I generally observe a strict shelf life when writing about a performance I’ve just attended. I like to be in front of my keyboard as soon as possible after I’ve seen something, when my response to what I’ve seen is still churning inside me. But in the case of the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcast of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, which I attended on May 13, I had to wait for a couple of weeks to write about it, because I needed some time to sort out my feelings about the whole experience.
Der Rosenkavalier was brought to the Met this year in a Robert Carsen staging that is a co-production with several other companies around the world. It replaced the Nathaniel Merrill—Robert O’Hearn rendition that first appeared at the Met in January of 1969, and proved to be one of the most beloved and durable productions in the company’s history.
It was that Rosenkavalier that served as my own Met debut as an audience member, on opening night of the 1982/83 season—September 20, 1982. The cast was extraordinary: Kiri Te Kanawa as the Marschallin, Tatiana Troyanos as Octavian, Judith Blegen as Sophie, Kurt Moll as Baron Ochs, Derek Hammond-Stroud as Faninal, Jean Kraft as Annina, Joseph Frank as Valzacchi, and—in the Stagebill, at least—Luciano Pavarotti as the Italian Singer. Unfortunately, Pavarotti cancelled the opening night performance and was replaced by an understandably nervous young artist named Jeffrey Stamm. I remember this vividly because my friend Cynthia Peterson, who was the reason I discovered opera at all, was working as Met performance manager and had to deal with several irate patrons who had flown from remote spots to catch their favorite tenor on opening night of the season. One impassioned fan, a middle-aged woman who had come from Tokyo, was so upset that she seemed on the verge of having a stroke right in front of us; Cynthia’s observation that the Italian Singer is a cameo role that lasts only a few minutes did nothing to calm the woman down.
For me, that night was the beginning of thirty-four indescribably rich consecutive years as a member of the Met audience. I had just moved to New York from Oregon and I was as green as it was possible to be, but it was also the beginning of the long and glorious experience of learning about opera—and of learning to love it, more and more each year. That Met opening night even opened an important professional door to me, down a long and winding road, when I became an assistant editor at the venerable magazine Opera News in the spring of 1988. That job became the wellspring of a career as a journalist and editor and biographer and, most recently, screenwriter, that gives me more pleasure than I can express.
My long Opera News tenure ended abruptly on April 12, 2016 when, in what was explained to me as a cost-cutting measure, I was job-eliminated. After several months of free-lancing, I accepted a position as Public Relations Manager of Florida Grand Opera and moved to Miami. It was a daunting transition. In the space of one year, I was to lose both my parents, one of my closest friends, my dog, and my job, as I left my partner and friends behind in New York while I faced the challenges of a new life in South Florida.
On May 13, when a friend and I attended the Met Rosenkavalier HD at the Regal South Beach Cinema in Miami Beach, I settled back in my seat and watched the pre-game show—that’s exactly what it is, for the Met has modeled its HDs on televised athletic events. I think the HDs are spiffy in many ways, but the most appalling aspects of them is the practice of breaking the “fourth wall” and shoving microphones in singer’s faces as they’re coming offstage, when they should be husbanding their concentration for the rest of the performance. Met General Manager Peter Gelb delivered one of his generic, somnolent introductions. And as the camera panned around the auditorium, showing members of the Saturday matinee audience excitedly taking their seats, I had a twinge of unease that was worse than I had expected. Der Rosenkavalier is one of my favorite operas, and I have lost count of the number of times I have seen it in the Met auditorium. Now I was watching it remotely, on a movie screen, surrounded by an audience of senior citizens in Miami. (This is perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the Met HDs. They have failed to achieve one of their principal objectives: to create a new, younger, more vital audience. My friend Paul and I—forty-five and fifty-eight, respectively—looked to be by far the youngest people sitting in the theater.)
Then the broadcast began. I had the sensation of having a double soundtrack running through my head—the exquisite Met orchestra at this performance, superbly conducted by Sebastian Weigle—and that first performance back in 1982, led by James Levine. Now Levine, who once seemed so invincible, is in the twilight of his own career, having stepped down as music director of the company at the end of the 2015–16 season because of worsening health problems.
The prelude retained all of its quicksilver magic. From the first seconds, I was transfixed by Elina Garanca’s supple, utterly natural Octavian. The old tiresome question of how “masculine” the mezzo-soprano singing the role should make Octavian became moot: here was a performer who magically channeled the very essence of androgyny. In the opera’s first scene, the post-coital mood with the Marschallin (Renée Fleming) was perfectly caught. Every move, every gesture that Garanca made was real—even the fake scream she gives when, disguised as the Marschallin’s maid “Mariandel,” Baron Ochs (Günther Groissböck) fondles her knee.
