Thursday, December 5, 2013

Strauss at The Met

Marina Serafin and Alice Coote: 'Der Rosenkavalier' (source)
A weekend in New York is always a great opportunity for a weekend at The Metropolitan Opera House. This incredible company has the resources, the history, the support, the house and the singers to stage scads of opera, all usually in unforgettable style. My recent NYC weekend included two Richard Strauss operas (I'm a big Strauss fan), plus the exciting opportunity to visit backstage and sit in on a rehearsal. Opera-lovers' Heaven!

Der Rosenkavalier was first up....

Richard Strauss composed the music to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto in 1911, and it's revered as one of the best-loved operas in the repertoire. Occasionally you'll hear someone deriding it, but trust me, they're only kidding - everyone loves 'Rosenkavalier'!  This particular production, all sumptuous period Vienna, debuted at The Met in 1969!! It's renowned for being one of the longest-running productions in opera history, and those traditional Viennese wigs still look fresh. Well, fresh-ish. The rumour is that this will be the last run for these venerable sets and costumes (which I've seen before, with Renee Fleming as The Marchallin). It was good to see the last run.

The conductor was Edward Gardner (England). Octavian, the trouser-role, was sung by mezzo Alice Coote (England), a veteran of the part, and a singer I like very much. Elina Garança was scheduled to sing Octavian, but the Latvian diva withdrew due to pregnancy (it is an energetic role). Her replacement for the first three performances is Alice Coote. (Daniela Sindram will sing the role in the December performances).

The Marchallin is Martina Serafin (Austria), who was regal and lovely. Perhaps slightly too regal, visually speaking, since she's a head taller than Alice Coote. A little belief had to be suspended to work with the story of a 17-year-old youth in the arms of the statuesque aristocrat.

Baron Ochs, an annoyingly comic role, was sung - comically - by Peter Rose (England). He was a pretty good Ochs. Sophie, the young ingenue for whom Octavian dumps the Marchallin was sung - at the last minute - by Erin Morley (USA). Excitingly, she was the understudy who got to go on, replacing Mojca Erdmann (Germany) who became, er, indisposed, at around the time of the dress rehearsal. It was an excellent Sophie, well sung - congrats to the whole cast for adjusting to the change. That trio -for which the opera is famous - was, as it's supposed to be, to die for.

Sumptuous sets on their last run. (source)
Here's a review from the New York Times - wholly congratulatory. This review from the FT is less impressed.

Anne Schwanewilms as the Empress in 'Die Frau ohne Schatten'  (Source)
'Die Frau ohne Schatten' was next...

Still Strauss, but a change of pace in 'Die Frau ohne Schatten' (The Women Without a Shadow). This was the work of Strauss and von Hofmannsthal  a few years later, in 1919. It's not performed very often, partly because the storyline is quite obscure, the opera is long, and you need a huge orchestra and an inventive staging. And you also need five excellent principals who can sing difficult music. This production premiered at The Met in 2001, and manages to handle the story convincingly -- the spirit world of the Emperor and Empress alternates with the grungy hovel of the Dyer and his Wife, each being lowered and raised to and from The Met's copious basement space. It's great theatre. 2001... Herbert Wernicke startled the basically conservative Met with an astonishingly progressive production of Richard Strauss’s magnificently bloated Die Frau ohne Schatten. He actually made theatrical sense of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s high-minded, hopelessly convoluted libretto.
And superlative singing, particularly by the US soprano Christine Goerke as The Dyer's Wife. I'd heard rave reviews, and  they weren't kidding. Her incredibly rich voice handled the wide range of the role, and her acting was utterly focussed and spot on. The conductor  was Russian wunderkind Vladimir Jurowski. The other important roles were also superbly performed: The Nurse - Ildikó Komlósi (Hungary); The Emperor - Torsten Kerl (Germany); The Empress - Anne Schwanewilms (Germany); and Barak, The Dyer - Johan Reuter (Denmark) - he was excellent in this role of 'the nicest man in opera.'

The story? Well, I'm not sure you have time...the 'woman without a shadow' is a reference to the Empress, a spirit who married a human and so cannot have children. She tries to buy a 'shadow' from the Dyer's Wife, who lives in poverty and the whole whole synopsis here.

Here's a review raving about the production. The New York Times was impressed. "Goerke unmissable in the Met's Die Frau ohne Schatten" says one review. I agree!

Christine Goerke (The Dyer's Wife) and Johan Reuter (Barak the Dyer) (source)
It's sometimes said that Strauss and von Hofmannsthal had Mozart's great operas in mind when composing these two of their own:
If “Der Rosenkavalier” amounted to Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s “Marriage of Figaro,” a sophisticated comedy of thoroughly grown-up relationships, then “Frau” — started in 1911, completed in 1917 and first staged in 1919 — was their “Magic Flute,” a fable intertwining the fates of two couples in a mystical rite of passage. (source)
Although I can see the link, don't come to these two expecting Mozart - they are both thoroughly Strauss-ian and incredibly involving. Loved them.

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