Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” has several truly sublime and justly beloved scenes and ensembles. With a good cast and conductor, these are almost surefire moments in any performance.
But “Rosenkavalier” also contains whole stretches of heavy-handed comedy that can seem to go on forever. The challenge is to make something of these clunky episodes. That task falls mainly to a conductor. On Friday, Simon Rattle passed that test triumphantly in the performance he led at the Metropolitan Opera, when Robert Carsen’s 2017 production of “Rosenkavalier” returned to the house, with a winning cast.
This was only the third Met appearance for Mr. Rattle, who made his debut in 2010 leading Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” and returned in 2016 for a new production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.” As a conductor, he has a penchant for conveying the drama of a piece by paying insightful attention to musical details. That approach came through on Friday from the start, with his feverish yet transparent conducting of the long orchestral introduction.
The music depicts a night of lovemaking between the Marschallin, the princess von Werdenberg, entering middle-age, and Octavian, her cousin, a 17-year-old count, with whom she is having an affair. Mr. Rattle conveyed the heady fervor of the music without turning the introduction into a tone poem of the erotic. Through all its spasms of intensity, he revealed the music’s obsessive use of thematic sequences and restless harmonic shifts.
Mr. Carsen’s production updates the story, set in Vienna, to 1911, the date of the work’s premiere and the moment right before Europe's centuries-old aristocratic order crumbled under the chaos of World War I. In doing so he takes risks, but almost all of them pay off, including the opening scene.
Rather than first seeing the postcoital lovers lolling about in bed in the early morning, as the libretto indicates, we see Octavian emerge from the bedroom into an outer hall looking intoxicated from a night of passion. Playing this endearing character, the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (who recently gave a splendid recital at Alice Tully Hall with Mr. Rattle, her husband, at the piano) looked like a typically randy if intensely serious young man. The dusky tones and slightly earthy edge to her singing lent a touch of emotional depth to her portrayal of this adolescent. At times, high-flying phrases seemed to press her voice, resulting in some strained sound. But overall she gave a vibrant and affecting performance of a challenging role.
The acclaimed Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund made an overdue Met debut as the Marschallin. Singing with lovely bloom and sensitivity, Mr. Nylund scaled down her essentially dramatic soprano voice to emphasize the lyrical eloquence of the music and the subtle emotions of this complex character.
The worldly-wise Marschallin tells Octavian, as tactfully as possible, that their affair, though lovely, will not last. Rather than reacting to Octavian’s boyish distress by providing motherly comfort, as many sopranos singing this role do, Ms. Nylund, in a daring touch of honesty, seemed swept up in her own emotions. What’s going on within her, as she senses time passing by, is what matters, after all.
The formidable bass Günther Groissböck, a revelation as the boorish, entitled Baron Ochs when this production was new, returned to the role on Friday. If anything, he was even better. The baron is often portrayed as a pompous, hefty, old fool. Mr. Groissböck’s baron looks to be about 40, and at first comes across as imposing and good-looking, which makes his lecherous treatment of women all the more dangerous.
Most of the lame comedic scenes in the opera involve Strauss’s attempts to depict the baron’s absurd carryings-on. This is where Mr. Rattle really comes through. The baron is about to marry Sophie, the young daughter of Faninal, an ambitious striver who has made a fortune selling arms. As the baron prattles on to the Marschallin about the advantages of this arranged union, Mr. Rattle plumbs the bustling orchestra music to highlight intricate details, jagged bits and pungent shards of dissonance that often pass by in other performances.
The soprano Golda Schultz, fresh from a standout-out performance as Clara in the Met’s new production of “Porgy and Bess,” was a radiant-voiced and tenderly innocent Sophie. The supporting cast was strong, including Markus Eiche, a sturdy baritone in his Met debut as Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani as the Italian tenor who comes to sing for the Marschallin.
The ultimate surefire ensemble in “Rosenkavalier,” of course, comes in Act III, when the Marschallin, realizing that Octavian and Sophie are in love, heeds her own advice about life: It is crucial to know when to grab on to something, and when to let go. Ms. Nylund, Ms. Kozena and Ms. Schultz sounded glorious in this ravishing trio, with the sumptuous and never smothering support of Mr. Rattle and the orchestra.
Through Jan. 4 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center; 212-362-6000, metopera.org.
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