It’s difficult, of course, to transport myself back to that first Rosenkavalier in 1982 and call up exactly what the opera itself meant to me, moment by moment, as it unfolded. I do remember feeling that night, as I felt all that during that first summer and fall in New York, that I had arrived in the Promised Land of arts and culture. The performance certainly had its longueurs for me; the second half of the second act and the first half of the third seemed to outstay their welcome (though it wouldn’t be long before I considered it sacrilege to cut one measure of them). But what I really wish I could put my finger on, all these years later, is exactly what the Marschallin’s long reflection at the end of Act One meant to me. When she spoke of the aging process and said, “How can such a thing happen? How can the dear Lord do this?”—what could that have possibly meant to me at twenty-three, breathless from my first months in what to me was the most exciting city in the world? I had never been in love, and whatever difficulties I had experienced would pale next to the ones that awaited me. I was in the early stage of my life that the Marschallin sings about, when the concept of the passage of time is utterly meaningless. Then, suddenly, as the Marschallin says, you’re aware of nothing else. It’s all around us.
In 1982, I had the best part of my life ahead of me. In 2017, sitting in the Regal South Beach Cinema, I would like to think that many good and exciting and fruitful years lie ahead. Most of the time I do think that. But not always, because I am not that certain of most things any longer. I remember an interviewer asking Katharine Hepburn what the worst part of aging was and she said, after no more than a second’s thought, “My increasing terror of everything.”
Which brings me to Renée Fleming as the Marschallin. In the past, I have written some sharp things about Fleming’s portrayals. Both musically and dramatically, she has often layered on effects until her performances become leaden and meaningless; she seemed determined for us to see exactly how hard she was working. In Fleming’s performances, I have seldom experienced what I felt to be genuine spontaneity. However: I do not believe that I am projecting any of my own personal feelings about the passage of time on Fleming’s performance as the Marschallin when I say that it surpasses anything I have ever seen or heard her do. It wasn’t just that she was in excellent voice. Carsen made the brilliant decision to portray this Marie-Therese as a conspicuously older woman; she is clearly far past her mid-thirties, as Hofmannsthal’s libretto indicates. In the HD, I kept watching Fleming’s hands—the timeworn hands of an older woman. At the end of the first act, when the Marschallin is leaving Octavian and dressing to visit her ailing relative, the way in which Fleming put on her gloves, slowly and grimly, as if trying to camouflage her visible signs of age, was nothing short of masterly. And when the bedroom wall lifted up so she could make her Act One exit, I had the palpable sense of the Marschallin walking into another phase of her life.
There has been some criticism of Carsen, among the more hidebound members of the Met audience, centering on his decision to advance the setting of the story from the 1740s, as Hofmannsthal indicates, to something around the period of the opera’s premiere (1911). I found the looming shadow of World War I to be enormously effective more often than not; we were constantly reminded that the Marschallin’s world was going to change in ways more devastating than she could possibly contemplate. A friend of mine in Miami made a shrewd observation: “If you want to do a production of an opera about social change, why not direct Le nozze di Figaro?” After all, Der Rosenkavalier is about love and the passage of time, not about an impending social revolution. And yet I think Carsen’s transposition was justified, because Strauss and Hofmannsthal really wrote the opera as a backward glance at a vanished time, a time far removed from the fiery ferment that had come out of fin-de-siècle Vienna. It was as if Carsen spun the film forward rather than back, and I found his choice to make Sophie’s father, Faninal, the head of a munitions factory to be an imaginative and daring one. In addition to singing the role exquisitely, Erin Morley gave us one of the most spirited and stiff-spined Sophies imaginable. It was also an inspired decision to sidestep the usual portrayal of Baron Ochs as an aging buffoon and make him instead a younger man with a raw and animalistic sexuality (this was expertly captured by Günther Groissböck). As he so often does, Carsen rethinks standard moments in the text in the freshest and most unexpected ways; I won’t recount them here, because I want those of you who haven’t seen it to look at the DVD and be as caught off guard as I was.
I was less convinced by Helene Schneiderman’ s rather grotesque portrayal of the intriguer Annina. Was the idea that she was supposed to reflect a German expressionist painting of the time? (My friend Paul said that Schneiderman put him in mind of the works of Ernest Ludwig Kirchner.) And the conversion of the third-act inn into a bordello was heavy-handed, busy, and not nearly as evocative or funny as intended. Would the Marschallin, in spite of her indiscretions, ever be caught dead walking into such a seedy place? But whatever ground was lost during the third act was quickly regained by one of the most magnificently sung and conducted Final Terzets I have ever heard in all my years of loving this work.
The spell that Der Rosenkavalier cast over me all those years ago remained, in this performance, as potent as ever. When I exited the theater into the radiant Miami evening, I found it hard to say much of anything. I wanted to remain exactly where I had been for the past five hours. I remembered an old Dorothy Parker poem I memorized years earlier. It’s called “Godmother”:
The day that I was christened—
It’s a hundred years, and more!—
A hag came and listened
At the white church door,
A-hearing her that bore me
And all my kith and kin
Considerately, for me,
While some gave me corals,
And some gave me gold,
And porringers, with morals
The hag stood, buckled
In a dim gray cloak;
Stood there and chuckled,
Spat, and spoke:
“There’s few enough in life’ll
Be needing my help,
But I’ve got a trifle
For your fine young whelp.
I give her sadness,
And the gift of pain,
The new-moon madness,
And the love of rain.”
And little good to lave me
In their holy silver bowl
After what she gave me—
Rest her soul!
As I continued my walk down Lincoln Road, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I was continuing my own hopeful but uncertain walk into this new phase of my life.