To say it quickly, last night’s performance of Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera was superbly sung. Superbly sung. Rarely do you hear a cast sing with such uniform excellence. There was not a weak link in the chain. To cite one detail: everyone’s intonation was spot-on.
Is that a mere “detail”? No. People tend not to appreciate good intonation until it’s absent. It has, I would say, an underrated importance. We may not appreciate fresh milk until we sip, or gulp, sour.
The Met has revived the 1911 masterpiece of Richard Strauss in the 2017 production of Robert Carsen. The most important player in any Rosenkavalier, of course, is the conductor, no matter the strength of the cast. She is the straw that stirs the drink.
Last night’s stirrer was Simone Young, the Australian, who has been guesting in recent years for the New York Philharmonic. The opera did not have a good beginning: Strauss’s amazing orchestral sex scene was blah. But everything soon got better: warmer, more accurate, more musical. The story of the opera was told in the orchestra. The opening of Act II was a joy. Ms. Young gave the downbeat before the audience had stopped applauding. In all, she led a smart performance of an intricate, complicated work.
As to the cast, which member would you like to begin with? How about the mezzo-soprano portraying the title character, the Knight of the Rose? Twice in the opera, the knight disguises himself as a girl. So the mezzo portraying him is “a girl playing a boy playing a girl,” to borrow an old line.
The mezzo last night was Samantha Hankey, who has had an outstanding month in New York: on the 10th, she gave a recital at Weill (i.e., Weill Recital Hall). According to her bio, she “has established herself as one of the leading young mezzo sopranos of her generation.” First, an editorial point—well, two. There ought to be a hyphen in “mezzo-sopranos.” Also, the word “young” ought to be struck. What is meant is: “one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation.”
Anyway, every bio says this—that the person in question is one of the leading mezzo-sopranos, or pianists, or conductors, or kazoo-ists, of his generation. But the thing about Hankey? She really is.
Last night, she sang richly, characterfully, confidently. She was natural, forcing nothing. She acted like a pro, too: walking like a boy, sitting like a boy—and then acting like a boy trying to pass himself off as a girl. Hankey was a hoot without being laughable, if you know what I mean.
Doing the honors as the Marschallin was Lise Davidsen, the great Norwegian soprano. Hang on, did I say “great”? Isn’t it a little early for that, Davidsen being in her mid-thirties? It certainly is not. Anyone with ears to hear it, can hear it, and has been able to do so for years now.
When it comes to Davidsen, a critic runs out of words. I will offer a few. As the Marschallin, she sang maturely, wisely (beautifully, of course). I sometimes got the impression that she was using half the voice—half the volume—she has. She was keeping the big stuff holstered; she didn’t need it.
When she began her part in the Trio, however, I felt a physical effect. I mean, my body tingled and vibrated. Certain voices will do that to you.
To conclude the Trio, the Marschallin sings “In Gottes Namen” and then takes her leave. The orchestra plays all the while, leading into the final duet, “Ist ein Traum.” Members of the audience could not help applauding Lise Davidsen as she left. This was wrong—Strauss must not be interrupted there—but understandable.
Incidentally, Davidsen towered over her Octavian, her knight, Ms. Hankey, which was comical, but then, Der Rosenkavalier is a comedy. One more thing, too—which I will introduce by way of a story.
In the 2002–03 season at the Met, I was watching a new production of Les Troyens. When the Aeneas walked on, I thought, “Who dis?” Aeneas was supposed to be Ben Heppner, the Canadian tenor. I looked in my program to see whether there was a substitution slip. There was not. Aeneas turned out to be Ben Heppner, all right—but he had undergone a dramatic weight loss. In my review, I used the phrase “half a Heppner.”
When the Marschallin appeared onstage last night, I was a little confused. Was that Davidsen? It was. Much reduced, from the last time I had seen her—but not vocally, as far as I could tell. Weight loss can be a dangerous thing for a singer.
Returning as Sophie—she took part in the premiere of the Carsen production—was Erin Morley. This soprano is reliable. Last night, she was, in a word, Morleyesque. She floated purely, with a lively intelligence. Her Sophie was utterly endearing. If Baron Ochs, that clod, didn’t want her, or appreciate her, Octavian—or anyone else—would.
And who was Baron Ochs? Who else? Günther Groissböck. It has been many, many seasons since I saw a Rosenkavalier without him—in either New York or Salzburg. I can barely remember another one. (Kurt Moll?) In this review, I will say only that Herr Groissböck has not gotten any worse. If anything, he has gotten better. I had never seen him so funny as last night.
And this is a very funny Rosenkavalier, directed by Paula Suozzi. There are lots of clever, amusing touches. And some touching touches. I like the dancing—the weird, elegant, slow-motion dancing—in the Presentation of the Rose. (The dancing is not done by the principals, I should say. It’s done by others.) Also, in Act III, has “Mariandel” (Octavian as chambermaid) ever been the sexual aggressor? She/he is in this particular show.
The role of Faninal was sung by Brian Mulligan, an American baritone. If Google is right, I first reviewed him in a gala of New York City Opera, in the 2006–07 season. Do you remember City Opera? It was valuable. As Faninal, Mulligan sang handsomely, with easy power. The Italian Singer is a juicy cameo. René Barbera, an American tenor, took nice advantage.
Sitting in the house last night, I thought of Der Rosenkavalier, in general terms. The more familiar you are with it, I think—the more you live with it—the more you are impressed by it. The more you are in awe of it. “Possibly my fave opera,” Martin Bernheimer once wrote to me. “But with age, I wish the last act would begin with the Trio.” Hear, hear, Martin. (The great critic passed away in 2019.)
Maybe I could end as I began—with an emphasis on superb singing. “Ist ein Traum” ends with Sophie on a high B and Octavian on a high G. From each singer—Morley and Hankey—the note was perfectly placed. It could have gone on and on. And I believe these singers could have done the opera all over again, freshly.
But I’d like to mention one other thing—the snare drum, in the final pages of the opera, lending a mock-martial feeling. Oh, it was sly. Just right.
So, to use a phrase from Martin B., “it was one of those nights at the opera.”