Der Rosenkavalier: ‘Something Mozartian’?

Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss; drawing by David Levine

“I was tied down by the metre [of the final duet] which you prescribed for me, but in the end…I felt something Mozartian….”

—Hofmannsthal to Strauss,
June 6, 1910

The Metropolitan Opera’s current productions of Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos seem to reflect a new endeavor and spirit. The casts are superior, the sets and costumes better than the standard of recent years, and the stagings as good as those of any opera in this season’s repertory. Ariadne received the better performance of the two, both because its success is less dependent on the conductor, and because Tatiana Troyanos’s voice is more suited to the role of the Composer than to that of Octavian. (It must be said that having the same person in the travesti parts of two operas of the same period and place smacks of a television serial.) Montserrat Caballé’s Ariadne could hardly be improved upon and was perfectly complemented by Alberto Remedios’s Bacchus. Ruth Welting as Zerbinetta may have been at a disadvantage, however, in that her stage movements appeared to be almost as taxing as her vocal ones. Of the minor characters, the commedia dell’ arte quartet, the trio of nymphs, and the Hofmeister were irreproachable. But the dramatis personae of the Prologue inevitably obtrude in the opera, a stock complaint about all performances of the piece. On the question of the intermingling of styles in the two parts, the composer in—not of—the opera seems to have been right.

The Metropolitan’s Rosenkavalier was also well staged and furnished, though the appointments for the levée scene ranged from the too rich—Pavarotti as the Tenor looked like the best dressed and fed of noblemen—to the too poor—the animal seller’s merchandise consisted of a single spaniel, a reincarnated “Flush.” The weakness of the staging was due to the disparity in the histrionic performances. Walter Berry’s masterful realization of the difficult part of Baron Ochs mercilessly exposed the shortcomings of the Octavian, the Sophie, and the Marschallin, with their three or four stereotyped poses. Berry made Ochs believable by never overplaying his egregiousness, and even managed to win a measure of sympathy for him during the revelation scene, when, fitting the pieces together and discovering that the girl is a boy, the Baron finally sees what his refined cousin the Marschallin has been up to. But Berry’s acting skill was evident in every gesture, from frothblowing hand flourish to courtly bow, and this in addition to singing of an equally high caliber.

Of the three female leads, Teresa Zylis-Gara’s Marschallin was the most suitably cast and most pleasingly performed, Troyanos’s Octavian being somewhat too heavy for Judith Blegen’s Sophie, at least in their duets. The conductor, James Levine, must share the responsibility for allowing Miss Blegen to distend the music at “Wie himmlische, nicht irdische” and to ruin it a little later with a fermata on…

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