Ed Note: Because of the importance of the BSO Rosenkavalier, the Intelligencer asked a second reviewer for coverage. Basil Considine’s timely submission from 35,000 feet only reached earth ten days later.
Saturday’s (Oct. 2) Der Rosenkavalier at Symphony Hall shone as one of the best operatic treatments of this young season, or maybe any season. Hearing world-class voices and a world-class orchestra in an acoustic that allowed the discrete musical lines of Strauss’s opera to be heard clearly left one wanting for nothing.
Renée Fleming had top billing for the concert and Susan Graham was much-talked about in the preconcert buzz, but the standout star of the evening was Franz Hawlata as the lecherous Baron Ochs. Fleming and Graham are known for their portrayals of the Marschallin and Octavian, but Hawalta has made Ochs his signature role, with more than two decades’ experience playing the character in opera houses around the world. In a 2006 interview, Hawlata noted that he was being booked as the character 5-6 years in advance; now, 10 years later, his Ochs has become the standard by which others’ are judged. He did not at all disappoint.
This is not to say that the rest of the cast was vocally lacking—far from it. Besides a stellar set of leads, the quality of the supporting cast almost made you wish that the intermissions were a little shorter and that Strauss wrote a little more of the pleading orphans, bands of vendors, etc. (Sadly, dreams must be tempered by the realities of bathroom lines.) We found Fleming’s and Graham’s famous musical chemistry very much in evidence; while Fleming has suggested that she will be appearing less on the stage, she is still in her vocal prime. As the muchly put-upon Sophie, Erin Morley brought a sparkling voice and a few doses of righteous indignation. Morley and Graham’s “Ist ein Traum / Spür’ nur dich” duet brought the hall to a hushed rapture before it burst again into fervent applause.
Some of the highlights from the rest of the cast include the orphan trio (Kelley Hollis, Thea Lobo, and Sara Beth Shelton), David Cushing as the Police Commissary (a bass to watch), and tenor Stephen Costello as the Italian Singer. Another highlight of the evening was the offstage orchestra in the lobby, one of several shrewd uses of the space in this semi-staged performance. With “park and bark” firmly out of style, one hopes that the BSO will explore other more creative concert stagings as opportunities present.
Costuming proved an oddity of the evening. As you might expect, Fleming appeared in Act III with a new gown; as Octavian, Graham had some costume changes as well. However, the insistence on tuxedos for the male cast and the lack of any sort of other costume alterations created some odd scenes. Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but when a well-known character is supposed to be unrecognizable in a disguise, yet is dressed exactly the same as in his previous appearance, this simply looks like an oversight. Whether a scarf, a badge, or other signifier is employed, the idea is simple: create some connection between onstage action and the music. (Given the sartorial liberties taken by the female side of the cast, allowing the men to dress in something else at all would also help keep track of the many, many characters in this piece. Waiter #1 should be clearly distinguishable from a police officer, after all.)
On the musical side, the sound of the different voices and instruments in the texture balanced perfectly; in some passages, piano voices stood transparently clear against an orchestra forte, which is an impressive feat in any acoustic. This wasn’t simply a matter of this reviewer’s advantageous seating; after the concert, numerous patrons in less-than-ideal seats reported hearing details in the music that they were unfamiliar with from recordings. In the three years since Andris Nelsons was appointed as the BSO’s music director, he has made this intricate detailing a trademark; now, armed with an even greater mastery of the acoustic, he is pushing the boundaries of sound in live opera. It’s hard to imagine Der Rosenkavalier sounding this good—and this clearly audible—even under the baton of his operatic predecessor, or indeed, in the expanse of an opera house. It was a night at the symphony to remember.
John Ehrlich’s review is here.
Basil Considine holds a PhD in music and drama from Boston University and BA in music and theater from the University of San Diego. As Minnesota’s most respected opera critic, he is the Performing Arts Editor of the Twin Cities and moonlights as the Artistic Director of Really Spicy Opera. He was previously the Resident Classical & Drama Critic at the Twin Cities Daily Planet.