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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Opera Review: Absolute Beginners

Fresh blood revives Der Rosenkavalier at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Silver polish: Sophie (Erin Morley, left) receives the silver rose from Octavian
(Alice Coote) in Act II of Der Rosenkavalier. Photo by Cory Weaver © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
A revival of Der Rosenkavalier (particularly in the Metropolitan Opera's sturdy, attractive, and 44-year-old production) is always welcome. The opera premiered at the Metropolitan Opera a century ago, enchanting listeners with its mix of comedy and sentiment, spurred on by irresistible waltzes that make it Richard Strauss' most popular stage work. This is one of the house's oldest shows, a company classic enjoying its last revival before retirement. (Apparently, a new production is projected to open the 2016 season.)

This year's edition (seen Monday night) featured new faces in old Vienna. The Viennese soprano Martina Serafin takes over the role of the Marschallin, the married princess whose (early) midlife crisis prompts her to hand her young lover Octavian (Alice Coote, in trousers) off to the younger and more eligible Sophie von Faninal (Erin Morley.) Ms. Coote and Ms. Morley were recent additions to the ensemble, replacing the indisposed Elina Garança and Mojca Erdmann, respectively.

In addition to a potent lyric instrument, Ms. Serafin possesses considerable height and regal bearing. All these factors combined to make her a vocally strong,  and at times imposing Marschallin. The soprano brought a youthful freshness to this familiar part, showing signs of greatness in this role that is usually (and mistakenly) taken by older singers. (Hoffmansthal specified that the character is only 32.) She fitted smoothly to the Straussian vocal arc, adding portent to each word of her Act I monologue, especially chilling as she described stopping all the clocks to halt the advancement of time.

Alice Coote played Octavian in a storm of teen angst. The first act moved from earthy passion to heartbreak in the duets with Ms. Serafin, with a comic intermezzo as Octavian (disguised as a lady's-maid) struggled to elude the grasp of Baron Ochs (Peter Rose). In Act II, the affair with the Marschallin was quickly forgotten at the first sight of Sophie. This was convincingly played, as the orchestra's silvery accompaniment (and Strauss' telling parody of the Tristan chord had the young pair fall in love at first sight.

It is hard to believe that Erin Morley only stepped into this role last week. She played Sophie with a keen edge, a young innocent who would tolerate no abuse from either Baron Ochs or the bed-hopping Octavian. She played the Act III part perfectly, with anger, caution and finally passion as she realized that her new bond with Octavian could possibly become permanent. The three singers melted together in the final trio, riding the wave of orchestration and climaxing in one of Strauss' most satisfying chord changes. The little duet for Sophie and Octavian ended the opera on a sweet, dreamy note, tenderly sung by Ms. Morley and Ms. Coote.

Watching Baron Ochs strut and harrumph across the stage, it is important to remember that Strauss and Hofmannsthal originally planned to call this opera Ochs auf Lerchenau. Peter Rose brought swagger and a big rolling bass to the part, easily commanding the German parlando and making the character's nature one of good-humored obstinacy. (A little more volume at times would have made this perfect.) Ochs is a boor and a lecher, but he is also the straw that stirs the comic brew. Mr. Rose even made one feel for the old fellow in the last act--until, as the audience waited impatiently the final trio, the Baron just would not leave.

The Met surrounded its four principals with a cast of generally high quality. Mezzo Jane Henschel was a searing Annina, partners in crime with temor Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the two Italian Conspirators. Jennifer Check was a welcome presence as Marianne, narrating Octavian's arrival with the Silver Rose with ringing tone from one of the little balconies built into the set. Eric Cutler made the most of his brief passage as the Italian Singer--a role that has become a kind of "audition spot" for young talent on the rise. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, was an obdurate Faninal content to play the straight man in the middle of all the comic madness.

If anything let down the side in this revival, it was the languid, occasionally limp conducting of Edward Gardiner. Mr. Gardiner sounded like he simply did not know what to do in the opening scene between Octavian and the Marschallin, letting the long lines simply hover around the voice and providing little dramatic dimension. The orchestra sounded curiously restrained in the most orgasmic moments, with the Presentation of the Rose and the "Mit Mir" waltz coming off flat. The worst passage was the note-spinning prelude to Act III. Played with the curtain down, this long, overture seemed unnecessary without any accompanying onstage action--the evening's dullest segment.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.