First, I’d like to apologize for the extended absence. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this long to update, and I’m sorry about that. School is intense this year, and I’ll try to keep a more regular pace.
With 2013 being the bicentennials of both Verdi and Wagner, you’d expect Wagner to get top billing as a German composer at the Met. Wagner was celebrated last season with a new production of Parsifal, along with a revival of Robert Lepage’s Ring Cycle, but the 2013-2014 season is mysteriously devoid of any and all Wagner at the Met. However, it’s another German composer who rose to the top this season at the Met. Richard Strauss, who turns 150 next year, has three operas of his revived this season at the Met. In the fall, the Met brought back its acclaimed production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten and the seasoned production of Der Rosenkavalier. Arabella, Strauss’ final collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who wrote the librettis for the other two operas mentioned, will be presented in the spring.
Fortunately, I was able to attend performances of both Frau and Rosenkavalier in the past few weeks. We’ll start with Frau, which I went to on its final performance on November 26th.
Of all the crazy operas out there, Frau has to be near the top of this list. The libretto is densely symbolic and the story is moving, but hard to follow. In short, an Empress of the Spirit Realm has no shadow-in which shadow is a metaphor for the ability to bear children-and is convinced by her Nurse to descend to the mortal world and take the shadow of a mortal woman. If she can’t get a shadow in three days, her husband will turn to stone at the threat of her father, Keikobad.
The Empress and Nurse arrive on Earth in the hut of a lowly Dyer and his nagging Wife. They convince the Wife to sacrifice her shadow in exchange for earthly delights. However, seeing how upset the Dyer is when he learns his wife will never have children, the Empress refuses to take the shadow. Keikobad admires the humility of his daughter and rewards her with a shadow of her own. The couples are reunited and thus ends
the first scene of Peter Pan Die Frau Ohne Schatten.
If you stuck with me through that, then please come forward to collect your cookie. If not, it’s OK.
While the Empress is the title character and the prima donna of the show, the evening belonged to Christine Goerke, who played the Dyer’s Wife. The singer has just recently stepped into dramatic repertoire and is a voice to be reckoned with. Her distinctive voice easily fills the house and her vibrato is intense and thrilling. Her high notes soared and singing was impassioned and fascinating. Quite often, the Dyer’s Wife can come off as a nag, but when Goerke sang the part, she brought out an insecurity in the character that validated a lot of her actions. It was another layer of portrayal which really made you care about a character who gets second billing in the opera.
As the Empress, however, Anne Schwanewilms gave a riveting performance in her Met debut performances. Her cool, agile voice glided over the coloratura in her entrance aria. Her high notes were, for the most part, quite stable and her delivery of the final monologue was chilling. Her acting was appropriately regal and reserved, but she made frequent use of what Eric Simpson referred to in his Classical Review take on the performance as “resorting to cape-twirling diva gestures.”
Ildiko Komlosi, the first opera singer I really loved, was a fascinating Nurse. The role spans from the top to the bottom of the mezzo range, and, in the Met’s uncut performance, it’s the longest role of the opera. Komlosi’s polished mezzo was pushed to the limits, but the result was a passionately sung and well-acted performance.
As the Emperor, Torsten Kerl’s smallish but shimmering voice was put on display in his well-sung aria, one of the few examples of Strauss’ writing for the tenor voice. As Barak, the pleasant Dyer, Johan Reuter’s voice was also not the biggest, but pleasant still in his passages with his Wife. His acting, especially the way he sits down with a beer, accepting his wife’s temperament at the end of act 1, was nuanced.
Also worth mentioning are Richard Paul Fink as a powerful Messenger of Keikobad, Jennifer Check as the voice of the Flacon, and countertenor, Andrey Nemzer, whose ethereal sound was wonderful as the Guardian of the Threshold. Scott Weber’s acrobatics got a little tedious, as the falcon mime, but they were nonetheless impressive.
Valdimir Jurowski lead a pristine Met Orchestra in an intense performance. Rare at the Met these days, the orchestra almost never drowned out the singers. The cello solo was beautifully played by David Chan.
Herbert Wernicke’s production is one of the best I’ve seen. This is such a hard opera to direct, with all of its moving between realms and the fact the plot is almost impossible to understand, and he pulled it off with aplomb. The only point of confusion would be the worm-things that wriggled around the Empress in one scene. The opera is split between a mirrored cube and the hyper-realistic Dyer’s hut, both designed by Wernicke. The Met’s stage elevators get a workout in this performance and they glided from scene to scene without making a creak. Costumes, also designed by Wernicke, were also great at suggesting general rank between characters.
