Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Rosenkavalier in HD

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Today, like every Saturday during broadcast season, was opera Saturday; add the fact that it was an HD simulcast and I was exited, add to that the fact that I had never seen Rosenkavalier from start to finish and I could not contain myself. As a strong bel canto lover, XXth century opera and music does not come easy to me and Strauss (and for that matter, Wagner) have been composers that have taken some time for me to warm up to them. As a matter of fact, about a year and a half ago, I attemped to watch the opera on a fantastic DVD from the Salzburg production with Anna Tomowa-Sintow (a soprano I adore) and I made it all the way to about half of Act 2 before I lost interest. I knew I was not ready and decided to put it away and l come back to the opera when I felt like I was mature enough in my tastes. This time I knew I was ready.

Let’s start with the actual production. The Merril production with sets by Robert O’Hearn debuted on Jan 23, 1969 and has been a staple of the Met ever since. O’Hearn’s sumptuous sets and costumes have hosted a myriad of Octavians, Marschallins, Ochs, and Sophies. The HD cameras were not consistently flattering to the sets,unfortunately. Yes, the design is just marvelous and they still retain some of their beauty, but they are starting to show the wear and tear of 40 years of storage, travel to and from the house, settings and strikes (not the labor kind). I thank the Met for preserving the sets once again on video after 20 years, but the production as it stands really can not take another coat of paint. I think it is time to either replace the production or do a rebuild from scratch. Unlike other opera fanatics, I see the use and beauty of traditional productions and understand if the Met were to keep this beautiful work of art, but can you imagine another 10-15 years of wear and tear on this production and it being showed again in a medium that would be even more detailed (and unforgiving) than HD?

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I make no secret of the fact that Renee Fleming has been a continued source of frustration and disappointment for me over the last 5-8 years.  Her ghastly bel canto assumptions have ruined several of my nights and the absence of Mozart in her schedule is specially frustrating given how much his music suits her voice. That being said I must admit that I am about to fall over offering the same tired superlatives that her most adoring fans use when referring to her.  This woman had no issues passing for someone nearly 20 years her junior. Her singing was solid, ravishing even, her musicality impeccable and her tendency to pull musical phrases like they are toffee all but gone. In other words, she was (for this picky reviewer at least) the embodiment of perfection in this role. Hardly have I ever left a theater (or in this case a movie theater) feeling that a performance I witnessed could not be bettered in one way or another. Yes, I could quibble about this or that gesture, or a way of handling a musical phrase, but in the end I was left convinced that Renee Fleming is capable of inhabiting the world of the Marschallin.  I understand how people who grew up with Schwartzkopf’s, Rysanek’s and the many wonderful Marschallins  that have graced this opera would complain about Fleming’s interpretation.  Having never experience any of the mythic Marschallins, I was able to come to Renee Fleming’s interpretation of the role with an open mind. I did not mind her impetuousness in the role, or her movements, or her perceived lack of regal bearing in the role. Seeing it for the first time, I can see a Marschallin who is younger and probably not all that far removed from the country, wide-eyed girl that was fooled into this life of seclusion.  This interpretation might not work for some people, but it worked for me; I found it possible and believable.

Susan Graham as Octavian was less successful in making this reviewer suspend belief but I do not see her as her fault. HD is not kind to anyone who does not have perfect physique (or age) du role. I am sure given some space, her interpretation worked just wonderfully. I should have not expected to suspend belief when we have a lady in her 40s portraying a 17 year old boy with an HD camera basically mounted of her back.  With that in mind, her acting was wonderful, even when scrutinized at levels that would make some of us scream sexual harassment.  Her singing showed some effort in the upper reaches, but how could you be surprised?, Octavian is basically a soprano role. That notwithstanding, she conquered the role once again and showed why she is one of the most celebrated Octavians of her generations. We should feel lucky that her Octavian has been preserved along those of Anne Sofie von Otter, Tatiana Troyanos and Brigitte Fassbender. Overall, I believe that Susan Graham was a lot more effective in the house than she was for the camera and ultimtely that is exactly where it counts. Brava.

It took me a moment to warm up to Christine Schäfer’s Sophie. Some people will call her miscast in the role and I will not dispute the experts. The presentation of the rose found me wishing the Met had given us Lisette Oropesa in the role instead. Schäfer at first sounded a little too mature and knowing for the role; I missed the silvery top that has come to epitomize this role and the piece.  Had Schäfer’s recent adventures in heavier repertoire (Violetta, Donna Anna, Konstanze) rendered her too mature for this fresh-out-or-the-convent little girl? As the opera progressed I was able to believe her as a 15 year old girl and appreciated what she brought to the role. Through out the opera her character grew in standing and her singing demonstrated the qualities of a once fabulous Sophie who can still bring it home; and that is nothing to scoff about. Her singing of the trio was beautiful and the final duet with Graham was ravishing. Would I have preferred to see Oropesa or Mia Persson? Sure! But I no longer lament the fact that we got Christine Schäfer. At least Mia’s Sophie is preserved on a performance from Salzburg in 2004 and it is not too late for Oropesa to be cast in a production somewhere and have her Sophie preserved on video as well.

