Friday, March 18, 2016

A sumptuously sung and eye-catching Der Rosenkavalier at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Tender, comic and noble, Lyric Opera of Chicago's almost 23 year old production (from San Francisco Opera) of Richard Strauss's bittersweet opera, Der Rosenkavalier, lives as a sumptuously sung and eye-catching feast. Nudging a tad past four hours in length, including two intervals over its three acts, the stamina and strength of its large cast of artists and full pit of musicians are put to the test of living up to the impressive success the opera received following its 1911 premiere in Dresden. The results are intelligent, reverent, affecting and broadly entertaining, impossible without Martina Weber's, overall, sensitively detailed direction.

In a venerable curtsy to Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, the success of Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's marriage of music and plot with cushion-comfort comic ease depends in part on its nuanced language and accents which wash out easily first in translation and secondly in front of a modern audience.

Amanda Majeski as The Marschallin
For this reason, in its English translation, the comic element can appear grafted rather than embedded in the work which at times skews the comedic balance. Nonetheless, in her house directorial debut, Weber achieves much through richly detailed character behaviour, coupled with a spirited pace, and adept movement of a large cast with natural ease and comic flair.

During an inviting and vibrant overture, the curtain is raised to reveal The Marschallin's opulent mid-18th Century boudoir in which we spy The Marschallin and Octavian in bed together. You're enveloped with an immediate sense of presence in the time which extends for the opera's entirety, startlingly created by Thierry Bosquet's lavish set designs and stately period costumes. The treat of watching the deconstruction of Act 1's set and the mounting of Act II's palace room during the first interval (hosted by stage director John Coleman) also adds dimension and wonder to a night at the opera. It reinforces just how Duane Schuler's lighting design transcends belief when you realise how blandly cold this fabricated opulence looks when lit only by stage work lights.

Amanda Majeski presents a fine portrait of the older Marschallin, who is cheating on her husband while having an affair with the 17 year-old Count Octavian Rofrano, a trouser-role performed with forthright irresistibility by Alice Coote. The chemistry they share is engaging, a chemistry that falls a little flat in Octavian's subsequent rush of passion in a love-at-first-sight encounter with the sweetly voiced Sophie von Faninal of Christina Landshamer in Act II.

Alice Coote as Octavian
Majeski projects the gentle sadness of a woman lamenting age and the passing of time with dignified aplomb and there is a smouldering fire in her performance that lends forgiveness to her unfaithfulness. Richly textured and technically pliant, Majeski's equally pure and velvety soprano is filled with depth of emotion. Only in the lower register does the voice occasionally sag amongst orchestral density but how it soars with radiant lightness at the top. By Act I's end Majeski's Marschallin garners audience sympathy and hints at love's impending loss and, by opera's end, a deep respect for her kind acceptance of Octavian's new love for and intention to marry Sophie.

Coote is particularly believable in her depiction of an impetuous and virile but emotionally immature Octavian, slipping between the serious and comic with ease and liveliness. Coote swaps pants for a skirt in disguise as the playful and cheeky maid, "Mariandel" when Baron Ochs tips the plot on arriving at The Marschallin's boudoir to announce his marriage to Sophie. Coote wears both roles convincingly and the voice delights with its lusciousness, dexterity and shape, and, as "Mariandel", has you believe all along you're hearing a man's voice impersonating the soubrette with comedic falsetto charm.

Matthew Rose as Ochs with ensemble
Matthew Rose, in a house debut, makes a striking entry as Ochs, who makes a surprise visit to The Marschallin to announce his intentions to marry Sophie. His instant attraction to "Mariandel" establishes his lecherous credentials, which are further reduced by the sole reason for the marriage being to get his wandering hands on Sophie's family money. It is agreed that Octavian (who he has yet to "really" meet) is to deliver the "traditional" silver rose in a contractual ceremony at the Faninal residence.

The coarse, status-hugging Ochs is hammed up impeccably by Rose who belts out a mighty smokey bass with unforgettably robust ground-hugging lows. Rose stands tall amongst the cast in every respect and shows off his comic chops in a role debut of a performance with the lot.

In another Lyric Opera of Chicago debut Christina Landshamer is the sweeter side of the vocal field, her bright and sunny soprano exuding elegance throughout her range, most beautifully when releasing delicate slithers of emotive music in her upper range. A cosy sensuality is captured in duets with Coote's Octavio and, despite the pair making little eye contact when it mattered, the singing sealed their attraction from the start.

The part of the two-faced, grovelling Faninal, Sophie's father, may be a smaller role but Martin Gantner's shiny baritone gives him pleasing caricatured strength. In the end, Faninal, who Ochs refers to as "a jumped-up noble", declares just how not even a blue-blooded noble the likes of Ochs is worthy of Sophie's hand despite earlier ignoring her distaste for the deal in an act of moral superiority.

Megan Marino and Rodell Rosel
Impressive work comes from a large list of supporting singers, noteworthy amongst which are Laura Wilde as Sophie's scurrying chaperone with her bright and full-bodied soprano, and René Barbera as the visiting self-obsessed singer blessed with a warm and resonant Italianate tenor and Rodell Rosel and Megan Marino as the electrically paired alliance-switching intriguers Valzacchi and Annina. The remaining roles are filled admirably and the chorus act and sing in blended harmony.

Former English National Opera musical director Edward Gardner brings a sense of expanse and freedom to Strauss's score. The tempi feel snug and the music is executed with brazenness, warmth and finesse by the Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra. The treat of gorgeously played open orchestral sections may elongate the night but what they give to the ears outweighs any cost of time.

Der Rosenkavalier is a long night but the see-sawing from touching drama to intermittent comedy makes the passing of time negligible. And towards opera's end, when the poignantly affecting trio, “Hab’ mir’s gelobt, ihn lieb zu haben”, is sung by The Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie, you'll even wonder if it was a really a comedy after all. Now, let's see a contemporary operatic work that can breath like that!

Production photos by Cory Weaver, Andrew Cioffi (Matthew Rose) and Todd Rosenberg (Alice Coote)

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