Many a moon has passed since Bostonians were last offered the rich feast that is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Last night that famine was assuaged in Symphony Hall when Andris Nelsons led the BSO and many starry soloists in an impressively played and sung semi-staged concert performance of this unique operatic confection. While it was not a “lifetime achievement” for the orchestra and Nelsons, this reviewer heard and saw enough of the uncommonly settled first performance to declare Saturday’s second performance a must-attend event for readers lucky enough to find any remaining tickets.
In one of their last appearances together in these roles, the wonderful Susan Graham as Octavian and Renée Fleming as the Marschallin headlined a cast ran that ran deep and wide. Veteran Franz Hawlata inhabited the challenging role of Baron Ochs, the personification of crass oafishness and uncontrolled lechery. Erin Morley made a shining Sophie, effortlessly soaring above the staff with silvery timbre. More about these in a moment.
The brilliantly focused soprano Irmgard Vilsmaier as Marianne, and tenor Stephen Costello as the elegant Italian Singer, whose dulcet and fervent tone was perfectly attuned to his character stood out in the large supporting cast. Local singers David Kravitz as the Notary and Theo Lobo as the Second Orphan shined in auxiliary roles. As always, Kravitz brought active and believable acting and characterization with his gifted baritone voice, and Lobo’s admirable sable-smooth alto flowed richly and freely.
BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons, whose “cred” in the Richard Strauss opera repertory had been affirmed by his powerful BSO concert performances of Elektra in 2015, and Salome in 2014, took full charge of the proceedings. His was a young man’s interpretation: occasionally rushed, yet often compelling, probing, and wonderfully flexible with well-considered rubati. That the BSO played with virtuoso flair and great sensitivity goes almost without saying, yet it MUST be said—what luxury to hear this brilliant score so completely absorbed and re-offered with such refinement and power by this great orchestra, playing from the stage and not buried in an opera house pit! The danger, of course, is that such opulent playing could—and did—occasionally swamp the singers. But such moments were fleeting, and will probably be more carefully controlled in Saturday’s performance. And, one may hope that the several slip-ups with the otherwise well-translated supertitles will be fixed by curtain time.
It’s probably not fair to play favorites in opera reviews, but kudos surely accrue to the redoubtable Susan Graham, whose acting and singing mastery of Octavian’s character(s) was evident throughout the evening. Her role requires her—very much a woman—to play a man who later dresses as a woman, only to return as a man yet again. The gender-bending is remarkable, and Strauss was titillated by its many opportunities for humor and drama, all of which Graham achieved in both slapstick and elegance as her character required. On top of this wonderful acting, she brought a knowing command of her vocal challenges, rising to every occasion with aplomb and fully engaged singing, bringing opulence and, when required, wonderful low humor.
Equally moving, but in a completely different way, was the wonderful characterization that Renée Fleming brought to the noble and wistful role of the Marschallin. As a noblewoman approaching the autumn of her life, she, in the elegant words of Helen M. Greenwald’s program note “…feels the cold wind of mortality and consoles herself through an affair with Octavian.” Yet with this infidelity she is the moral compass of the story. Strauss’s librettist Hofmannstahl wrote to the composer, as recalled by Greenwald, “…the entirety of Der Rosenkavalier should be understood from the ‘the point of view of the Marschallin,’ cautioning that ‘the musical and conceptual unity of the whole opera would suffer if the personality of the Marschallin were to be deprived of her full stature.’”
A beautiful and hugely talented singer possessed of a multitude of nuance and subtlety, Fleming would seem ideal for this role, and she was. Whether basking in the afterglow of lovemaking in the opening scene or reluctantly realizing in the opera’s final moments that her lover would indeed leave her for a younger woman, Fleming brought grace and elegance to her singing and acting that teased tears from listeners in the audience around me. Even when not singing, her knowing and wise stage presence, especially in evidence in Act III as she quietly accepted the inevitable joining of Sophie and Octavian, struck as particularly poignant.
I mentioned earlier that bass Franz Hawlata “inhabited” the role of Baron Ochs. That this role constitutes both a dramatic and vocal challenge to anyone who takes it on is an understatement. It requires vocal gymnastics that scale a huge range of high and low tessiturae, and makes equally difficult work of the singing, which requires a singer of breadth and range normally asked to be elegant and powerful to change his spots to those of a particularly repugnant oaf with poor manners and no sense of propriety. That Hawlata admirably succeeded in this could be heard in the audience’s roar of approval when he came to the stage for his curtain call. He seemed genuinely surprised and pleased.
The ravishing voice of soprano Erin Morley graced the role of Sophie, whose high and ethereal top notes from the very outset achieved what we all want to hear. She is also a fine actor, throwing herself into her many confrontations with the overly amorous Ochs with a passion befitting a young woman resisting the loutish behavior of her lecherous arranged-marriage suitor.
The richly hued sound of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus had been nicely prepared by Guest Chorus Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. It was good to hear their authentic German pronunciation and to see their active involvement in the goings-on. The young members of Voices Boston, under the direction of Steven Lipsitt, were charming, intrusive, and adept as required by the composer. It was quite evident that all onstage were enjoying the performance. Many smiles from the BSO players were observed as they were clearly engaged by the many amusing and intricate operatic machinations.
So by all means, visit Symphony Hall to hear and see this very worthy production.
John W. Ehrlich is music director of Spectrum Singers, which he founded 37 years ago. He has been a singer and conductor in the Boston area for more than 45 years.