Acting honors for the performance, the women I hope will agree, have to go to Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs. Jesus, Mary and Joseph what a piece of acting this man did! As the chaos around him got bigger and his behavior nastier I just wanted to jump in the screen and put one of the swords through him myself. Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Ochs was everything any production could wish for; he was an absolute chauvinist pig! His behavior was so reprehensible I was feeling embarrassed for him and was delighted when he was shamed into submission and retreat. I know it is a source of joy for any performer to render an audience member incapable of differentiating between reality and fantasy. Kristinn Sigmundsson did exactly that today and he should revel in that knowledge. Vocally the role of Baron Ochs is a bear. It is composed in a weird place: too high for a true bass, but with notes that baritones and Bass-baritones could find too low (it reaches down to a low C in act 1 and low Eb E in act 2). The problem with a role like this is that short of a true vocal freak, you have to decide whether to cast a singer that can rock the low notes that end 2 separate acts but would struggle with the upper notes or cast a singer who can manage the high tessitura and compromise a little on the low notes. Kristinn Sigmundsson is on the latter category, and I found the compromise just fine. I would rather hear a singer struggle with a low note than with high ones. Mr. Sigmundsson had no issues with the higher passages and while his low notes were not booming in a way that we’ve come to expect from, say, a Sparafucile, he did not embarrassed himself either.  When the dust settled, if there was one performer standing victorious on the stage today, that was Mr. Sigmundsson, hands down.

As his father in law, the recently ennobled Faninal, we had the pleasure of having Thomas Allen. This former count Almaviva and Don Giovanni is still going strong in the sunset years of his career. Not only was his singing a marvel of beauty, his characterization as the father desperately to fit in with his recent “equals” was all in itself at the same level of Sigmundsson’s. If Sigmundsson’s Ochs was the noble who is too broke, or cheap to admit it, Allen was the commoner all to rich to let that go to waste and they would have made a perfect pair.  I kept thinking that if this was Broadway, they should have encored the White Christmas number Sisters and walked arm in arm at the end.

I think one of the glories of what I hope will be an eventual DVD release of this performance is the many wonderful singers cast in the smaller parts. There was such a plethora of them, it will be impossible to name them all, yet is seems offensive that I do not try, they all seemed like luxury casting to me. There were so many wonderful artists on stage that it was hard to keep up, and the enjoyment their solid performances brought was a lot indeed. I think place of honor must go to Wendy White as Annina, Rodell Rosel as Valzacchi and Erica Strauss as Marianne, they were perfection in their roles. Not only was the singing solid as a rock, they inhabited their roles with energy and conviction. The Met is very lucky to have artists of such caliber to cast in these roles.  The same must be said about the contributions made by Bernard Fitch  and Ronald Naldi as the Major-domos, James Courtney as the Notary, Belinda Oswald, Lee Hamilton and Patricia Steiner as the 3 Orphans and Jeremy Galyon as Police Commissioner, their parts might’ve been small, but their presence and artistry loomed large on that stage. Bravi to all.

I wish I could be just as enthusiastic about Eric Cutler’s Italian singer. He got through the piece unscathed, no mean feat given how easily you can crack on it (Go ahead, click the link and watch what happens between minute markers 4:25-4:30) there was something in his singing that left me cold. I can appreciate the fact that he walked in a sort of vocal tight rope and came out the other side with no bruises, but at the same time I expected more bloom and less metal in this aria. The other thing that bothered me about his performance was his characterization.  In this role it is too easy to turn into the typical tenor and give the international sign for va fan culo on the way out. Easy as we might find it, I think it needs to be avoided given the fact that exhibiting such behavior would have found you in deep do-do faster than you can close your score. Add to that the fact that if this had been 100% representative of the historical period (the madrigal singer in act 2 of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut for example) , it would have been a castrato singing the piece and a young castrato would have not behaved in such reprehensible manner in front of the same nobility whose support he sought. Congratulations to Mr. Cutler on getting through the piece, I think he is owed at least that.

Conductor Edo de Waart brought his considerable experience in this opera (He conducts the recording with Evelyn Lear and Frederica von Stade). The orchestra played magnificently and the chorus (surprise, surprise…) could not have sung better. Overall, I don’t think this production could have been in better hands.

If you missed it, check your local movie theater for an encore and try to get to it; I have no doubts you’ll enjoy the performance as much as I did.


January 10, 2010 - Posted by | Opera Review | , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks, especially for the mention of Sir Tom– I pray he is still with us for many years to come.

    Comment by Theresa | January 11, 2010 | Reply

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