The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Met (in HD) - Rosenkavalier of despondent, migrained hausfrau, merely road show quality

I initially with great anticipation awaited seeing Rosenkavalier in hall or simulation thereof conducted again by Edo De Waart. If ever any straw that broke the camel’s back, it was Kurt Moses’s review (American Record Guide).

Growth of the Marschallin in the planning by Strauss and Hofmansthal of what was first to be farce or burlesque, Rosenkavalier in this process gradually took on numerous layers. This included so much what should be to prudent extent read between the lines. This work of a composer having entered middle age, addresses the ephemerality of time, of our lives, all its inherent mystery, while still being the great comic masterpiece it is. Bad performances of Rosenkavalier tend to altogether miss these layers, subtleties. Two now fit the category very well. Those are the Salzburg dvd (Bychkov), worst it being the Robert Carsen production, and this also ineptly re-staged revival of the venerable, decade-ago refurbished Nathaniel Merrill production. Broadcasts of the Merrill go back with me as far as 1973 (Dohnanyi) - often well conducted, staged - well sung too.

What definitively did not rank one of the worst Rosenkavalier’s I have ever run across was here in Houston in 1975, conducted by Edo De Waart, starring Evelyn Lear, Flicka Von Stade, Patricia Wise (Gockley), Michael Langdon, and Derek Hammond Stroud (Faninal) – James Atherton as Valzacchi - that Philips recorded in Holland. The recording made a year later stars four of the above. It is still available in succinct package on Decca (budget line). Sets, costumes were sumptuously beautiful. Von Stade was in best voice she has ever been and Langdon (not on the recording) was the subtle and very well acted Ochs. De Waart conducted toward getting as immaculate and engaged playing from the Houston Symphony more than realistically construed possible.

When the Wortham opened in 1987, it was the 1975 Rosenkavalier - not Porgy and Bess or Treemonisha (Joplin) that made Broadway – of which David Gockley mentioned being most proud, his fifteen years at Jones Hall. De Waart was thirty-three years old, and insisted upon the complete score, just as on Philips – all unabridged, no stage cuts. I knew beforehand I had to swallow there being the standard cuts last Saturday.

Renee Fleming was the Marschallin for both Met runs this season. I, wee hour Saturday, reminisced by putting on, in aging voice, Evelyn Lear. Her intelligence with text and musicality are now legend, but lack of entirely secure technique as well. Her Desdemona a year later here was slightly more conspicuously unsteady than her Marschallin on stage here.. Lear is so prudent, tasteful, musical, ever so vigilant for De Waart, for the Strauss, that to hide vocal lapses, she keeps voice both light, as supported as possible. She thus emphasizes the words for rich subtleties they convey. All then comes across with illusion of all being very beautifully connected, even if often not quite so.

The odd question jumped to mind - whether Renata Scotto ever sang the part, with as an aside the heavy emphasis on projection in how she coaches singers - one can pick up from handful already coached by her. One gets the very forward placement with on the surface the music and character, regardless the cost to good intonation, line, or vocal purity. Scotto tried Klytaemnestra in Baltimore not long ago. What could’ve it been like to hear her Marie Theres’?

Renee Fleming Saturday figuratively started to answer this question. This was less heavy-handed a Marschallin than she sang here in 1995, but here it was her role debut and conducted by Eschenbach, whose tempo for Intro and Pantomime (Act 3) and other decision making changed from night to night. She was paired with an especially opaquely produced, sounding Octavian; that only when free of interaction with her, was she able to free up to momentarily lighten her voice. Listen to Berlin New Year's Eve gala with Abbado (Sony), where she joins Von Stade and Battle for final trio (and duet) to hear how not long before she had picked up just about entirely the right idea in mind. One could pick up from the Met, even if vaguely this time, that Fleming had effectively again somewhere already lightened her approach to handling both music and text. So much left unrehearsed, the Met treating Edo De Waart on this occasion as their house boy, the green light was back on for lingering bad habits to be given full rein.

Kurt Moses spoke of ‘in the throes of first love affair’ schoolgirl - the way Fleming acted this, but while upbraiding Octavian in early scene, La Renee also sounded peevishly matronly hausfrau. As phlegmatic, reticent, only halfway attentive to nuance the Met orchestra sounded, under-rehearsed under leadership that may have halfway given up, Fleming’s voice turned unforgiving, inflexible as such, in being able to well maintain tonal center and shape to line. However, in ironic banter with Ochs especially, Fleming achieved a light touch and momentarily an easily achieved top.

Low notes however were often grunted and barked, especially during final scene of Act One. Acting between Fleming and Susan Graham sounded as though they perhaps have walked the boards together in this opera a few too many times already. It all more than began to sound all smug, all-knowing – almost to contradict Kurt Moses just fleetingly here - in wrong way from both, and as working with Met orchestra on autopilot. What pathos should come across did so self-consciously - lacking light hand toward anything for there to exist any Marschallin.

