Having first encountered the conducting of Kirill Petrenko at the Bayreuth Festival in 2014 in a magnificently taut and brilliantly shaped Ring cycle, I was more than a bit curious to see him in action with his own company, Munich’s Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper), in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier presented at (and by) Carnegie Hall on Thursday evening, March 29th. In short, it was a spectacular.
We are fortunate to be living in an era of great conductors, several on either side of age 40: Petrenko (43), Nelsons (39), Nezet-Seguin (43), and Dudamel (37). That Petrenko was selected by the self-governing Berlin Philharmonic to succeed Sir Simon Rattle as chief conductor speaks volumes about his attainments and musicianship, as do the illustrious appointments of the others mentioned above. The fact that both Nezet-Seguin and Nelsons now hold concurrent positions with internationally important ensembles (Nezet-Seguin with both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, Nelsons with the BSO and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) attests to the rarity of such talent.
In February and March, I had the good fortune of seeing the current Met productions of Parsifal and Elektra, both led superbly by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Having those performances fresh in my memory, it was fascinating to compare Petrenko and company present Rosenkavalier in concert form. The enormous orchestra Strauss calls for was, of course, conceived to be submerged in the pit, so it would have been unsurprising if at climactic passages the singers might have been overwhelmed by the 120-plus players onstage. But the remarkable fact was that balance had been more of a problem at the Met —with an equally large orchestra in a pit. This disparity may have been due to where I was seated, but it was astonishing that Petrenko was able to elicit such a wide range of dynamics and colors from the onstage orchestra and yet never ‘buried’ his singers. With equal experience as both opera and symphonic conductor, Petrenko is unusually sympathetic to his singers’ needs while simultaneously eliciting great detail from the orchestra. Both Wagner and Strauss also require a conductor who can create an enormous narrative, a dramatic arc without sacrificing those details. This he achieved in spades, with some of the most virtuosic technique I’ve ever witnessed. The orchestra clearly does any and everything he wants, and he gives the players room to do so in their own ways. Berlin is in for a great ride.
Singers almost uniformly brilliant supported the general contention that the Bayerische Staatsoper is one of the world’s leading houses. Leading the cast as the Marschallin, the Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka proved very affecting and believable as the wistfully aging lover of the teenager Octavian, here sung superbly by Angela Brower. British veteran bass Peter Rose portrayed the boorish Baron Ochs masterfully. The first act’s scene-stealer the “Italian singer,” was in this case, the American bel canto tenor Lawrence Brownlee, whose golden-hued voice filled Stern Auditorium top to bottom. Hanna-Elisabeth Mueller sang Sophie, and the slightly underpowered Markus Eiche portrayed Sophie’s father, Faninal. With no props at all (not even a silver rose), the singers managed to act and interact convincingly and naturally in limited space at the front of the stage, and delighted the near-capacity house both with their antics and their pathos.
The story of Der Rosenkavalier is amusingly detailed HERE in under 4 minutes.
One could be forgiven for transposing some aspects of the farcical storyline from 18th-century Vienna to the current era of Harvey Weinstein et al, and feeling slightly queasy about certain, ahem, more ‘dated’ aspects of the plot. But the sublime trio at the opera’s conclusion—in which the Marschallin nobly proves her love for Octavian by letting him follow his heart with the much younger Sophie—made everything right with the world, if only for a few fleeting moments. (And that is some of the most melancholy music ever composed in a major key.) The ovation was prolonged and visceral.
One of Boston’s favorite pianists, David Deveau teaches at MIT and for many years directed the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.