It is often said that one must sit through about three hours of music in Der Rosenkavalier before the highpoint of the opera: the final trio of two sopranos and a mezzo in one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written. Richard Strauss considered this trio to be his finest creation and requested that it be performed at his funeral, which it was. A dull performances of the opera could be a long evening filled with a lot of notes and words until the final few minutes of sheer bliss. In the case of this revival of Otto Schenk’s very traditional production in Munich, the music-making and singing was of such high quality that the final trio was a culmination, albeit glorious, of an evening that seemed to fly by, despite the entire performance lasting close to five hours, including two intervals.

Soile Isokoski (Marschallin) © Wilfried Hösl
Soile Isokoski (Marschallin)
© Wilfried Hösl

Conductor Constantin Trinks deserved the loud ovation he and his orchestra received at curtain call, as he led a spirited, dynamic, at times a bit too loud, but also sensitive and delicate reading of the music. The orchestra clearly relished an opportunity to play Strauss’s music with all its fine details, and many members seemed to enjoy the experience as they were seen applauding the singers at curtain call. It is this sense of joy of collaborating on the presentation of the classic composed by the native son that comes through most clearly; the audience is secure in the knowledge that the production holds no surprise, and that they just need to sit back and enjoy the musical experience.

Soile Isokoski made her concert debut in 1986 as stated in the programme notes, so she, as the Marschallin, has been around. She may not be the most glamorous soprano, but her Act I portrayal of a married woman enjoying the company of a young lover is charming and attractive. Her elegant soprano conveys the sense of maturity as well as coyness, and her vocal interaction with her country bumpkin cousin Baron Ochs was witty and authoritative at the same time. Her mid-act transformation from a cheerful woman of the world to a gloomy one acutely aware of her mortality and loneliness was magically accomplished through seemingly sudden changes of colour in the orchestra as the jovial, chaotic and mundane daily affairs of the palace give way to profound discourse on life and its futility. The shift comes as a surprise, seemingly, and sweeps one into the Marschallin’s emotional world. I have rarely witnessed such a magnificent portrayal of the Marschallin; Isokoski’s subtle singing conveyed every emotional nuance; many of us were in tears during her monologue and her subsequent encounter with Octavian. One senses acutely that their relationship is coming to an end as the two lovers part, even before another young woman appears on scene to steal the young Octavian's heart.

Peter Rose (Baron Ochs) © Wilfried Hösl
Peter Rose (Baron Ochs)
© Wilfried Hösl

I have experienced Peter Rose’s Baron Ochs a number of times at the Met, but have rarely enjoyed his singing and portrayal more than this evening. He was in excellent voice, and went through the now familiar gestures and movements of the Baron of the Schenk production with ease. He nearly stole the show with his hilarious acting, especially in the second act, and received a huge ovation from the audience.

Another singer from the Met’s last season’s Rosenkavalier, Alice Coote, was unfortunately hampered by her rather stiff stage presence and solid but not very interesting mezzo. She tended to sing too emphatically and pressed her high notes, but otherwise was a reliable and well-schooled Octavian. Her duet with Sophie in Acts II and III fared better as their voices blended well.

Young South African soprano Golda Schultz was a major revelation of the evening as Sophie. While her voice initially seemed a bit heavy for the role, she quickly proved to have a beautiful young soprano voice supported by a solid technique. Her high notes were secure, warm and accurate, and she made a wonderful contribution to the final trio. Her acting was a bit too feisty for a girl fresh out of convent, but her lovely voice made up for it.

Another discovery was a young Korean tenor Yosep Kang, who displayed a bright, strong and pleasing voice with a sense of style during his brief appearance as an Italian singer. Martin Gantner was an unusually strong-voiced Faninal. Other minor roles were competently sung, and the ensemble work in Acts I and III by the chorus was understated and yet exceptional.

Soile Isokoski (Marschallin) and Alice Coote (Octavian) © Wilfried Hösl
Soile Isokoski (Marschallin) and Alice Coote (Octavian)
© Wilfried Hösl

The production is faithful to the original concept of the opera and its time period. It is very similar to Schenk’s Met production, although Munich seems to allow more space for the singers to move freely. The interior of the Faninal mansion in Act II is spectacular, but the inn in Act III is a bit too dark, and somewhat diminished the impact of the final trio.

But that final trio was wonderfully performed! The conductor began the music of “Marie Theres’…” deliberately slowly, and the trio began with Isokoski displaying her beautiful long lines. The pace picked up gradually, and by the time the three voices were at full volume, the music had also reached its greatest climax; the effect was overwhelming.  There was not a dry eye in the house as Isokoski delivered a devastatingly beautiful “In Gottes Namen” that was clearly audible and sustained.

As the young lovers end the opera with their duet full of wonder and hope, with a young fresh soprano replacing an older mature soprano, one was again struck by Strauss’ genius in music that explores a variety of female voices at their most beautiful and subtle. The audience, including many foreigners and young Germans, was respectful of the music, as they refrained from applause with the curtains closing on the act until the music completely faded away with the last quiet note of the violin.