by Dwight Casimere
“An embarassment of riches” is the phrase that comes to mind when describing the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (the Knight of the Rose), in performances through January 15 at New York’s Lincoln Center. It features the Met’s two biggest stars, soprano Renee Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title roles, but that’s just where the abundance of superlative talent begins. Swedish soprano Miah Persson gives an ovation-inspiring performance in her Met debut as Sophie, the enraptured object of the silver rose. Audiences at the Thursday, October 22nd performance may well have witnessed the birth of a new Met superstar.
The story of Der Rosenkavalier, as written by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a mixture of fantasy and historical fact, just as its tone vacillates between comedy and lamentations concerning human frailty. Der Rosenkavalier is loosely adapted from the novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas by Louvet de Couvrai. One can also detect traces of the French comic master, Molière.
Strauss’ music is dense and difficult, but Maestro Edo de Waart spins its disparate elements into a seamless tapestry of sound like a master weaver at his loom. The intricate flute chords, in particular, in the overture to Act II, foretell the filigree of sylvan threads that would later enmesh to reveal the silver rose in all its glory.
The story of Der Rosenkavalier, as written by Strauss’ librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a mixture of fantasy and historical fact. Set in a mythical version of mid-18th century Vienna, it tells of a supercilious court intrigue surrounding the Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg (Renee Fleming), during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa. She is seen in Act I in her bedchamber with her young lover, Octavian, Count Rofrano (Susan Graham). The vocal fireworks take off almost from the beginning. The perfectly matched voices of Fleming and Graham intertwine and diverge like birds of paradise in full flight. The lush orchestrations, given a sense of urgency by Maestro de Waart, only heightens the intensity of their performance. It is a delight to behold.
Out of the comic confusion of Act I, when the Marschallin’s tryst is interrupted by her boisterous, vainglorious country cousin, Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau (the commanding Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson) , emerges the marvelous Mexican tenor and seasoned Met veteran Ramon Vargas, with a blistering aria, Di rigori armato il seno, which is a real show-stopper. What can be said of Ramon Vargas? Not enough. He is a marvel. Normally cast in a lead role, he is sorely underutilized, but duly noted, in this splendid production. Not to worry, Met subscribers will see plenty of him this season as he plays Foresto in the Met premiere of Verdi’s Attila, as well as the title role of Faust in La Damnation de Faust.
The entire plot hinges on a social convention that is purely fantastic. Ochs has come to Vienna to marry a rich and pretty girl, Sophie, the daughter of a newly ennobled commoner, Edler von Faninal. Ochs asks the Marschallin's help in finding a suitable person to perform the indispensable ceremony of presenting to the betrothed a silver rose.
It is a grand symbol of marital fidelity. She assures him that Count Rofrano will accept the duty. Ochs, who meanwhile takes a fancy to the supposed serving maid (a disguised Octavian), is delighted. This all converges later in a way that makes for some delicious operatic comedy.
Strauss’ employment of a soprano in the male lead role of Octavian is a nod to Mozart’s employment of the same device in his comic opera Le Nozze di Figaro, in the role of Cherubino (sung in this season’s Metropolitan Opera production by Isabel Leonard). Likewise, the music is also a mixture of the lighthearted lyricism of Mozart with the underlying gravitas of Wagner. Hints of Strauss’ harmonic modernism also shine through at the most unexpected moments, creating an attention-grabbing tension that makes his music interesting to listen to through the nearly four and a half hour performance.
There are some absolutely mesmerizing moments of vocal brilliance, such as the soprano trio in Act III. Observing the contrast between comedy and drama, there’s a moment in Act I, when Fleming/The Marschallin reflects upon the “fragility of life” and how when she looks in the mirror she “feels the sands of the hourglass slipping through my fingers.” Her most poignant observation is when she reflects on her love for the young Octavian. She laments that she will eventually lose him to a younger woman as she sings that the things you embrace are the things that ultimately slip away and that the harder you try to hold onto something, the more it is likely to slip away. It is a heart-wrenching admission, sung with great pathos by Fleming. Der Rosenkavalier will be seen Live in HD worldwide Saturday, January 9, 2010. Get your tickets now. It will surely be a sellout and perhaps your only opportunity to see this landmark performance, as tickets for the entire run have been sold out for months at the Met. For more information, visit www.metopera.org.