Opera Review: A Rosy End To the Met HD Season – Part I

Dear Readers:

This past Saturday marked the last transmission of the Metropolitan Opera Live In HD for the 2016-2017 season.  The Powers That Be at the Met selected the romantic comedy Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss to end the IMAX season, and it was a great choice.  Quoting from the official Met publicity blurb:

The dream cast of Renée Fleming as the Marschallin and Elīna Garanča as Octavian star in Strauss’s grandest opera. In his new production, Robert Carsen, the director behind the Met’s recent Falstaff, places the action at the end of the Habsburg Empire, underscoring the opera’s subtext of class and conflict against a rich backdrop of gilt and red damask, in a staging that also stars Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs. Sebastian Weigle conducts the sparklingly perfect score.

Polenzani in a funny cameo role

In addition to this “dream cast”, Met General Manager Peter Gelb cunningly indulged us viewers with the “luxury casting” of American superstar tenor Matthew Polenzani hamming it up in the small cameo role of the “Italian tenor” who serenades the Marschallin in her bedchamber.  After playing this bit like a comic Caruso (but still belting out with fine voice), Polenzani took off his phony moustache and continued as the Live in HD host for the remainder of the show, interviewing stars and other staff backstage during the intermissions.

And speaking of which, this particular opera is somewhat odd in that it has no leading tenor role.  The four main roles consist of two sopranos, one mezzo-soprano, and a bass!  According to wiki’s explanation for this:  “Richard Strauss was enamoured of the female voice, and Der Rosenkavalier is famed for the beautiful music of the three female-voice roles which comprise its protagonists: Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin. This love triangle culminates in the exquisite trio and duet which end the opera. Some singers have enjoyed performing more than one of these three roles during the course of their careers.”

And before we proceed with the review of this production, I just want to mention that the Met gave us a preview of the goodies in store for us next Live in HD season, which begins on October 7, 2017 with Bellini’s “Norma“.  I am especially looking forward to next season’s production of Rossini’s Semiramide.  It has been a long time since I have seen my favorite murderous Assyrian Queen.  Most people know of this opera only by its Overture, which is performed frequently as a show-stopper in symphony concerts.  The Overture is a bouncy, upbeat piece that wakes you up out of your seat if you were nodding off.  Tapping your foot along, you might not realize that the Grand Opera in question is one of those blood-curdling stories from antiquity, involving high politics, identity swaps, murder and incest — oooooh!  (Please God, don’t let the Met blow this one, don’t let them set the action in a small white room in Hell, with no scenery, or in Victorian England with in-your-face allusions to Queen Victoria, or whatever monstrous stagings my imagination can conjure up….)

Anyhow, this gives us all something to look forward to in the future, and brighten up our drab lives.  But now it is time to get down to business and break down the story of the horny young lad who is entrusted with delivering a Silver Rose to the betrothed of another man.  I think everybody can see, 10 miles ahead, how this is bound to end…

The Cavalier of the Rose

As mentioned, the Genius Director of this particular production chose to set the action in the Vienna of 1911, in the waning years of the Hapsburg Empire.  Production notes were very insistent, and very in-your-face, that this is 1911.  In case you still didn’t get the hint, one of the main villains is an arms dealer.  The show ends with cannon shots and the implication that World War I is just on the horizon; and that all these amiable people are about to be swept away in the fog of war.

Empress Maria-Theresa as a little girl.

In the real world, 1911 was the year in which the opera premiered, in Dresden, Germany.  Strauss himself set the action in the 1740’s, in Vienna of the time of Empress Maria Theresa, of the Holy Roman Empire.  Strauss didn’t actually write the story; his libretto was based on novels and plays by Louvret de Couvrai and Molière.  These decadent stories from pre-Revolutionary France typically consisted of saucy bedroom farces and themes such as swapping identities, swapping genders, disguises, cuckoldry, sexual hi-jinks and the like.  Protagonists were typically the aristocracy, but also included lackeys and chambermaids, usually trotted in for pornographic purposes.

True to its French roots, Der Rosenkavalier opens in the bedchamber of the Marschallin (an aristocratic title for the wife of a Field Marshal of the Holy Roman Empire).  Taking advantage of her husband’s absence on a trip, the Marschallin (whose name is also, coincidentally, Maria-Theresa), has just seduced her young cousin, Count Octavian.  Maria-Theresa (let’s just call her MT) is 32 years old now, she appears to be childless, and is worried about the aging process.  Octavian, who is a junior officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, is exactly 17 years and 2 months old.  (The libretto is very explicit about his age.)  Technically, by modern standards, MT is a sex offender and her picture should be up there on the police Facebook.  But this is the decadent Ancien Régime, so it’s all okay.  Besides, Octavian is no rape victim – he is delighted and enthralled.  And who wouldn’t be, to be seduced by such a lovely diva as Renée Fleming?   A wise and mature older woman, yet still beautiful.

I like the way they staged this romantic scene:  They make it clear that this is Octavian’s first time with MT.  Maybe his first time ever.  He staggers out of her bedroom with a look of sublime bliss on his face, sprawls on the sofa, and lights a cigarette.  And when I say “he”, I actually mean “she”, because Octavian, as a mezzo-soprano, is sung by a girl.  A girl in trousers.  Elīna Garanča, to be specific.  (Be still, my heart!)  This gorgeous and talented Latvian mezzo, who has a set of pipes that you wouldn’t believe, has told the world that this is her last Octavian; and that, in fact, she intends to give up “trouser roles” from now on.  Why? she was asked, in the backstage interview with Polenzani.  Elīna explained that she feels she is getting too old now to play boys, and that she intends to just play women from now on.  A pity – Elīna can be very convincing as a boy, she has the gait and the body language right.  She says she studied this in acting class.  By the way, Renée also commented that this was her last fling as the Marschallin, which for her has been her signature role for many years.  And for the same reason.  Age.  She believes that she is getting too old to convincingly play a 32-year-old.

Fine, so be it.  But I can testify that it was super-hot to watch these two women kissing.  All playing the part, of course.  But the camera angle didn’t lie:  That was no peck on the cheek, it was a real kiss!

[to be continued]

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