We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, March 31, 2018


Concertmaster Markus Wolf, Adrianne Pieczonka, Angela Brower, Peter Rose, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Maestro Kirill Petrenko, Lawrence Brownlee, Helene Schneiderman, and Ulrich Ress

What is your favorite Strauss opera? Our is, hands down, Der Rosenkavalier, just presented in concert form at Carnegie Hall by the Bayerische Staatsoper, under the baton of Maestro Kirill Petrenko. The partnership of Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal was legendary.

We love the characters, above all the noble and worldly wise Marschallin who knows just how to handle a lovesick teenage lover, a boorish entitled cousin, and a miffed member of the parvenu persuasion. Her concerns with aging and the passage of time seem quaint in our epoch, when 60 is the new 40. Perhaps in the 18th c. a woman close to 30, as we believe she is meant to be, was likely considered to be past her "sell by" date. Still, we identify!

We also love the character of Octavian who is highly hormonal and fickle in the way that young men can be.  His cluelessness is tempered by his protective nature toward women and we find him an endearing personage. He loves passionately but capriciously.

Who would not love Sophie, fresh out of convent and given all the burdensome baggage of someone of the bourgeois class recently raised to nobility; she is determined to fit in and to permit no slights from the highly born. No pushover is she, however, but feisty in her intent to avoid a miserable fate and to find a better one for herself.

We do not love Baron Ochs, the proverbial bull in a china shop. But we love laughing at him, with all his pretentiousness and feelings of entitlement. His attitude toward women reminds us of POTUS. We squirmed as he boasted of his success with women and his attitude toward his bride-to-be was nothing short of deplorable.

We love the score and the massive forces of the orchestra for which Strauss has written music of complexity and great variety. The affection felt for the story is obvious in his lavish orchestration. and attention to detail. Each act begins with a stunning prelude and each character has a leitmotiv. Mr. Petrenko conducted with verve and brought out things in the score that we had not heard when we were distracted by the lavish sets and costumes. And we never mind hearing a waltz!

The opera begins with a musical depiction of orgasm with whooping brass; the intent is unmistakable, even in concert.  Strauss saved the best for last--a gorgeous trio for three very different female voices in which each expresses her innermost thoughts and feelings. 

The Marschallin herself was pushed into marriage straight out of convent and, we imagine, compensates for the presence of a probably much older and unloved husband by taking on young lovers. That she relinquishes Octavian to young Sophie is a mark not only of her generosity of spirit but of her acceptance of reality--"der lauf der welt".

Hearing the magnificent forces of the Bayerische Staatsoper and their excellent choir in a concert performance was a new experience for us.  We carry fond memories of the late lamented Nathaniel Merrill/Robert O'Hearn iteration at The Metropolitan Opera, starring Renée Fleming, Susan Graham, and Christine Schäfer; this permitted us to "fill in the blanks" visually. We wondered how audience members new to the opera might have understood the absences of minor characters, with major characters speaking into thin air!

Still, we must admire the way every cast member offered not only superlative vocal performances but effective acting, without the use of music stands.  Suppose we call it semi-staged.

Of all the excellence onstage, we were most impressed with the Octavian of American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower.  Her rich resonant instrument filled Carnegie Hall from stage to balcony and her acting was totally convincing. She needed no costuming but used her body to emulate a 17-year-old boy. When she was called upon to portray Mariandel (a joke on Baron Ochs) she needed no women's weeds to effect the transformation and successfully imitated a rural dialect. She was able to create great chemistry with both Ms. Pieczonka and Ms. Müller.

As the Marschallin, dramatic soprano Adrianne Pieczonka took a while to settle into the role but wound up being a marvelous Marschallin and provided the firm strength to anchor the final trio.

As the virginal Sophie, lyric soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller dazzled with her crystalline sound and evoked the right degree of sympathy.

Bass Peter Rose kept us laughing, even when we felt anger at his pawing of Sophie. He is truly a master comedian.

Baritone Markus Eiche made an effective Herr Faninal, Sophie's father. He so desperately wanted her marriage to Baron Ochs that he was ready to throw her back into the convent if she disobeyed.

Tenor Ulrich Ress made a fine Valzacchi with mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman performing as his "niece" Annina.  The two gossips and intriguers were instrumental in the plot to orchestrate Baron Ochs humiliation and rejection. (Like POTUS, Ochs doesn't think he has done anything wrong and can't believe he is being rejected.)

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee gave us a nice aria during the levee, a moment of beauty midst the controlled chaos of this musically and dramatically rambunctious scene.

So yes, this is our favorite Strauss opera.  No one dies, no one gets beheaded, no one goes mad. It's all just good clean fun with Hoffmansthal in the early years of the 20th c. looking back with nostalgia at a fantasy of the 18th c.  Even the presentation of a silver rose was an invented fantasy, but we love it just as much as if it were real.

(c) meche kroop

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