The Frau performance was the best opera I’ve seen to date. After that, it was a scant four days to come out of the music coma before heading to Der Rosenkavalier on Saturday, November 30th.
The opera is about a young count, Octavian Rofrano. He is the boy-toy of the Marschallin, an adulterous Viennese princess. One day, one of the Marschallin’s liaisons with her younger lover is interrupted by her boorish cousin Ochs, causing Octavian to have to dress as a maid to hide. While inquiring about a young man who can present a silver rose, a marriage custom, to his much-younger bride-to-be, Ochs takes a liking to “Mariandel,” the name the Marschallin has given to the disguised Octavian.
Octavian presents the rose and falls immediately in love with Ochs’ fiancée, Sophie. When Sophie rejects Ochs’
sexual harassment advances, Octavian challenges him to a duel. The Ochs is wounded, but is consoled by a note from “Mariandel,” consenting to meet him for dinner later that night at an inn.
At the inn, faces pop out to surprise Ochs during the meal. As a result of some other hijinks, Ochs is sent running, leaving Octavian and Sophie. Enter the Marschallin, who releases Octavian to a younger woman in one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written.
I’m not going to lie. I bought the Rosenkavalier tickets to see Elina Garanca. She’s long been one of my favorite singers and the idea of seeing her do Octavian was too interesting to miss. In fact, the day after I bought the tickets for this performance, she withdrew due to pregnancy. I was devastated. When they announced her replacement would be Alice Coote, I wasn’t much happier.
In the title role, Alice Coote, much to my surprise, was a very capable Octavian. She was very at home playing a boy (No wonder. She’s one of the most sought after pants-role mezzos of our day.) and knew how to get laughs out of the audience. Her singing may not be the most exciting, but it doesn’t need to be for an opera like Rosenkavalier. My only quibble was her volume. At times, she resonated beautifully throughout the house, where at others I had to strain to hear her.
This Marschallin, sung by Martina Serafin, is a departure from most of the creamy voiced sopranos who have played the role at the Met in the past. She took some time to warm up in the beginning, but she delivered a gorgeous rendition of the monologue. The Marschallin sits in the middle of Serafin’s voice, but some of the higher notes exposed a thin upper range. The only problem with Serafin’s Marschallin was that she didn’t seem to have a good grasp of the character. Ask any soprano who’s sung the piece and she’ll tell you what a complex woman this character is. She is heavily layered and dense. Serafin’s portrayal was pretty one-dimensional. The Marschallin’s not just a regal character who appreciates a good time. She’s more than that, and I was left rolling my eyes when she released Octavian to Sophie. I just couldn’t care enough about Serafin’s Marschallin.
As Sophie, Erin Morley jumped into the role only a short time before the production opened. She was a pleasure as Sister Constance in Dialogues des Carmelites last season, and was a pleasure here. Her quick and even voice made her a lovely and sympathetic Sophie and she contrasted well with both the other women in the trio. She was definitely the most consistent performer of the afternoon.
Peter Rose has obviously done Ochs before, and practically stole the show. His basso voice was jolly and resonant and he negotiated the stage nimbly.
In the supporting roles, Eric Cutler was a pleasant Italian singer and Hans-Joachin Ketelsen was a funny and serviceable Faninal. Jennifer Check’s Marianne was well-sung.
After hearing Edward Gardner do it recently and Edo de Waart do it in the HD transmission a few years ago, I’ve concluded that Der Rosenkavalier must be an extremely difficult piece to conduct. Gardner’s conducting was overly syrupy at times, and the attempts to gather up the majesty in Strauss’ score fell flat. A special shout-out goes to the brass section, which was a standout during the performance.
Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s production is the oldest production still in use at the Met. It’s been around since 1969 and in a day where productions that push boundaries and provoke thoughts are in vogue, it’s an odd one out. However, the sets and costumes are so beautiful (My grandfather’s reaction when the curtain opened on act 2 was “Oh my God!”) that it would seem a shame to get rid of it entirely. It’s a set so many famous singers have performed on, from Kiri te Kanawa to Luciano Pavarotti to Renée Fleming. It’s definitely a classic Met production. In his New York Observer piece, James Jorden provides an interesting argument.
The final performance of Der Rosenkavalier is this Friday. Tickets are available here.
I’m thrilled to be back blogging again and I’m sorry again for being away for so long. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!
Photos courtesy of Ken Howard, Jonathan Tichler, and Cory Weaver