Lyric Opera

September 26 and 30, and October 4, 10, 13, 16, and 20

When 12-tone composer Anton Webern first heard Der Rosenkavalier shortly after its premiere in 1911, he quickly dismissed the importance of Richard Strauss to the emerging contemporary movement in music. Prior to Der Rosenkavalier Strauss had been an important harmonic innovator and colorful orchestrator greatly admired by, and having considerable influence over, the younger generation of avant-garde composers. But having already composed Salome and Elektra for the opera house–both very dark subjects and highly chromatic works–Strauss decided that his next stage work would have a more upbeat subject and a more conservative style: a look back–“a Mozart opera.” What he ended up with was a work that owed little to Mozart (except in terms of comic style and spirit), but because of its timing (just prior to World War I) it has come to be seen as a swan song not only to the European aristocracy, but to the grand opera tradition as well. Der Rosenkavalier is to Vienna very much what Gone With the Wind is to the Confederate South.

Octavian and the field marshal’s wife (the Marschallin) are having a passionate affair, although he is 17, she in her early 30s. He’s utterly infatuated with her, but she predicts that she will be replaced in his affections by a younger woman. By the final curtain, not only has the Marschallin’s prophecy come true all too soon; but she has come that much closer to realizing the unavoidable reality she most fears–that of her own mortality.

Although much of the style and mood of Rosenkavalier is waltzlike, the action is set in 18th-century Vienna, long before the waltz era. To further complicate things, the 19th-century “Waltz King” Johann Strauss Jr. is no relation whatsoever to Richard Strauss, although the latter freely reinterprets the style of the former in Der Rosenkavalier.

Those potential confusions aside, Der Rosenkavalier contains some of the most sumptuous music ever heard in the opera house, while remaining a truly theatrical spectacle that walks the line between farce and poignancy as has no other opera before or since. Luckily, many of its most potent features are brought off quite effectively in the present Lyric production, even though many others are, unfortunately, thrown by the the wayside.

The largest extravagance of this opera is that it has three soprano parts, all major roles. When you consider that there are only a handful of effective Strauss sopranos in the world, you can imagine the casting nightmare involved. Lyric has taken the most conventional approach, hiring a has-been, a newcomer, and a big name.

If you were brought up, as I was, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as your image of the perfect Marschallin, then soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow will take some getting used to. Her voice, as always, is shrill and tight, and she is more frumpy than elegant. Still, I found myself utterly charmed–if not by her vocal ability certainly by her dramatic prowess. Precisely because she is not a more youthful and beautiful Marschallin, we can empathize with her observations on time and youth all the more. Her love affair with Octavian won’t be her last fling, but she may have to settle for someone closer to her age and experience next time, and she knows it. Tomowa-Sintow brings all this out most skillfully, and puts a unique stamp on a familiar role. She entered into it with such conviction, I found myself able to overlook many of her vocal problems. Unlike last year’s Traviata, in which the soprano stands nakedly up there with only Verdi’s vulgar oom-pah-pahs to hold onto, so the quality of the singing makes or breaks Violetta, with Strauss the orchestration is on equal musical terms with the singing, and in fact often dominates the texture. Much to her credit, Tomowa-Sintow’s voice was not as harsh as it often has been, and given her enormous capability for projection, she held back considerably, making for a more pleasing, introspective sound.

Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter made her debut here four years ago in Solti-led CSO performances of the Mozart C Minor Mass. Since then, she has become one of Solti’s favorite singers, having sung Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion twice here (and recording it), as well as Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, which she sang here last May and recently sang again on Solti’s farewell European tour. One could quibble about the appropriateness of her rich, romantic voice for Bach and Mozart, but Lyric’s general director Ardis Krainik was so moved by von Otter’s first performance here that she went backstage and immediately offered her the role of Octavian. Krainik’s instincts were right on the mark in this case. Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal made the role of the 17-year-old boy Octavian, who dresses up as a female chambermaid, a trouser role for a female mezzo-soprano, and with her slender six-foot frame and her short, spiked blond hair, von Otter is far more believable in the role than the many buxom sopranos who have sung it. Her acting was superb, very boyish and impetuous, and although her voice is not as large as one would like for Strauss, her vocal coloring and technique are, as always, beautiful to behold. One could see her really making this role her own, growing with it as time goes on. I had never seen a blond Octavian before and thought for sure that von Otter’s hair would be darkened, but perhaps she’s begun a new trend for this opera.

