Last night’s Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera started very, very unpromisingly. The orchestra wasn’t together. The horns flubbed (or at least one of them did). The sound of the orchestra was weirdly small. Was this a pipsqueak band or the mighty Met orchestra?
The first two-thirds or so of Act I were . . . you know: okay. I thought of something that Stravinsky said—something that few are willing to say out loud (Stravinsky was very blunt): Every season, thousands of people go to Der Rosenkavalier and are bored.
This opera is “performance-dependent,” I have always said. When it is poorly performed—lacking inspiration and finesse and fizz—it is a snoozeroo. It feels longer than Les Troyens, Die Meistersinger, and Pelléas et Mélisande combined. But when it is well performed—it goes by like a happy song.
Based on Act I last night, I could not have told you—not in a million years—that Act II would be a thing of perfection. Concert and opera life is sometimes like that. I will get to Act II in due course.
Serving in the pit was Sir Simon Rattle, the veteran conductor born in Liverpool. Singing the Marschallin was Camilla Nylund, the Finnish soprano. She was aristocratic, befitting the Marschallin. She was also cool and contained. Too much so? I think so. There must be a reason for young Octavian to flip for her. Also, I might have asked for more sound from Ms. Nylund.
I might have asked for more sound from virtually everyone in the cast, in this big ol’ house.
Magdalena Kožená, the Czech mezzo-soprano, was Octavian. (She is also married to Sir Simon.) She sang with her usual assurance. She was also an effective actress—“a girl playing a boy playing a girl,” as they say. Ms. Kožená seemed to enjoy her role, which spreads enjoyment to others.
Sitting there, watching and listening to her, I was reminded that this world-famous opera star was, once upon a time, just about my favorite Bach singer. It would be good to hear her sing this greatest of composers again.
Baron Ochs last night was the Ochs of choice these days: Günther Groissböck, the Austrian bass. I have seen his Ochs in Salzburg and New York, and every house must want him—as every house wants Ambrogio Maestri for Falstaff, for example. Günther Groissböck is a master of patter—the quick language that an Ochs must put across, all opera long. (A Falstaff has to be a master of patter too, come to think of it.) (Different language, same concept.) Groissböck is a marvelous actor, and marvelously funny. Could he have a career in the theater even if he couldn’t sing? Maybe so. He is a very baritonal bass, I would say, with the high notes more outstanding than the low.
In any case, he is intimate with Ochs, and totally “gets” him.
As I mentioned, the first two-thirds or so of Act I last night were okay, no better—good enough for government work. But then Sir Simon & Co. found a groove. The music-making was better in all respects. At the end of the act, the concertmaster contributed some sweet, Viennesey lines.
Still, nothing prepared me for Act II. It was, as I said, a thing of perfection. Sir Simon was firing on all cylinders—subtle, commanding—and so was everyone else, pretty much. Strauss and Hofmannsthal (composer and librettist) would have said, “Yes.”
A big share of the credit must go to Golda Schultz, the evening’s Sophie. Like Groissböck as Ochs, this South African soprano has starred as Sophie in Salzburg, New York, and I imagine elsewhere. The moment she opened her mouth last night, the whole opera seemed to take on new vitality, beauty, and sparkle. Ms. Schultz sang with utter freedom.
I noted that she and Magdalena Kožená sang side by side, facing the audience, in the Presentation of the Rose. This reminded me of something that Barbara Bonney told me in an interview many years ago. She was a well-known Sophie. One time, a director wanted her to sing the Presentation of the Rose with her back to the audience. The soprano said something like, “You know, we lyrics dream of this role, and dream of this moment. Would you mind if I faced the audience?” The director relented.
The Met’s current production of Der Rosenkavalier is by Robert Carsen, the Canadian director, and Act II is the pièce de résistance: deft and flat-out funny. Groissböck was amazingly deft and funny here. Incidentally, he has a helluva whistle. Loud. Was he miked? Some in the audience thought so. Later—I believe in Act III—Groissböck did some more whistling, not of the loud variety. He was sweet and tuneful. A beautiful whistler.
Markus Eiche, a German baritone, sang Faninal. He sang his part strongly, handsomely, and securely.
Okay, on to Act III. Martin Bernheimer, the late great critic, once wrote to me that Der Rosenkavalier was probably his favorite opera. “But with age, I wish the last act would begin with the Trio.” Amen.
Let me jump to the Trio (as Martin would have wished). Something happened, and not something positive: The orchestra seemed to break down, fumbling as at the beginning of the opera. The Trio opened with a terrible blunder in the orchestra. The trumpet sang nicely, however, which was a relief. The Trio was not especially well shaped, with the climax not much of a climax.
The Trio is the high point of the opera—at least for some—and it was a letdown.
The ensuing duet went better. But there was some loud set-moving or something in the background, which marred the effect. Still, Golda Schultz floated a killer high B at the end.
When she came out for a bow, the audience cheered and whistled (speaking of whistling). A man standing a couple of rows in front of me turned around and said, crossly, “This isn’t a ballgame.” (He said it in a honking New York accent: bawlgame.) It might have been the man’s first time at the opera. Traditionally, an opera house is more ballgame than a ballgame, so to speak.