All this reminds in a way of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but Fleming taking it on so heavily now - poor man’s Schwarzkopf - the neuroticism of Betty's interpretation very studied, thought out, but still affected. Fleming’s is also near so affected, but also dampened, depressed, in perhaps good need for shot of Prozac, as tear-laden opening of the final trio sounded. She did make something of the line in Act 3 about having something against men; her barked reproaches however to the Baron lacked authority. So did the heavily gulped, almost choked ‘Ja, ja’ at the very end, It is now, we all know, often crudely done yet a different way (i.e. Stemme, Pieczonka on dvd).

Susan Graham was indeed the Octavian, certainly energetically enough coltish, but clearly middle-aged here, going phoned in through all the usual expected antics as Mariandel. One could hear a valiant effort put forth to sustain staying on pitch during early phases of Act One; later, when out to pour it on, the pitch sagged badly. There were no special insights to offer here, lest generic response to everything be satisfactory. Graham equally compromised Octavian’s ardor for Sophie with painfully flat G-sharp making it into duet coda with Sophie midway through Act 2. Given the parlous condition in which Christine Schafer sounded Saturday, Graham overpowered her some with supporting line underneath - also earlier intermittently overpowering Fleming. She helped make the Act 3 Trio sound more opaque than it would have without her.

Can we still remember what press Gywneth Jones got for her recorded Octavian with Leonard Bernstein? There may be with Jones slightly less even line a few places, where Graham is more firm (if still not in tune). Jones’s intonation is still better than that of Graham. Dame Gywneth apparently had participated with Bernstein in Vienna earlier as Octavian in 1968, but waited until having entered a bad patch vocally to record it.. Today, all is forgiven. As much as we were as an aside reassured from backstage at the Met on ‘Meg and Ira’ that the cast and staff had listened to the old Philips recording instead, I would have guessed, if not knowing recording dates, that Jones might have instead. Gywneth Jones knew somewhat better than Graham that if one lands a pitch on sustained note a bit sour, to fix it as quickly as possible. If Jones could still sound today as she did in 1971, I’d immediately call her back if put in control of the Met. In context of what got said then, no sense can be made at all of what press Graham has received.

Christine Schafer, once a great Lulu, achieved perhaps the worst Sophie - including very choppy Presentation of the Rose with ugly break in legato between, first, C-sharp and higher A-sharp on “Wie himmlisches” – I have yet heard. Everything got produced so very wrong. Schafer’s capture of the rebellious teenager, even naughtiness, certainly came across incisively, but as two-dimensional. The almost constantly hooty tone and pitch so bad as to be hard anymore to discern eviscerated any semblance of charm.

Icelandic bass Kirstian Sigmundsson started out a witty Baron Ochs, but of rather dour frame of mind and of Nordic accent. It was a little confusing though, that as the Baron’s ox gets gradually more and more gored, that Sigmundsson appeared glib through the whole ordeal. He was said to be good at acting the part - probably the best of four leads on this outing. It sounded too, given that his low register could turn a little rough that he might have been down with a cold last Saturday. Same might have been true for Schafer. Sigmundsson genuinely conveyed more warmth, certainly more than last two mentioned female leads, as opposed to as any contrivance. Except for increasing incidence of a chuckle to end so many lines, whether it fit or not, Sigmundsson was in earnest about occupying his character for this.

Thomas Allen, forthright enough, sounded both worn vocally and too stern in intent as Faninal. Among four supporting tenors, Ronald Naldi (Faninal’s major domo) and Tony Stevenson (Innkeeper) were best. Rodell Rosel (Valzacchi) lost all distinction to his character by delivering all his lines in far too tight, needle-thin a sound, enough at times to set one’s teeth on edge. His countenance, vocal quality to have so much edge as to lose all slyness, effective cunning of what Valzacchi is about, came across impotent. Eric Cutler, glibly accompanied, made little of ‘Di rigori armato’ except for very bleated acuti and for rushing into second verse of it to be left hanging on high B’s or through them in as expeditiously short a time possible. All intended grace, charm went out the window. Erica Strauss was the pert, incisive Marianne, all of one piece as such, except for minor unsteadiness around break - and high C on which she wimped out – by releasing it early - at fever pitch peak of turmoil at the Faninals.

Wendy White was the insinuating then convincingly forthright Annina. Jeremy Galyon the serviceable Police Commissar, with his part somewhat severely cut. James Courtney was the highly caricatured asthmatic notary, when funnier, more subtle, to point out the generally common tics, mannerisms of being a notary - especially as one hired on by an eccentric. The three women as orphans during levee made complete wobble fest out of their trio; four lackeys, waiting on Marie Theres’ were clearly not together at all. Bernard Fitch effectively played major-domo to the Marschallin.