Soprano Kathleen Battle’s superstar status is a testament to the opera public’s propensity to be wowed by a pretty voice combined with a pretty face. She has a beautiful voice, to be sure, but as an artist she usually disappoints with her shallowness of conception and lack of musical insight. Combine this with her light, airy sound, which is totally unsuited to Strauss’s vocal writing, and you wonder what she’s doing in this production. Well, hers is the name that everybody wants to see, and she hasn’t been heard at Lyric since 1980 (although she has been here virtually every summer since at Ravinia); here was a natural enough slot. When she was audible, her sound was beautiful, and she certainly makes an attractive Sophie, but doubtless Ravinia will present something better suited to her voice in the future.

Of course, the real star of this production is Kurt Moll’s magnificent flexible bass. Baron Ochs, the Marschallin’s country cousin, is the one who sets the conflict and comedy in motion, asking the Marschallin to suggest an appropriate messenger to carry his proposal of marriage to young Sophie, the daughter of a newly wealthy merchant. (Octavian is appointed rose bearer, and he and Sophie fall instantly in love.) Ochs wants the wealth and young girl that come with the deal; Sophie’s father, Herr von Faninal (well sung by baritone Julian Patrick), seeks improvement in his family’s social status. Ochs is often portrayed as a monstrous caricature, played for laughs over believability. A consummate artist knows better, playing him as an obnoxious but well-intentioned gentleman of rank. Actually Ochs and the Marschallin have much in common in terms of their sexual appetites and view of life, but the Marschallin is subtle and diplomatic; Ochs is oblivious and boorish.

Moll’s projection, smooth sound, and remarkable vocal dexterity, combined with his first-class acting ability, make this a rare Ochs, one of great distinction. Moll plays Ochs’s sexual friskiness to the hilt, and, for a refreshing change, it is Ochs’s selfishness and opportunism that lead to his downfall, not his age (which is only slightly past the Marschallin’s) or looks.

In fact, the Marschallin and Ochs interact in an almost playful way in this production, and it leaves open a very interesting possibility unthinkable in other stagings: will Ochs be come the Marschallin’s next lover? In a sense he has more to learn from her than Octavian. The Marschallin, after all, is just as unrealistic in taking Octavian as her lover as the Baron is in wanting to marry Sophie.

Moll’s Ochs dominates the proceedings and he also connects particularly well with Octavian; their flirting scenes, where Octavian is in drag as the fictitious chambermaid Mariandel (in disguise so as to leave the Marschallin’s bedroom undetected), are hilarious precisely because they are not overdone.

The weakest link in this Der Rosenkavalier is Czech conductor Jiri Kout, making his Lyric debut. He knows the score well and manages to keep the huge orchestra more or less together (no small feat by the way), but he often lets the score sag under its own weight. There are some very slow moving sections, when things are supposed to pick up in act two for instance. His tempi were often unconvincing and erratic. His waltzes–particularly the Baron’s–usually dragged, yet he took the final contemplative love duet at such a fast clip that he left Sophie and Octavian breathless. He did have some nice moments: the famous soprano trio of act three was a particularly moving moment and he managed to keep all three singers well balanced, despite their enormous differences in power and vocal color. But Kout’s biggest problem was that he was never able to evoke inspired playing from the Lyric Opera Orchestra, which sounded more lifeless and perfunctory than it’s sounded in recent productions. Of course, Germanic repertoire has never been this orchestra’s strength, but under the right leadership it has usually done a credible job. Particularly lacking was the sensuous Straussian “sheen” that should surround the strings, and the almost devil-may-care fantasy atmosphere that should pervade the music. Many rich nuances were simply lost in the shuffle (the shimmering rose motif, for instance, was always overstated); a pity, for such nuances really make all the difference in letting the piece work its special charm. Under the right conductor, Der Rosenkavalier seems like a short piece; despite its best moments, this production seems like a long evening.

There are some other idiosyncrasies; much of the supporting singing is rather mediocre, a no-no for this opera, in which even the smallest cameos are musically meaty. Some of the sets are pretty tacky, particularly act two’s wrinkled green backdrops with painted palm trees–another omission (the sets are supposed to be extravagant to the hilt, in pure 18th-century aristocratic style). This production includes the many extras needed, but the staging is such that they usually appear to be without purpose. The lighting was unimaginative, with a bright overemphasis on stage left that created an annoying glare off the sets and large obtrusive shadows across them. The papier-mache apparitions of act three looked like fugitives from Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood. The costumes were elegant, but not extravagant.

This is arguably the most expensive opera to produce, and it’s being done as a special way of celebrating Lyric’s 35th anniversary, which means that the stops have been pulled out about as far as they are likely to go at Lyric. It’s worth seeing, but before going you might want to check out the 1962 film version (which is available on videocassette) of a Schwarzkopf/Christa Ludwig performance done with all of the trimmings, and conducted as it should have been by the late Herbert von Karajan.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.