Met Opera's "Rosenkavalier", Richard & Renee

Renee Fleming (seated) & Elina Garanca in Met's "Rosenkavalier"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Der Rosenkavalier is often, as it should be, all about Richard (Strauss, that is) and his composing and orchestrating; but this production by the Metropolitan Opera, is all about Renee (Fleming, that is) in her final performance at the Met in this role that has become so identified with her acting and vocalizing. There was a moment at the end of Act I when Fleming as the Marschallin wistfully took one last long look at her surroundings that cannot have failed to echo her audience's feelings. Though she has essayed some twenty-two roles in her Met career, this was in many ways her signature. With its nuances of the bittersweet passage of time, her bemused smiling through tears, and her attentive detailed knowledge of her character (just watch her contemplate the veins in her hands), this was a moment to cherish.

The story is updated to Vienna 1911, which carries with it a good deal of meaning not envisioned or intended by librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, or Strauss himself for that matter, with the presence of military characters in pre-World War I garb. The “aging” (32!) Marschallin having an affair with the young count Octavian (Elina Garanca), is visited by her country cousin Baron Ochs (Gunther Groissbock) who is engaged to marry the youthful Sophie (Erin Morley). Octavian has assumed the dress of a peasant “maid” to protect the Marschallin's reputation, leading Ochs to flirt with “her”. Many visitors come and go, including an Italian singer (Matthew Polenzani). The Marschallin, seeing the inevitable handwriting on the wall, arranges for Octavian and Sophie to meet by having Octavian go to the home of Sophie's father Faninal (Marcus Bruck) to present Sophie with a silver engagement rose; and as she had hoped, the two fall instantly in love. Sophie is appalled at Ochs' rudeness and an argument ensues in which Ochs is slightly wounded (at least in his pride). To teach Ochs a lesson, Octavian arranges for Ochs to receive a letter suggesting a rendezvous with the Marschallin's “maid”. All hell breaks loose at the rendezvous site (in the original text an inn), until the Marschallin arrives to inform Ochs it was all a “farce”. Admitting defeat, he leaves and Octavian and Sophie are united, leaving the Marschallin to wonder how she lost her lover so suddenly.

Sensitively conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with a mixed bag of Stage Direction by Robert Carsen and Set Design by Paul Steinberg (where with WWII encroaching, numerous military characters, and a palace for Faninal that resembled munitions storage, were a bit too creepy for comfort). The use of enhanced perspective with three sets of doors in Act I was, however, lovely; not so, the bordello scene (!) in Act III. The Costume Design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel was outstanding and the Lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet was expertly executed. But it is of course the singing in a Strauss opera that best serves the composer, and this cast was superlative, from the glorious singing of Garanca (also an excellent farceuse) and Morley to the atypically virile Groissbock and the hysterically funny Polenzani (Carlo Bergonzi, may you rest in peace). Fleming was transcendent, nowhere as much as in the final glorious trio by the three principals.

This was a performance to rank amongst the most memorable by the Met, in this or any other season.
The Fathom Events Met Opera rebroadcast will be shown on Weds. May 17 at a theater near you.

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