Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!

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It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

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Posted in Opera

Falstaff

The Man Himself
The Man Himself

Have the holidays got you down? Too much hustle and bustle? For the best attitude adjustment ever, try heading over to the Met for Robert Carsen’s production of Verdi’s “Falstaff.” You’ll find yourself walking on air.

The crowning glory of Verdi’s career, “Falstaff” distills his years of creativity to their essence. There’s not one wasted note or one errant phrase. It’s so fitting that Verdi’s final gift to the world should be a comedy whose musical pleasures never stop: the letter scene, with the Merry Wives of Windsor laughing in four-part harmony; the orchestral burst of pent-up anger that ends Ford’s “E sogno,” only to modulate to the silken strings that accompany Falstaff’s reappearance in his courting garb; that moment when we finally hear in full what the lovelorn Fenton has to say to Nanetta, only to be followed by her exquisite aria as Queen of the Fairies. As if there weren’t riches enough, the work ends with “Tutto nel mondo è burla,” a ten-part fugue that may be the most rewarding operatic conclusion ever written. Not to mention the fact that the orchestra itself never seems to stop laughing.

One of the best opera performances I ever saw was the 1992 Met revival, fortunately captured on DVD, featuring Paul Plishka as Falstaff with the incomparable quartet of Mirella Freni, Marilyn Horne, Susan Graham and Barbara Bonney. In a later season I suffered through a dead-on-arrival revival with Bryn Terfel as Falstaff, who sucked the air out of the auditorium. Even with a literally larger than life title character, this is above all an ensemble opera. Each of the ten soloists plays an important part, though it’s true some are more prominent than others, i.e., Dame Quickly. And it’s essential to have an Alice Ford who relishes the joke (which is why that Terfel revival, with Marina Mescheriakova as Alice, withered on the vine).

Robert Carsen’s version, a co-production with Covent Garden and several other companies, moves the setting to England in the 1950’s. Unlike some directors who update just for the sake of updating, Carsen honors Verdi’s (and Boito’s) intentions. And it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen costuming that so illuminates character: Quickly’s “Reverenza” ensemble, a black coat with a silk lining that matches her dress; Nanetta’s capris, Ford’s sober double-breasted gray suit, later outdone by his “Signor Fontana” outfit—pure Texas oilman, complete with fringed jacket, Stetson and bolo tie. The costumes are complemented by some marvelous sets, most prominently that fully equipped kitchen chez Ford, replete with checkered tiles, a center island and working stove.

“Falstaff” seems to have brought out Carsen’s best. The sight of Alice sailing through her kitchen atop that all-important laundry basket, rose clenched in her teeth, brought down the house. What a perfect idea to have the ladies compare Falstaff’s love letters over lunch at a swanky restaurant. And to see Fenton as a waiter at that same establishment, which once and for all explains why Ford opposes the match with his daughter. Perhaps best of all, Carsen actually stages the fugue by having the characters toast each other in an extended round robin; unlike the Met’s Zefirelli production, this is not just a stand and sing moment. And while we’re on the subject, I prefer Carsen’s version of the work. The Zeffirelli production, which premiered in 1964, was wonderful in its day, but it was time to see what other artists could bring to the table.

Merry Wives Cooking up More Plot
Merry Wives Cooking up More Plot

The cast is tremendous. Stephanie Blythe, with her impeccable timing, owns Dame Quickly. Last Saturday’s HD telecast was the first time I saw Angela Meade in an operatic role; it was a delightful surprise to see how well she plays comedy. With that skill and that voice, it’s about time the Met gave her a new production instead of casting her at the tail end of revivals. Jennifer Robinson Cano as Meg Page complemented her well, both visually and vocally. The Fenton, Paolo Finale, is quite a find–a lovely tenor di grazia (and incredibly cute to boot). And to cap the performance, Lisette Oropesa, who floated the final ascending phrase of Nanetta’s aria in one breath. Just stunning. When I returned home from the telecast, I popped my Falstaff DVD in to see if Barbara Bonney had managed that feat, but she, exemplary musician that she is, snatched a quick breath before the final four bars (but then again, Bonney had to cope with singing the first part of the aria on the back of an extremely restless horse).

Ambrogio Maestri has now sung the role of Falstaff over 200 times. His size, both horizontally and vertically (he’s 6’5″), and his voice amply (no pun intended) serve to create the character, though I missed that spark of self-awareness and cerebral wit that Paul Plishka and before him, Donald Gramm, brought to the role. Ford has got to be the most ungrateful role in the history of opera, aria or no, but Franco Vassallo turned in a thoughtful performance. However, his appearance did present a problem: Vassallo is probably around 5’10,” and against such a tall Falstaff, he was somewhat lost in the proceedings. A more physically imposing Ford would have been better.

This was the first new production James Levine has conducted since his return to the Met, and the reviews made me a bit apprehensive. However, it seemed things had settled down by the time of the HD telecast, which was certainly vintage Levine. And it goes without saying that the Met orchestra, one of the best in the world, responded marvelously.

If you missed the HD telecast and can’t make it to the Met, don’t despair—“Falstaff” will no doubt show up on PBS’s schedule in the months to come, and I suspect there’s a DVD release that’s forthcoming. It’s a definite keeper.