Opera Star Renée Fleming Takes on Comedy at the Met

Classic Arts   Opera Star Renée Fleming Takes on Comedy at the Met The star, who made her Broadway debut in Living on Love, explores the lighter side of opera through May 13.
Robert Carsen and Renée Fleming
Robert Carsen and Renée Fleming Dario Acosta Photography

Just two years after the 1909 Dresden Court Opera premiere of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s first collaboration—the blazing one-act Elektra—their next work appeared on the same stage. The contrast couldn’t have been more striking. After the intense, focused, 100-minute burst of Greek tragedy that is Elektra, the writers’ new creation was a comic opera of epic proportions, featuring a cast of more than two dozen colorful characters, drawn from the streets and palaces of Imperial Vienna. Initially envisioned as a light, almost operetta-like entertainment, by the time of its premiere Der Rosenkavalier had grown into what would quickly be hailed as one of opera’s great human comedies.

“The piece is very much about the passage of time,” says director Robert Carsen, whose production marks the first new Rosenkavalier the Met has presented in almost five decades. “The notion that, even as we speak, time is going by is central to the piece.” This might not have been the case if Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s original conception for the story had come to fruition. The working title for the opera was “Ochs auf Lerchenau,” after the boorish country squire who provides most of its comedic moments. And while, at least on the page, the authors’ emphasis eventually shifted to the young “bearer of the rose,” it is the third in the trio of protagonists who has captured the imagination of audiences for more than 100 years: the elegant, worldly Feldmarschallin (or Field Marshal’s wife), Princess Werdenberg.

She is the emotional center of the opera, and her first-act monologue, in which she muses on the inevitability of time slipping through our fingers, is among the most moving and poignant moments in the operatic repertoire.

It helps, of course, to have the role performed by Renée Fleming, perhaps the definitive Marschallin of her generation. “The Marschallin is a complex woman who has issues that pretty much anyone can relate to,” Fleming says of the character she last inhabited on the Met stage in 2010. “Anxiety, fear … she’s quite complicated. There’s so much depth, particularly in Act 1, at the end of which the Marschallin and Octavian have this extraordinary experience together [when she sends him away]—and the audience lives it with them.”

Latvian mezzo-soprano Elīna Garanča sings the trouser role of Octavian, the Marschallin’s young lover. Like Fleming, Garanča has been acclaimed around the world for her interpretation, but, surprisingly, the two have never worked together on any opera production. The Met’s cast also includes Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs, Erin Morley as Sophie, Marcus Brück as Faninal, and Matthew Polenzani in a cameo appearance as the Italian Singer. German maestro Sebastian Weigle conducts.

If the idea of time is crucial to the characters and story of Der Rosenkavalier, it also informs the practical challenges of staging it, as Carsen—whose previous Met credits include the 2013 hit production of Falstaff as well as Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Boito’s Mefistofele—points out. “It’s a complicated opera to direct because it is a—or perhaps, the—social comedy. You are dealing with a very particular period, a very particular society with specific codes of behavior and interaction. So it has to be believable, but it also has to be funny.”

The period, as stated in the libretto, is “the early years of the rule of Maria Theresa,” or the 1740s. But, the director explains, the seemingly realistic social-comedy setting “makes you mistakenly believe that a lot of what you’re seeing is how it really was at that time. But of course a lot of it was made up by this wonderful playwright, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.”

Hofmannsthal’s idea of an impossibly beautiful, enchanted Vienna that never was is nowhere more visibly expressed than in the opera’s title: the tradition of a young bride being presented with a silver rose on behalf of her aristocratic future husband never actually existed. But the poet’s invention ingeniously captures the sense of nostalgia that permeates this piece: Der Rosenkavalier is set in a world that—whether real or not—seems almost too charming, too magical to last.

“It might appear as if here were painted, with diligence and effort, the image of a time past,” Hofmannsthal himself wrote in an essay published shortly after the premiere. “But this is a mere illusion which will not stand beyond the first fleeting glimpse … Of the manners and customs, those that one might think were invented are for the most part real and genuine, and those that seem real are invented.” (The much-cited musical anachronism of Strauss using the Viennese waltz to evoke local color in a story set in the 18th century, when there was no Viennese waltz, is another expression of the opera’s deliberate fairy-tale quality.)

At the time of Der Rosenkavalier’s creation, the old European order that had stood for centuries was just a few years away from collapsing amid the horrors of the First World War. This imaginary parallel between the Marschallin’s Vienna and Hofmannsthal’s Vienna inspired Carsen to set his production in the final years of the Habsburg monarchy. “The piece has a real fin-de-siècle feeling,” he explains, “because the world that is being described is a world that, as Strauss and Hofmannsthal were composing the opera, was on the brink of disappearing forever. The end of the Habsburgs, World War I just around the corner—you feel it in the writing of the piece.”

Situated at the crossroads of 19th-century tradition, art nouveau, and modernism, this setting provided rich visual inspiration to the production’s design team of Paul Steinberg (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes), and Peter Van Praet (who created the lighting, together with Carsen). From the old-school aristocracy embodied by the Field Marshal’s palace to the home of the nouveau-riche Faninal, to the inn of questionable repute that the characters find themselves in at the end, the opera’s three acts will take place in stylistically distinct environments.

For the second act in particular, the production team drew on a real-life model: the Looshaus in Vienna, one of the city’s first, controversial examples of modernist architecture, which was constructed around the time of the Rosenkavalier premiere. “The newly ennobled Faninal has just built the largest house in Vienna, we’re told in the libretto,” Carsen says of the design approach. “So we have imagined a space that an architect like Adolf Loos might have built—shiny, white stone floors and undecorated surfaces, set against the wood and rich fabric-covered walls of the Marschallin’s bedroom.”

In the final act, the story takes us to a place that the director describes as “tawdry, cheap, glittery, and over-decorated.” Originally a “Beisl”—a Viennese pub or inn—in the Met’s production it will resemble something between a bar and a bordello. During the wordless opening scene, which plays out over an orchestral introduction, the stage is set—quite literally—for the opera’s big comic finale: Ochs’s disastrous rendezvous with the disguised Octavian. The act unfolds as a crescendo of twists, turns, and unexpected entrances, at the end of which it is left to the noble Marschallin—unseen since her pensive monologue two hours earlier—to restore order and common sense and to bring the story to a close.

At this point, in the opera’s final minutes, Strauss masterfully shifts gears from high-spirited comedy to one of the most sublimely beautiful ensembles in all of opera, as the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie reflect—with joy, regret, surprise, and resignation—on what has brought them to this moment. “Time stops,” as Carsen puts it. Accepting that her romance with Octavian has come to an end, the Marschallin quietly exits the stage, leaving the young lovers alone. For them, it’s a happy ending. For the audience, it’s more than that.

“Throughout this piece, there’s a bittersweet quality, a melancholy, laughter through tears, all of these half-shades that coincide with the fin-de-siècle quality of the composition,” the director says. “It’s the symbol for the end of a world and a farewell to a golden age.”

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