Every now and then the stars align for something extraordinary. Yesterday’s final high-definition broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera brought us something unique, with the help of Robert Carsen’s production of Der Rosenkavalier.
Carsen has found a niche for himself in a middle ground that doesn’t lose sight of the original text, mollifying the hard-core old guard who are upset when a beloved old production is retired. Such was the case with Carsen’s Falstaff, and such is again the case with Rosenkavalier (thinking of the productions replaced at the Metropolitan Opera). Yes he updates productions, but he is fastidious in his attention to textual detail. As director’s theatre goes, you could call it Regie lite, a very gentle pathway to the new that works through the text.
For Richard Strauss’s fin de siècle comedy this meant updating the story to the time of its premiere (1911), a trope we’ve seen a great deal of late, thinking for example of the Glyndebourne Meistersinger or assorted Parsifal productions that seem to be set inside Wagner’s head. Carsen makes the subtexts of the opera manifest in his updating. Baron von Faninal is indeed an armaments manufacturer, although the 2nd Act opens with more of this than usual. Nobody in 1911 expected the war that began so soon thereafter, adding to the poignancy of the moment, as though Carsen has this story hanging off the edge of a cliff.
Rosenkavalier is especially an opera about time and aging. Usually we’re watching the 30-something Marschallin graciously letting go of her young teenaged lover Octavian. And because this is opera, we’re watching someone older in each role. There is a curious sort of magic at work in the use of a trouser role to signify the youthful male, which mysteriously shuts down or confounds our usual disbelief. We get to a kind of perfect ideal place in our minds, watching Octavian with the Marschallin, that surely couldn’t happen if we were watching an actual teenage boy with an actual woman in her 30s.
What made this season finale so special were a pair of farewells, from Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča in the roles of these two. And so when we saw Fleming looking about at the latter part of the first act, she might have been taking in her own fate as an older singer as much as she was heard in character to muse about the passage of time. And again, even more poignantly at the end of the opera when she re-appears as though to ensure the succession, passing the amatory torch to a younger lover, she could also be signalling her surrender of the role itself. Her very gentle “ja ja” with which she steps aside was fraught with additional meanings in a theatre full of seniors (it felt weird at 60-plus years old, to be wondering if I was the youngest person present). Garanča seems fully capable of playing this part a whole lot more, given her wonderfully male body language, but she too has announced that this is her last time in the part.
Yes there were lots of other wonderful performances, especially the Ochs of Günther Groissböck, the Sophie of Erin Morley, the Metropolitan Opera orchestra sounding especially fine under conductor Sebastian Weigle. One of the great joys of the production was watching the dense stage action captured by the high-definition cameras.
I can’t help wishing that Alexander Neef might again import a Robert Carsen production to the Canadian Opera Company stage. He has given us several delightful tastes of Carsen already, via Orfeo ed Euridice, Iphigenie en Tauride, Dialogues des Carmelites and Falstaff. Perhaps Rosenkavalier can be the next one. It would make a great vehicle for Adrianne Pieczonka, who has sung this production abroad, and for the COC orchestra led by Johannes Debus.
One can dream.