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Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier , soloists, chorus and orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York. 19.10.2009 (HS)

Octavian: Susan Graham
Marschallin: Renée Fleming
Sophie: Miah Persson
A Singer: Barry Banks
Faninal: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen
Baron Ochs: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Set & Costume Designer: Robert O'Hearn

Watching and listening to Susan Graham as Octavian and Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, it’s inevitable to start comparing them with the great singers who have performed those roles since Strauss blessed mezzo-sopranos and sopranos with some of the most glorious music ever written for those voices. They first performed these roles together on the Metropolitan Opera stage in 2000, in this same opulently designed Nathan Merrill production, which has held the Met stage for 40 years and still looks fresh.

I wasn’t around for Christa Ludwig and Elizabeth Schwartzkopf, who probably would get the most votes for ideal performances on recordings. But in the performance heard October 19, Graham and Fleming sounded so good, individually and together, and they looked so perfect in the roles, that in the moments when they were together on stage it’s difficult to imagine anyone else today coming close.

Maybe that’s why the best parts of this performance were the entirety of Act I and the last half of Act III, to which Fleming and Graham are central. Act II, which relies more on the silvery voice of lyric soprano Miah Persson as Sophie, baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen as her father, Faninal, and bass Kristinn Sigmundssen as Baron Ochs, not to mention the antics of a stage full of chorus and extras, felt relatively ordinary. The comedy timing went relatively leaden in the first half of Act III, but Fleming’s return to the stage brought back the radiance.

What made Graham and Fleming special is that they found so many nuances in their roles, both musically and dramatically. Sometimes it seemed as if every phrase, every gesture, every look took on fresh meaning. Fleming’s Marschallin was no aging middle-aged woman trying to retain her youth by having a liaison with the teenage Octavian. She was a vital, gorgeous woman who knew she had the beauty and sex appeal to keep any man, and the experience and poise to understand that she can’t maintain it for many more years. Graham’s Octavian wasn’t exactly clueless, but he was completely devoted to the Marschallin until Sophie utterly beguiled him, then befuddled when torn between them. He knew that both women, and probably most women, wanted him, but he had no idea how to manage it except to do whatever the women asked. You could almost see the wheels turning in Graham’s head trying to figure out what to do next.

At appropriate moments, Fleming modulated the creamy richness of her voice to make it more expressive, more vulnerable, to moving effect. For her part, Graham balanced Fleming’s lightness with more of her own, creating some exquisite musical moments when their voices combined. Both were in superb voice, perhaps singing a bit more carefully than they did nine years ago, but with much more depth and detail.

As Sophie, Persson’s silky sound and sweet good looks went right along with her portrayal of an exuberant girl who was quick to dig in her heels. She does so when her prospective husband turns out to be a boor. Sigmundssen might have overdone the loutishness as Baron Ochs, who has arranged a marriage with the young Sophie for her father’s wealth. He also struggled to hit the low notes. Where are the basses these days with solid low E’s and E flats for roles like Ochs and Osmin? Ketelsen seemed a bit overmatched in this cast as Faninal the rich merchant and Sophie’s single dad (another reason Act II flagged a bit compared with the sparkle of Act I).

Conductor Edo De Waart stepped in for an ailing James Levine (who is facing back surgery) to lead a polished performance, refreshingly free of excess sentiment. Although he occasionally let the orchestra cover the singers, he did not push the pace, but let everything unfold naturally. The result was to underline the feeling of verisimilitude that the two principals created.

Things held together musically in larger ensembles, but not so well in staging. The Act II goings-on between Ochs’ uncouth lackeys and Faninal’s maids was just awkward, and the putative duel between Ochs and Octavian never clicked. Neither did the Act III dinner scene.

The Act I parade of petitioners, retainers and even a flutist and a singer (reasonably well sung by tenor Barry Banks) came off much better, largely because Fleming gave them a wonderful focal point to play against. Her attention never flagged, always reacting naturally to everything what was going on in her boudoir. I especially liked the way she got caught up in the tenor’s song and lost track of what her hairdresser was doing.

The final 20 minutes makes or breaks a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. In the scene, the Marschallin manages the situation, and somehow Fleming’s grace and serenity made it seem as though she was doing Ochs and Faninal a favor to shoo them away. This only emphasized the character’s nobility, as she urges her lover to go to Sophie. And, of course, there’s the famous trio, which flowed sumptuously and built to a glorious climax. The duet that followed was almost as good, and De Waart’s sparkling conducting of the final pages put a perfect sprinkling of powdered sugar on a delicious confection.

Harvey Steiman

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