Metropolitan Opera 2019-20 Review: Der Rosenkavalier

Sir Simon Rattle & Company Concoct Chamber-like Intimacy in Strauss’ Most Versatile Score

By David Salazar
(Credit: Karen Almond / Metropolitan Opera)

A debutante. The return of a singer for the first time in eight years. A rising star finally getting a true standout role. A bass-baritone reprising his star-making turn. And one of the great living conductors also making a vital return.

These were the main pieces that came together, among others, for what has to be one of the defining moments of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019-20 season to date.

The Robert Carsen production of “Der Rosenkavalier” was the poignant coda to Renée Fleming’s career at the Met Opera (to this point anyway) when it premiered in 2016-17. The director himself reportedly returned to work with many of the cast members on this revival and as such its strengths remain intact (read more about the production in the original review). It’s major glaring weakness, having the Marschallin walk into a brothel in the opera’s climactic scene, also remains a major distraction. But this iteration, with a completely new cast, seemed to take many of the best ideas and push them to the next level.

A Revelatory Reading

At the core of all this was conductor Sir Simon Rattle leading an extraordinary rendition of this amazing score. To be fair, this is a long night and in the hands of most conductors, it can feel exactly like that. Much of that has to do with their inability to generate a sense of shape or drive in a score that moves quickly, but can be full of lengthy meditative sections. What often occurs is that conductors indulge in the music’s lush romanticism with all the contrasting moods blending into each other to detrimental effect.

But Rattle was the complete opposite of this in so many ways. Act one flew by with the opening scenes taken at quicker tempi. This suggested Octavian’s exuberance in the first act and perfectly contrasted Baron Ochs’ own masculine virility; as such you could almost feel the connection and contrast between the two leading “men” in the work. The ensuing scene with all of the people waiting on the Marschallin also moved quickly allowing for a massive contrast with the act’s final scene, the glorious meditation in which the leading lady considers her mortality and the end of her love affair with Octavian. Rattle had bought himself so much time with the swifter approaches to the other passages, that the sudden breadth in this section came as a breath of fresh air and really allowed the audience to simply sit with the character on her painful emotional journey.

Faster tempi were favored in much of the latter two acts with Rattle pulling back during the Sophie-Octavian duets in Act two and the glorious final trio, which was truly Wagnerian in its sense of never-ending expansion. Again, the drive of the action-based scenes really allowed the emotionally resplendent moments to pay off gloriously.

In also maintaining this more propulsive feel, Rattle allowed many of the stylistic shifts employed by Strauss to really resonate. “Rosenkavalier” is an opera full of dance and rococo, something that can be completely overlooked when the work is played with a heavy Wagnerian approach (which is very common). But Rattle’s interpretation brought forth the more classical feel of the trio between Octavian, the Marshallin, and Ochs, and really propelled the second-act Waltz into something full of excitement and joy; in this latter case, the exuberance of the piece contrasted perfectly with the boorish Ochs as portrayed by Günther Groissböck.

The Met orchestra also sounded at the top of its game (which has been particularly common over the last few weeks in operas like “Akhnaten” and “The Queen of Spades”) with Rattle managing a wondrous tonal balance in the ensemble that meshed well with the singers. This score can go from a very light touch to a very dense tapestry, with the latter often providing the singers with its greatest challenge. Rattle knew how to keep the artists onstage at the forefront so that they were always clearly heard throughout the Met Opera’s mammoth hall.

This enabled Rattle to do something that few conductors manage in their own renditions of this opera – create a true cohesive whole within the individuality of his soloists. He managed to get the three singers to meld their voices sublimely in certain moments and even pushed them to true vocal extremes; this was most noticeable in the softness of the pianissimo during the final duet between Sophie and Octavian where the two soloists’ voices were but hushed whispers that still carried beautifully into the hall. This contrasted with how much Rattle pushed Groissböck as Ochs, the fortes boisterous, but perfectly inline with the nature of the character in the opera’s musical tapestry. To that point, other major characters were placed into similar parts of the expansive color palette, their vocal associations allowing the audience to track their emotional paths within the greater story. There was almost a chamber music-like feel to the entire performance and coming away from it, there was no doubt that everyone was on the same page, breathing emotionally and musically as one. That is a truly rare feat.

(Credit: Karen Almond / Metropolitan Opera)


From Boy to Man

The embodiment of this musical exploration and development as best resembled by a selfless and chameleon-like performance from Magdalena Kožená in her big return to the Met since 2011. Her opening scene was a perfect encapsulation of Octavian’s own emotional immaturity. She portrayed him as a hormonal teenager who would not stop his intense advances of the Marshallin (he kissed her everywhere at any possible moment he could get at her), providing an ominous similarity to Baron Ochs’ own masculine crudeness in ensuing scenes.

But vocally, Kožená’s voice was a gentle thread of sound that coalesced beautifully with that of Camila Nylund as the Marcshallin. In fact, they were so aligned vocally throughout those opening exchanges that at times it was hard to distinguish one voice from the other; one came away with this true feeling of oneness and unity between the two that only music can express. There was a natural gentility to Kožená’s singing here that really created a sense of ease, particularly on the myriad of F naturals and that abound throughout this opening section, that was light years away from the anxious sex drive represented by her physicality.

