Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Costume Drama

January 02, 2010

Renée Fleming and Susan Graham
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

I hate to admit it, but apparently it is possible for a cast to sing and act its way out of a bad opera production. At least that’s what I took away from the first of four last performances of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier this season at The Metropolitan Opera on New Year’s Day. This musty Nathaniel Merrill production left over from another era is in bad need of some serious rethinking and refurbishment. Given that it's just slightly older than I am, I recognize how someone might have nostalgic feelings for it like harvest gold-hued kitchen appliances or the Nixon administration. However, despite the decay, tonight’s Der Rosenkavalier was the best opera I’ve seen in New York all week. The reason was a cast that dreams are made of. In the pit was Edo de Waart who played Strauss with no regrets. While Strauss' tide may have turned between Elektra and this, his subsequent opera, de Waart treated the score with the love and care it deserves. Of course, he had help on stage from three women who are not only among the world’s best in these roles, but are perhaps some of the best ever.

Renée Fleming is singing the Marschallin, one of her signature roles. Which is to say that outside of Rusalka it may be more suited for her than anything else she has ever sung. Just heart-breaking to the point of tears. Fleming's Octavian was Susan Graham who sang with such conviction and clarity that it was almost like I had never heard her before despite my longstanding admiration of her voice. Then there was Christine Schäfer as Sophie whose small frame and beautiful voice provided the perfect foil to the powerful and large Baron Ochs of Kristinn Sigmundsson. There is often too little for the cast to do onstage, but luckily these four are not just incredible voices. The sheer experience and acting abilities of the entire cast filled in a dreadfully large amount of standing-around time. Suddenly the musty confines of the past seemed to fade away under the glories of these performances. The final trio between the three female leads was absolutely first rate. Luckily there are three more of these necessary performances between now and the 15th of January, though they are mostly sold out. Best of all however, is that there is an HD broadcast to see next Saturday afternoon that everyone can take advantage of.

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