Straussathon 2013: Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera

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.  dfrau_2761a

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 dfrau_2861athe 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.dfrau_5647a

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. Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

               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 Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Operabeginning, 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 Morlca_11231308433470ey 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 funnyPhoto: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera 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

19 comments on “Straussathon 2013: Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera

  1. Interesting review but David Chan is a violinist not a cellist…Hope to read more of your reviews soon.   Jon Brown

  2. Very, very well said OT! Critical consensus is that at least Frau Ohne Schatten and Rosenkavalier are/were solid productions. Hoping for the same with Botstein and ASO’s Strauss at Carnegie on Sunday:

  3. I understand you about Elina! I eagerly wanted to see her Charlotte with Jonas but…((((

  4. Your page ate my comment again (why do I always have this problem with WordPress on my iPad??), but I’ll try again. Just a few thoughts re Frau: Glad you liked Komlosi I liked her best after Goerke at the premiere and was surprised she got a lot of negative comment. Wanted to like Schwanewilms more than I did. She’s a lovely singer, but I kind of felt she didn’t develop vocally or dramatically throughout the evening. Perhaps Met not an ideal venue for her? It’s sure a spectacular production, the only disappointment for me being the end of Act 2, when the music is cataclysmic and basically nothing happens onstage.

  5. Enjoyed these reviews and your live tweets. Too bad the Met didn’t do an HD broadcast of FrOSch–especially since it looks as if I’d like this production, for a change! Thanks for your insights and enthusiasm.

  6. I think Der Frau is a very great opera, but it is so difficult to cast. Without the surtitles available, it is hopeless to make sense of. Conversely, Rosenkavalier may be performed almost too often nowadays, and the casting often seems not very special ad in the current Met production. It’s hard to compete with Fleming, Te Kanawa, and Regine Crespin.

  7. I should have added that your reviews are very interesting. For a non-New Yorker who can’t get to the Met, it’s nice to have an alternative to Tommasinni and the Times.

    Not to mention the web ravings of Parterre Box and Opera-L.

  8. I wish you all a Happy Holiday Season.

    I wish to personally thank the great Opera Teen for making me a fabulous gift of a mug with photos of all my singer-friends and myself over the years;it is a”history of my opera life’ and only a special young man could do this..thanks so much!!!! Charlie

  9. To all opera lovers,young and ancient..Come visit my podcast site, with literally hundreds of wonderful videos, audios, and archives of 6 years of podcasting. Many singers love what I have done and you can learn so much about opera history. In his own special way,Opera teen brings you marvelous material on the opera world..mine is more historical..sometimes even hysterical..Charlie

  10. New Edition, available on Amazon.com.fantasyland.com

    World’s shortest books:

    Speech therapy by Joan Sutherland
    Roles i never sang by Placido Domingo
    Mental Health for sopranos by Kathleen Battle
    Knowing when to retire by Montserart Caballe and Katya Ricciarelli
    Tips on singing pop music by Renee Fleming
    People I never offended by ME

  11. I’m sorry to see the old O’Hearn/Merrill ROSENKAVALIER go. It was very beautiful and atmospheric. I saw it many times including when it was new with Leonie Rysanek, Christa Ludwig, Reri Grist, Walter Berry and Nicolai Gedda as the Italian Tenor. Dr. Bohm conducted. Not a bad cast.

  12. I never knew that The new Met (disaster) Fledermaus proved to be longer than Parsifal. They went on and on and on and on with all kinds of talk..Reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” (and it was a CRIME..we got the punishment.) The wonderful Michael Fabiano could not save it, and as i am told, this was perhaps the worst disaster since the Titanic.

