It is unlikely that any other BSO concert this year will top Thursday night’s performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier.
By Susan Miron
Under Music Director Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony Orchestra season is only performing the second concert in its new season. But it is unlikely that any other this year will top Thursday night’s performance at Symphony Hall of Richard Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier. (Also tonight at 8 p.m.) Clocking in at over four hours, the evening features a trio of singers who are well-known here, plus a cast of three dozen truly excellent singers, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and members of Voices Boston. The Boston Symphony Orchestra played as well as I’ve heard it in my forty-one years in Boston. Conductor Nelsons led with great sensitivity and a thorough knowledge of the score. (This is the third Strauss opera Nelsons has conducted with the BSO in the past several years.) There were nine rehearsals — instead of the usual four — and it showed. The instrumental playing was impeccable. The horns, flutes, harps, and oboe (the ever-astonishing John Ferrillo) were exceptional.
A huge draw for these sold-out concerts is the extraordinary joint appearance of the renowned soprano Renée Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, reprising their most famous roles. They have not performed this opera together since 2010, when Graham retired the role from her repertoire. Fleming first took on the role of the beautiful, aging Marschallin at the Metropolitan Opera in early 2000, to wide acclaim. The Octavian during that run was Susan Graham, who has pretty much owned the part since her first Met performances in 1995. The two divas’ long friendship began when they won the Met audition the same year. In interviews, they recall both showing up for their try-outs in hideous cobalt blue gowns and enormous hair. Both describe themselves as “blonde, friendly Americans.” They often finish each others’ sentences and are, oddly, often mistaken for each other, particularly in Europe. Their outgoing, effusive personalties have made them two of the most successful hostesses for The Met Live in HD series. Many in the audience doubtless recalled their joint recital for the Celebrity Series of Boston three years ago (it was by far the most enjoyable recital I attended that year).
In interviews, both stated their wish to retire from performing in Rosenkavalier at about the same time. “It’s an opera about saying goodbye,” Graham recalled. “2010 was my farewell to my favorite character. We couldn’t look at each other. I was weeping at her feet. I knew this was the last one.” This year is Renée Fleming’s last turn at the Met as the Marschallin as well. “I worked my way up from your hemlines to your bed,” Graham recalls, alluding to the opening of Rosenkavalier which finds the two of them in post-coital bliss on the Marschallin’s onstage sofa. Graham admits that the seventeen year-old Octavian is her favorite role, “the top of the heap of the mezzo roles,” and considers her entrance in Act Two, carrying the silver rose, as the most beautiful music in any opera (some may think the trio of women singing in the last act is even more gorgeous).
Written in 1910, Der Rosenkavalier: Comedy for music in three acts, Opus 59 was a collaboration between the German composer Richard Strauss and the poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is reminiscent of Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s collaboration La Nozze di Figaro, which is also a tale about a rich and aging aristocrat who falls for a younger woman, who then falls for a younger man.
Its principal characters are, unusually, three women: the Marschallin, Octavian (a “trousers-role”), and Sophie (soprano Erin Morley). Other major characters include Baron Ochs, a bass (sung by Franz Hawlata), and Fininal, Sophie’s father, (baritone Alan Opie). Strauss insisted that this opera was best understood “through the point of view of the Marschallin,” who appears only in Act I and then near the end of Act III. Her husband, the Field Marshall, is off hunting in the Croatian forest for the duration of the opera. Rambunctious horns open Act I — the Marschallin is in bed with her young, pony-tailed lover Octavian — and soon they are interrupted by Baron Ochs, who is set to to marry a much younger Sophie. Octavian scrambles for cover and re-emerges as a maid in a brilliant show of comic buffoonery and dress (with hilarious round red glasses). The baron immediately tries to woo the servant. He is shameless, lecherous, and overbearingly obnoxious, reminding many people I overheard at intermission of a certain presidential candidate.
The Marschallin is asked to appoint a Rosenkavalier, who will give a silver rose to Och’s intended. She appoints Octavian, sensing somehow that this might doom their affair. With regret, the Marschallin sings of the all-to-rapid passage of time: “Why must God let me see this so terribly clearly? Deep in my heart, I feel we cannot hold on to anything… Everything we grasp at dissolves, fades away, like mist or dreams.” She sings that, sooner or later, Octavian will leave her for someone younger and prettier. Time is inexorable: “Suddenly you’re aware of nothing else. It flows between us like an hourglass.” She admits that sometimes, in her panic, she stops the clocks in the middle of the night (clever use of harp harmonics here). Fleming sang exquisitely, with poignant melancholy.
Graham has often said that she thinks the appearance of the nobleman Octavian with the silver rose at the beginning of Act II constitutes the highlight of a mezzo’s repertoire. The beautiful silvery blouse she wore on Thursday appears to be the same one she wore for productions at the Met. Graham looked luminous — she was married a week ago — sporting the lightest of blonde tresses I’ve yet to see on her. The backstory about this particular silver rose is touching. It had been used in the Metropolitan Opera production starring Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearne that premiered in January 1969. It last was seen at the Met in 2013, trotted out in performances celebrating the 100th anniversary of the work’s U.S. premiere at the Met in December, 1913. The silver rose was kindly loaned to the BSO by the Met’s former Assistant General Manager, Sarah Billinghurst Solomon, to whom it was presented as a gift upon her retirement in 2014. Graham personally brought it to Boston.
Sophie falls madly in love with Octavian, the bearer of the rose. As the Marschallin predicted, the two are fated to be together. Ochs discusses the wedding contract with her father, Fininal. Sophie is appalled by Och’s gruffness and lack of manners, and asks Octavian for help. He, in his rose-bearing finery, picks up his sword (one of the conductor’s batons) and nicks Baron Ochs on the upper arm. Graham is given another chance to amuse us mightily in her maid’s attire and persona. The Baron thinks the face is familiar, but he is duped again and again. He is given a letter, from the fictitious Mariandel the maid, that sets up an assignation for the following day. The proposed tryst is a ruse that generates a lively and chaotic third act whose tensions are resolved only in the opera’s final moments. The Baron accepts that he’s been had and peaceably leaves the stage, knowing that the marriage with Sophie is impossible.
In this concert staging the trio of Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschellin, who walks off-stage, leaving her young love behind with his new love, was utterly affecting and mesmerizing. So many of the small parts are sung terrifically: among the standouts, Steven Costello, in the role of the Italian tenor who appears briefly but impressively in Act One; the Boston-based baritone David Kravitz in the role of a notary, again carrying off comedy with uncanny panache, and soprano Imgard Vilsmeier as Marianne.
May Nelsons continue to carry on the venerable BSO tradition of staged operas — though this memorable cast will be very hard to beat.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.
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