Alice Coote, Martina Serafin, and Peter Rose in Der Rosenkavalier; Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

How do you want your prelude to Der Rosenkavalier? Well, you want it burbling, gay, swirling, giddy—maybe sex-drenched. In any event, a Rosenkavalier needs to have liftoff. And last Monday at the Metropolitan Opera, it did not. Edward Gardner, an English conductor, was in the pit, and the prelude in his hands had little effect. The orchestra sounded weak, without heft. That is not the Met orchestra, as you may know.

Jump now to the end of the opera—to the trio and the duet that follows. These were somewhat labored, stilted, with the duet marred by strange pauses. This phrasing was no friend to musicality.

I have dumped on Gardner, but this is true too: He was a good manager of affairs. Der Rosenkavalier is a busy, tricky opera, and many a conductor has stumbled over it. Gardner did not, acquitting himself honorably.

Strauss loved women—have I mentioned that this opera is by Richard Strauss?—and he especially loved sopranos. So, in discussing the cast, I will begin with the women.

Martina Serafin was the Marschallin, and this soprano is a real Viennese, native-born. To my knowledge, she is no relation to the late Italian conductor, Tullio Serafin. The soprano is not only a real Viennese, she proved a real Marschallin. She had the worldly wisdom, the regal coolness, and the beautiful resignation (“Ja, ja”). In voice, psychology, and even looks, she was the Marschallin, or certainly Marschallin-like.

She was also a foot taller than her Octavian, or so it appeared from my seat. Octavian was Alice Coote, the celebrated English mezzo. Coote had just come off a starring role at the Met: the detective in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Octavian is a very different character, but she handled him as capably as she did her detective. She was secure, smart, musical. She was very good at conveying the young man’s impetuosity and exuberance. As a bonus, she delivered some first-class high notes.

I have a complaint, however. When Octavian—a girl playing a boy—disguises himself as “Mariandel”—a girl playing a boy playing a girl—the voice has to be distinctive, yes. The mezzo should sing in a separate voice. But I’m not sure why she has to sing off-key, as Coote did. I’m also not sure that Mariandel should be a complete yokel—a character out of Hee Haw.

Erin Morley, an American soprano, was Sophie, and she did a perfectly creditable job. When I saw her last season as Constance in Dialogues des carmélites (Poulenc), I said to myself, “Now, no fair comparing her with Heidi Grant Murphy,” one of her predecessors in the role. At this Rosenkavalier, I said the same thing. And here I am, making the comparison in print. As Sophie, Morley lacked a soaring quality, that ability to fly, float, and spin. But, to say it once more, she was a perfectly creditable Sophie, entirely worthy—and comparisons are odious (or odorous).

One of the best moments of the night was the Presentation of the Rose—of Peter Rose, that is, who busted into the Marschallin’s bedroom memorably and delightfully. This was a pro’s entrance. Rose, an English bass, was portraying Baron Ochs, a role in which he has much experience. So enjoyable was his characterization, I had to remind myself that he was singing well. An opera performer must sing, above all. Rose did not have strong low notes, but he made the most of what he had.

Let me caution that Rose’s Ochs is not for everyone, and I understand his detractors. His is a fairly hammy Ochs, and some prefer a subtler one. But if you like the hammier, cruder, broader kind of Ochs, no one does it better than Rose. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, the German baritone singing Faninal, was sturdy. And Eric Cutler, an American, made a fine Italian Tenor. He had just the right dose of stereotype in him, if you know what I mean. He suggested a stereotypical Italian tenor while still singing beautifully and seriously.

The production was a classic, that of Nathaniel Merrill, from 1969. It is beautiful, down to the drawing of the curtain in Act I—the curtain draws in sighing synchronicity with the music and story. Like Rose’s Ochs, this Rosenkavalier is not for everyone. It is too “traditional,” too pretty, too “chocolate box.” To my eyes, it is Der Rosenkavalier. One reason I appreciate it so much, I’m sure, is that I have seen so many violative Rosenkavaliers, particularly in Europe.

In a public interview with me once, Barbara Bonney, the soprano, told a story. She was singing Sophie in some production, and the director wanted her to sing her part in the Presentation of the Rose with her back turned to the audience. I can understand why the director would have wanted this, theatrically—but I’m not sure he had any experience of music.

Bonney went to him and said, “I’m sorry, but the Presentation of the Rose is such a big deal for a soprano like me. We prepare for it and hope for it over our years of training. Would it be all right if I sang toward the audience?” The director, to his credit, relented.

Finally, I’d like to say something about the piece itself: Der Rosenkavalier. If you’re not crazy about it, give it a little time. When I was younger, I didn’t care for it much, though I knew it was a masterpiece, and of course loved the big excerpts. I especially loved the orchestral suite. But the opera as a whole was so busy, so talky, and so long.

Honestly, I had a hard time loving all of the opera that inspired this one: The Marriage of Figaro.

During an intermission at the Met last Monday, I talked with an esteemed music scholar and critic about Der Rosenkavalier. “Don’t you love this piece?” I said. He made a face, shrugged, and said, “I like it, but I don’t love it. Needs an editor.” I understand him entirely. But I must say, the work has grown on me. One of its virtues is that the orchestra expresses every word, thought, and action in the opera. By now, I appreciate every note—or nearly every one of them—from the opening rapture to the scurrying Mohammed.

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