Edo De Waart clearly gave of much less than his best on this occasion. Certainly, the hints were all there of a stronger interpretation of Der Rosenkavalier, even such through his still wittily pointed intricacy of woodwinds parts. Most worthy of note were still the very familiar passages from the suite, such as certainly robustly led grand waltz for the exit of Ochs in Act Three, pristine sonorities during Presentation of the Rose, and much intricacy, especially in runs for flutes, other woodwinds during Introduction to Act Three. Interaction with, support for singers frequently sounded belabored or reticent, so disengaged or glib in response to lines being sung on stage, in attempt to interact with all that – most notoriously for extended finale to Act One.

Most damaging, horribly distracting, past mention of many ensemble problems uncharacteristic to extent occurring here for De Waart, was cut of a full two thirds imposed upon “Da lieg’ ich” (Act Two – Baron Ochs). No authorized cut to this passage exists; even if there was, it would have been much smaller. The idea got lifted from early 1980’s Karajan Salzburg - with which De Waart never had ties. A little more then of the burlesque scene with the police commissiar got cut than ever should be. Not much, but the entirety of it, with what touches of humor could occur, had a streamlined quality to it - very uninspiring. The congestion motif (strongly hinting at very same with Klytaemnestra) certainly made its mark, but Sigmundsson's coarse roaring of 'Leupold, wir geh'n' was way too broad - and ineffective. Ira Siff on the Meg and Ira show pointed out that both composer and librettist meant the humor in Rosenkavalier to be very broad, not just to win ear-to-ear smiles from the hall, but uproarious laughter through it all. It is much funnier, by the way, to do police commissar scene complete, instead of letting all rely upon broad formula alone.

The ‘yes, I agree with you’s’ during ‘Meg and Ira’ were so excessive it could have instead been Mister Rogers. Had I been caught unawares, I might have expected in silver cape and jacket either Daniel the Tiger or King Friday the 13th to bear rose to Sophie instead. Sophie and Ochs would then have to be married happily ever after, that is if Sophie wanted any better experience of married life than to a torso. With all the cuts demanded of De Waart, had the Meg and Ira show been any longer than the 37 minutes a piece the twice it came on, ten minutes each in overtime, then relevant it would have been to pick up broadcast reminiscences of Francois Clemmons and John Reardon, even as Singer and Faninal, respectively. And then there was what static Meg gave us about how we should - being addressed as bevy of sixth-graders - be affected by the mature experience, wisdom of the Marschallin. Such insight perhaps most of all indicated how sensitive Peter Gelb is about anything of his facing criticism.

Furthermore, Meg and Ira started parroting Peter Allen - betraying that he was ultimately of slightly less class than Milton Cross before him in his citing for special praise an obviously pension hungry and increasingly wobbly Met chorus. Meg and Ira now spoke so very patronizingly of the Met orchestra (while in unrehearsed state). It has sunk this low, should this all keep up. De Waart returned the favor, by openly struggling during interview as to whether ‘marvelous’ could have been the right word for them, to perhaps half-intended humorous effect.

Renee Fleming, while perhaps not yet an ideal Marschallin - few there have been - achieved near enough to definitive interpretative, much better in tune profile of Marie Theres’ a year ago at Baden-Baden (now on dvd). She also achieves numerous true pianissimo, flexibly supported by Thielemann. Equally could have been so with De Waart, if with orchestra less glib and loud. An air of cool mysticism to Wernicke’s production very skillfully envelops Fleming, toward convincing atmosphere, world in which the Marschallin should be seen. Such a world captures so well in full something usually latent about her near despair, loneliness - such as Fleming has spoken of her.

What is morbidly self-conscious about, for example, “Die Zeit im Grunde” in Fleming’s hands fit this time as part of such a complex world that here – so much more flexible vocally - it is hard to distinguish from the very psyche the Feldmarschallin fully inhabits. ‘Leicht will ich’s machen, so dull, plodding Saturday to have been very easily missed entirely, was still in Baden-Baden a bit too heavy to make complete sense. Very favorably, Baden-Baden allowed Fleming to get lost a good three-fourths the time into her character; Fleming appears on screen very content this way.

Very seldom have I heard work of someone, caliber of De Waart, be so misrepresented. If the Met really wanted results achieved here, why not have hired Colaneri, Claus Peter Flor, Summers, Carl St. Clair or Eschenbach instead? For stark contrast, check out the Philips (now Decca) recording of thirty-four years ago.

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At February 18, 2011 at 6:55 AM , Blogger Roberto said...

Renata Scotto did sing Marschallin in Spoleto and Catania in the late nineties.


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