The final scene of the act presented a 180-degree shift from this. Dressed now in a grey uniform, Kožená’s Octavian was elegance embodied, finally mirroring a similar poise from Nylund physically, but the singing was full of intensity, the vibrato widening.  This was most notable during her fretful “Nicht heut, nicht morgen,” her voice climaxing on a pulsating high A on “Ich will den Tag nicht denken.”

In Act two, she portrayed even greater facets of Octavian. The first of these was the gentleman, poised in carrying out his mission of delivering the rose and then even more tender and supportive in his exchanges with Sophie. Here, Kožená’s singing aligned beautifully with that of Golda Schultz. While there was a clear demarcation in their respective sounds, the Czech mezzo-soprano managed to lighten the quality of her voice to match that of her colleague, once again expressing the emotionally connection with Sophie. This was particularly present in their two duets with the vocal lines wondrously balanced throughout. And the relationship would get its most incredible payoff in the final Act duet that closes the opera, the singing between Kožená and Schultz even more unified in the most glorious of pianissimo singing; together they pulled the listener into the most intimate of experiences; this was chamber music-making at its finest.

But the other aspect of Octavian that Kožená revealed in the second act was the child against men. While we saw Octavian as a gallant gentleman, he clearly looked overmatched for most of Act two when faced with Baron Ochs. As directed, and executed, this created a greater sense of empathy for the character, fighting not only a more physically mature man, but also what he represents – a repressive society.

When asked to take on the role of Mariandel in Act three, Kozena played up the hijinks, providing a comical mirror of her first act performance. Whereas in that first scene, her Octavian was all over the Marshallin with romantic intensity, in this act, her Mariandel was similarly sexually charged, but in a far more exaggerated and vulgar manner that comically aligned the audience with Ochs, getting a taste of his own medicine. Vocally, she also played up the exaggeration, her voice more angular, dry, and far less vibrant; the sound came off as coarser, which both mirrored that of Ochs, while being a complete shadow to that of her more elegant and poised Octavian.

It’s been eight years since her incredible “Pelléas et Mélisande,” but on the opening night of “Der Rosenkavalier,” Kožená reminded the audience that she is truly the full package artistically.

(Credit: Karen Almond / Metropolitan Opera)


Pure of Heart

Not to be overlooked was Golda Schultz’s Sophie, in what was a truly exciting breakout for the soprano. While she sang the first notes of the 2019-20 Met season, her role in “Porgy and Bess” was often overshadowed by the bigger voices in that opera; the same can be said for her beautiful appearance as Nanetta in 2018-19. But no one was going to opaque her brilliance as Sophie, propelling to the forefront as one of the best lyric sopranos singing today.

Her Sophie had agitated energy from the get-go, immediately casting her into the busy setting around her. She moved about with excitement, her singing similarly vibrant and full in those opening passages, particularly during “Dahin muss ich zurück” where she dispatched a high A- C sharp-B sequence of notes with purity of line on “Zeuit und Ewigkeit.” In their second duet together, “Mit Ihren Augen voll Tränen,” the soprano’s voice was sweeter and lighter, matching a similar texture from Kožená. Strauss even keeps the tessitura slightly lower to match Octavian’s vocal range, with the soprano line never surpassing a high A natural; Schultz’s voice was at its most breathtaking here, the legato line connected and building with each phrase. It is worth noting that few moments were as touching as her reaction to Octavian’s “Was Sie ist;” the moment he said this to her, Schultz’s Sophie seemed to turtle, hiding away the tears of joy that her body managed to express.

But it wasn’t all about bel canto with the soprano; she didn’t shy away from a pricklier approach in her confrontations with her father and Ochs. Here she really leaned into an accented vocal line with an emphasis on consonants that really highlighted Sophie’s exasperation. Physically, she was also more unsettled, using her hands to slap away or push away Ochs as best as she could; in some moments this came off as comedic, but in other instances, there was a really intensity behind her physicality that added tension to the scene.

In her final appearances of the opera, Schultz took on a more collected stance. She stood on the margins throughout with a worried expression, providing the main tension of the scene; we felt her sense of loss and heartbreak ready to express itself fully. Her singing was truly delicate in these moments, but in the final scenes, it is Sophie that invites Octavian to release their passions onstage. She was playful and joyous, allowing Octavian to also express a different facet of his sexuality that came off as more sincere and involved than the selfishness often expressed in his first scene with the Marschallin.

(Credit: Karen Almond / Metropolitan Opera)


A Trapped Princess

Completing the love triangle was the peerless Camila Nylund in her Met Opera debut. The Finnish soprano’s singing is pure luxury from top to bottom with a full tone that exuded elegance with every phrase she sang. One might note that there was a level of restraint in the singing throughout the opening act, which highlighted her own physical restraint in her interactions with both Octavian and Ochs. While Octavian tried to engage her in more sexual foreplay, she simply took it and eventually stopped him. With Ochs, she maintained the power in the dynamic of the scene, always laughing him off and politely shutting him down with a smile. This exertion of power was even more potent in the final act, where she strode onstage in an elegant dark dress that stole all the spotlight by its very existence.

