Fleming Fails to Falter: The Gala Premier of the Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier

Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier
Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier

After almost three decades of exquisite music making, Renée Fleming is still singing to sold-out crowds around the world. Her unwavering popularity was confirmed with yet another sold-out performance at Lincoln Center, the world’s premier venue for the performing arts. This week at the Metropolitan Opera, Fleming donned her crown to lead an impressive cast as Princess Marie-Therese von Werdenberg (the Marschallin) in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. The new production by Robert Carsen was unveiled at the Royal Opera House in London and was swiftly scheduled to make its US debut in New York. Carsen set the production in 1911 which mirrors the date of the opera’s first performance in Dresden. There is something for everyone in this four-hour masterpiece. Elegance, grace and sophistication are personified in the Marchallin, Octavian and Sophie while the finale is set in a “house of ill repute” where we witness the seedy side of society.

The score by Richard Strauss is brilliantly complex and ranks among the most demanding in the repertory. The composition weaves music of the original 18th century setting, 19th century Viennese waltzes and of course 20th century neo-romanticism and modernist chromaticism. This patchwork of time periods is also reflected in Paul Steinberg’s palatial set designs.

The evening’s stalwart and dependable conductor, Sebastian Weigle, led the cast and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra through Strauss’ labyrinth of musical passages. His tempi served to both progress the drama and savor the tender musical moments of the opera.

Elīna Garanča, a Latvian born mezzo-soprano, sings the role of Octavian, a young cigarette-smoking Count who is having an affair with the Marschallin (Renee Fleming). Octavian sings the opening line of the opera and is on stage continuously from Act one where he proclaims his eternal love to the Marschallin through an extended scene as “Mariandel,” the gender-confused chambermaid, in Act III before transforming again to conclude the opera as Octavian. Physically and vocally, Garanča is the hero of this piece.

Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier
Metropolitan Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier

Günther Groissböck legitimizes the role of Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau with his full resonant bass complete with clear trumpet like high notes. His comedic scenes, of which there were plenty, made us laugh without sacrificing beauty of sound. This was another very successful performance for the Austrian bass.

Erin Morley, an American soprano and graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, was the evening’s Sophie. Her voice is heavenly and clear with that extra special shimmer above the staff. She captured hearts with her soaring high notes during the presentation of a Tiffany and Co. inspired rose in Act II. Morley is a Sophie who shan’t soon be forgotten!

A host of notable singers joined the cast including a very popular cameo by American tenor Matthew Polenzani. He had his 15 minutes of fame, the limelight and a thunderous ovation following his beautiful rendition of Di Rigormi armato il seno in the role of “an Italian singer.” Markus Brück and Scott Conner made their Met Opera debuts in the role of Faninal, Sophie’s wealthy arms-dealing father and the police commissioner respectively.

Despite being a woman of a certain age warding off false rumors of retirement such as those published in the New York Times, Renée Fleming remains committed to making great music on the operatic stage. The evolution of her Marschallin throughout the years is a living, breathing masterclass in creating art that will stand the test of time. Ms. Fleming’s voice is not the same as it was 30 years ago; it’s better. Experience has informed her voice and to her credit, “Hab mir’s gelobt,” her opening line of the final trio was the most decadent phrase sung all night. Fleming has worked with legends, survived her contemporaries and helped to inspire a new age of opera singers. Fleming’s got talent and true artistry doesn’t expire. It’s timeless.

When all is said and done, Der Rosenkavalier has one of the more hopeful endings in opera. It is, after all, a comedy. Octavian gets the girl, the Marshallin rides home with Faninal, a man her own age and even Baron Ochs escapes prison and is free to continue defrauding heiresses. Perhaps there is a happy ending for all of us!

You can see Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera through May 13th, 2017.

Nicholas Wiggins