Der Rosenkavalier is for love. It is amazing to me to think that there are people who don’t love it. I have seen it many times and have my favorites. My favorite Marschallin, of course, is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in all three media: live, on recording, and on video. Other favorites are Renée Fleming believe it or not, and Kiri Te Kanawa. My unfavorite Marschallin: Felicity Lott. She did not happen for me.
My favorite Octavian remains Tatiana Troyanos. She is too mature by far, but I adore her anyway. Second is Susan Graham, especially with Renée Fleming. They were fabulous together. My unfavorite Octavian was Brigitte Fassbaender. I hated it. My friend D shares my opinion on this point, even if we disagree about the favorite. He likes Sena Jurinac. Fassbaender played him like a 12 year old. Disgusting.
Favorite conductor: Karajan, Sir Charles Mackerras, Jimmy Levine. Unfavorite: Donald Runnicles, apparently.
My favorite overall performance of Rosenkavalier: the Met version with Kiri, Tatiana, Judith, Jimmy et.al. And don’t forget Luciano. There must be contract conflicts that prevent a professional DVD from being issued. Go quickly because it’s now available from House of Opera.
It has to be exactly the same way each time. Mahomet must be black and wear a turban. The chocolate must arrive on a tiny table with a tiny tray and pot and an even tinier cup. In the second act there must be Louis XV chairs scattered around the stage. When Octavian and Sophie converse, they must sit on them. When Ochs is wounded, the chairs must be lined up in a row, and he must half lie on them. When he takes his wig off in Act III, he has to be bald. It isn’t allowed to vary anything except the decorations. I have seen a modernized production and didn’t mind it. But….
So how was last night’s version at the San Francisco Opera? Shall we obsess through each minute of the opera? I was very annoyed with the way Runnicles constantly cranked the volume of the orchestra up and down. He seems to have the idea that the orchestra should play as loud as it can any time no one is singing. Then any time the singers start, he can crank them back down again. Or not. Covering the singers is pretty common for him. This constant cranking up and down leaves a sense of seasickness. How nice to conceive it as a single piece and to think of the singers as part of the ensemble. Some time he should try it.
Joyce DiDonato made her debut as Octavian in this series. I think she has the idea. She was quite free and masculine in bed with the Marschallin. In her man clothes she seemed familiar with how to behave in the world of royalty. For me this is essential and is what Brigitte Fassbaender completely failed to do. Joyce was cute as Mariandel, too. I liked her portrayal very much and enjoyed her singing. But she is so tiny. This is the first time I have seen this boy of seventeen years and two months making love to an older woman and wondered if I were watching illegal activity. She is believable. He is very immature physically and his voice has not changed yet. I think she requires a very young looking Sophie, something not quite achieved by Miah Persson.
There were here and there unusual bits of business. In the last section of the first act the Marschallin actually pushes Octavian away. This was excessive and completely unnecessary.
Ours was the second string Marschallin, Martina Serafin. We felt that we had lucked out because the first stringer, Soile Isokoski, was said to be inadequate in her personification of the role. Martina fully possessed her Marschallin. She was passionate, pensive and in charge by turns as all Marschallins must be. She lacks only a proper awareness of Strauss phrasing to become a great Marschallin.
At the end Octavian and Sophie ran out laughing like the two children they obviously are.
A friend has asked me to say more about Rosenkavalier.
I felt that the Swedish soprano Miah Persson was made up much too sophisticated and grown up in Rosenkavalier to be believable with the very young looking DiDonato. I saw Persson in London as Susanna, a role for which she is well suited. The same woman singing Susanna and Sophie? I guess it happens. Kathleen Battle did it. Susanna is almost a character part, a lyric soprano. Anna sings her and she is virtually dramatic, but she does it because Susanna gets all the sexy bits. Sophie is definitely a soubrette, the high voice in the ensemble, and I don't hear Persson in that Fach at all. Her Sophie came across as pretty sophisticated and arrogant. Sophie's arrogance must be perceived as charming and naive, and I didn't feel that.
The scenes are long. When they are familiar, as they certainly are with me, every note is part of a familiar dance where you know all the steps. The last act definitely goes on too long. Once Ochs says "Leopold, wir gaenge!" he should leave, but there's ten minutes more of music. Strauss just wants to compose more notes. It doesn't really work.
In her blog Joyce DiDonato comments about Kristinn Sigmundsson's portrayal of Ochs and his concern to make him seem more fully human. What is one to make of this upper class gentleman from the country? The Marschallin is polite to him while considering him beneath her. I think Strauss and Hofmannsthal are working against Sigmondsson. Sophie needs to feel like a victim so we will rejoice when she is rescued by Octavian, so Ochs must feel like a fate worse than death. We need to be appalled when he sings, "Keine Nacht wird zu lang." If Sophie is a bitch and Ochs is a nice guy, will we care at all? The entire opera is really from Octavian's perspective.
It is an opera of relationships between the four characters: Octavian, The Marschallin, Baron Ochs and Sophie. To everyone except the Marschallin Octavian must feel sophisticated and in charge, at least that's how I always feel it. He is already a popular public figure, or why else do the crowds cry out his name in the presentation of the rose scene?
The Marschallin is the deus ex machina who swoops in and rescues all from the chaos Octavian has created. It is a complex dance with a great many steps. It is pleasing even when it isn't perfect.