But here, her physicality continued to imbue her with power. She didn’t move all that much, but her every gesture or look was charged with subtext. When she had an enough with Ochs, she made just a few steps in his direction before unleashing the full potency of her voice for the full time on “Versteht Ern ich, wenn eine Sach’ ein End’ hat?”

In a latter moment before the trio, she walked slowly toward Octavian, as if to kiss him, but instead she walked right by him, essentially ending their relationship. One often felt that Nylund was playing up the social façade that the Marschallin has to exhibit in the midst of society, underlining the subtle tragedy of the character – a woman of influence who is always marginalized within the framework of the society that gives her this “power.”

Her emotions, instead, were expressed in her singing. As noted, she matched Kožená in the initial scene but her big moment at the close of the act was truly her own. In hushed and gentle tones she delivered her monologue with a deepened sense of internalization. Her expanded lines, coupled with her delicate singing truly personified the fragility of time. Even in the face of Kožená’s pleading vocalism at the close of this scene, she retained that sense of restraint, making the scene all the more powerful. You felt that this was a woman coming to terms with her fate but being resilient while facing it down.

While she managed a similar emotion in the final scene, Nylund allowed some of that pain to come through in the final trio, the opening lines stretched with sublime piano singing; her ascension to the high A flat on “ihn lieb zu haben” was ethereal, Rattle allowing her to hold it a bit to mesmerizing effect. As the trio developed and the three singers were pushed to the fullness of their resources, Nylund truly let her sound expand into the hall.


(Credit: Karen Almond / Metropolitan Opera)


Arrogance Embodied

Contrasting these three mesmerizing singers was Günther Groissböck as the pedantic Ochs. In the 2016-17 run of the opera, the bass-baritone was undeniably the star of the run. On this night, he was a similar scene stealer though his stage hijinks were perfectly balanced by the other leads.

He was, in one word, obnoxious, but in the very best way. Like Octavian in the opening scene of the opera, he was overly touchy with Mariandel, groping her all over. In many ways, the comedy of this scene served as a perfect foil to Octavian’s opening scene with the Princess, the two men consistently pushing the line with the woman; Ochs does this even more in his scene with Sophie, bullying her into submission in front of his entourage and even offering up to Octavian at one point. To say that Ochs crosses the line throughout the opera is an understatement. In this context, the final act’s subversion of this, in which he feels noticeably uncomfortable with Mariandel’s overzealous sexual advances, is the perfect payoff to the entire drama.

Groissböck’s arrogance also came from his violent persona, his singing very muscular and rarely graceful. This is a singer with a glorious instrument capable of the most immersive legato lines, but on this night, he eschewed it all in favor of a brusquer color, his tone drier and seemingly hallowed out of an overly ringing vibrato but never lacking for potency. Even a resonant crescendo on an extended D sharp on “Palais von Faninal in Act one, tended toward more straight tone than a plusher sound. Nonetheless, Groissböck filled the hall in virtually every single moment he opened his mouth and his accents of the consonants only made him stand apart from the more flowing line of Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin. Even in his rendition of the beloved Waltz, Groissböck’s singing had a jagged nature.

His delivery of the “Weiss bereits, nich, was ich von diesem ganzen quid-pro-quo mir denken soll (I still do not know what to think of this quid pro quo)” also drew out the greatest laugh of the entire evening, though context undeniably matter. He also managed to pick up Katharine Goeldner and spin around with her while singing at one point, further accented his character’s hubris in truly exciting fashion.

Adding Color & Life

In the character of Faninal, Markus Eiche made a notable debut at the Met. His Faninal’s initial behavior coupled with his potent and aggressive vocalism toward his daughter mirrored Ochs’ behavior; one felt him dramatically as a double for Ochs, thus emphasizing the stakes for the young singers. But again, his big payoff at the end of the opera was to get to throw more vitriol in the third act, this time at Ochs’ reprehensible behavior. He did manage to draw a number of laughs from his panic attacks in both acts.

As the Italian singer, tenor Matthew Polenzani sang with a fluid vocal line, though his ascensions into some of the higher notes did come off a bit flat in a number of instances. Playing Annina and Valzacch were Katharine Goeldner and Thomas Ebenstein, in his Met debut. Of the two, Goeldner seemed a bit more present in the proceedings, snake-like in her movements, particularly as she begged Ochs for money after delivering the letter from Mariandel.

Mark Schowalter was perfectly timed as Faninal’s butler, particularly in the scene where he asked an over-excited Sophie to sit down with just a slight gesture.

Scott Conner was an imposing Police Commmissioner while James Courtney’s Notary managed to display restraint in the frustrating encounter with Ochs in Act one.

Alexandra LoBianco also had a solid Met debut as Marianne, her resonant and ample vibrato a solid contrast to Schultz’ fine tonal qualities.

We are all looking for the perfect gift to give family members throughout the holiday season. Giving them the gift of opera has never been a better proposition than the Met Opera’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” Rarely has this opera managed to create such a mixture of emotions in what feels like an otherworldly experience.


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