  13. I just found out that my dear buddy Peter Gelb is a big baseball fan. Since all 30 major league teasm have just voted for “challenges’ to the calls of Umpires from now on ( Leo Durocher,Lou Pinella, and Earl Weaver carryings on will never be seen again…sad!).
    Gelb and I discussed this at length and he told me that he would allow certsin important legendary fans like James Jorden, Zachary Wolff, and someone named Handelmaniac to “challenge” decisions made at the Met. This is still to be ironed out, but we discussed the following:

    There will be TWO distinct challenges; one will be the kind of challenge when a cast/production is announced or seen during a dress rehearsal.
    The other challenge will be permitted DURING a performance and of course the challengers will be limited only to the above learned individuals, and their decisions will be final.
    If you read the papers today, you would see that some of the permitted challenges in baseball will be homerun calls, hit batsmen, ground rule doubles, trapping a ball in the outfield,etc. Following this concept, the Met is thinking of some or all of the following challenges:

    1. Singing Aida when you should be singing Pamina.
    2. Singing Pamina when you shouldn’t even be there at all.
    3. Trying to emulate great singers (i.e. doing a Milanov kicking of a train.)
    4. Not using chest when you sing, ” O patria,o patria, QUANTO MI COSTI” or “E QUESTO IL BACIO DI TOSCA”
    5. Milking curtain calls (Vaudeville “hook” to be employed.”)
    6. Being audible only to the Prompter.
    7. Forgetting more than 10 words (This is called “Merrillism).
    8. (For a director): Causing the audience to wonder what opera it is.

    There will be more….but the big problem is that if these challenges come DURING a performance, there will be so many interruptions, the evening will be longer than the new Fledermaus.

    I will let you know exactly what we decide. Sincerely Charlie

    add HARRY ROSE to the experts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY to our dear opera teen,,16 yrs,young…and knows more about opera than GELB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! May he some day take over the Met..Only then will I get 5 subscriptions….

  15. Harry Rose loves Netrebko so much,he was seen on the roof of his house in a THONG plying in the snow…….

  16. Summary of what I saw at the old la Puma Opera Co. and I am SERIOUS:

    1. Walkyries with music on their shields.

    2.Olive Middleton Act One Sieglinde with a flashlight (and this was BEFORE Herheim)

    3.Baritone Americo Iorio(Love the name) falling off the table (Junior High School weak table) as he sang tyhe Otello Drinking Song.

    4. Nedda NOT knowing the music after the Ballatella;Tonio comes in to get fresh;she skips all his music;he has to exit.

    5. Chorus member (about 75) in Aida with a WATCh (Memphis Standard time???)

    6. Sacristan shaking his ass in time with music at his entrance music.

    7.Prompter offstage SCREAMING words during Faust.

    8.Chorus woman (also age 75 or so) with huge white bow on her head as a “peasant girl’ in Don Giovanni.Leporello “gooses her.”She lets out an Elektra geschrei, causing my friend and I to RUN HYSTERICAL out of the place..with someone yelling,”Yeah..,get out!” We came close to ppppping in our pantalones.

    9. Mme.La Puma announcing, (strong Italian accento) “Ladies and Gentlermen.The Barnaba tonight ees seek. So we do Tristan and Isolde.

    I am SERIOUS!!!!! Oh..do I miss them..oh well, we always have the Met!!!!!

  17. When we were abnormal teens ( I have since become normal…NO COMMENTS!!!), we were STARVED for opera during the summer (The Met,by the way,opened in November), so my dear friend Joanie Abel (who made me hate Fischer-Dieskau because she treated him like the Justin Bieber lovers of today), invented a hilarious game called “Monoperaly.”
    She took a regular Monopoly board, drew cartoon characters over the various places, and we had a BALL using the game,with the following innovations:

    1. Each space was an opera. You threw the dice.If you landed on let us say “Boris,” and you had in your “bank” the right singer to cast it (and everyone had to approve your cast. Oh,the “bank’ was singers on pieces of paper with point values.(Flagstad usually got the highest number.)

    2. If someone landed on “your opera” (you owned it if you could cast it properly), you could take another cast from the person who landed on it, and get more points for the singers.

    3.”Go” in honor of Zinka, was “Va,fuggi”.

    4. Jail was BED. I used to get a card (remember you could land on a space that told you to pick a card) that said BAUM…The idea was, whatever singer I picked from the main bank of cards, you had to go to bed with.
    I once picked a card that said,”Zinka Milanov fell on your head.Go back three spaces!

    5. Once i tried to cast Siegfried…but had no Wagnerians..I asked if I could have a lyric Siegfriend with Peters,Valletti,etc..but they voted me down.

    I guess there was more..but I recall this…You see what fun we had…and I always wondered if we could PATENT the game for sales.
    I lost track of dear Joanie..and do not know if she is still with us, but the fond memories will always be with me. CH

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