Baron Ochs) and Magdalena Kožená (Octavoan/Mariandel)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Reprising his youthful take on the provincial aristocrat intent on wealth through marriage, Gunther Groissböck was an outstanding Baron Ochs. The role is a treacherous one, full of leaps, breaks, jagged lines and melodies, not to mention its wordiness. Groissböck was at his best in scaling the high range of the role with relish and flourish with his strong but flexible voice. His “provincial” Austrian accent was hilarious and fit the role to a tee. Carsen’s concept is that Ochs is not so much a sexual aggressor as a crude social climber who is bewildered by Viennese ways and Vienna’s assertive women. Matthew Polenzani’s Italian singer was a model of elegance, complete with his Caruso look. Markus Eiche, making his Met debut as Herr von Faninal, impressed with his strong and dynamic singing.

Magdalena Kožená (Octavian) and Camilla Nylund (Marschallin)
© Karen Almond | Met Opera

Sir Simon Rattle found many hidden gems in the score, emphasizing lyricism and clarity over bombastic power and compulsion. It was a straightforward but refreshing reading, with detailed attention to tempo, harmony and individual instrumentation at the same time. Perhaps the volume could have been a bit lower at times, but it was a sincere, exciting, masterful account. The Met Orchestra responded with splendid playing, with strings and woodwinds outstanding in Act 2. Rattle supported his ensemble of singers with care and attention, enabling them to shine. The result was a most meritorious evening at The Met, with superb singing enhanced by the orchestra, both performing with great attention to details and nuances of Strauss' masterpiece.