Review: San Diego Opera’s Solo Celebration of Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” Centennial – April 3, 2011

New productions of Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” are being mounted in observance of the opera’s centennial of its first performance in several cities on the European Continent. The opera is being feted with a new Willi Decker production in Amsterdam and the revival of the modernistic Herbert Wernicke production at Milan’s La Scala.

A revival of Otto Schenck’s production is scheduled for Munich and a single 2011 performance took place  in Dresden at the site of the opera’s 1911 premiere (with Anke Vondung as Octavian and Han-Joachim Ketelsen as Faninal, both of whom left Dresden to come to San Diego to reprise those roles). As the first post-earthquake/tsunami  operatic production, the New Nipponese Theater will present “Rosenkavalier” with two alumni or recent San Diego Opera production veterans (Camilla Nylund and Franz Hawlata) in Tokyo April 7th.

But no 2011 performances are scheduled in Vienna, nor the British Isles, nor any part of the Western Hemisphere, save San Diego.

“Der Rosenkavalier” is a comic opera that taxes a company’s resources, requiring a large orchestra and huge cast, including five major roles and several important comprimario roles, including a pair of singing “character” actors, and a role, which lasts only about ten minutes, for a tenor accomplished in singing a complex aria in the Italian style over Strauss’ sumptious orchestration.

[Below: the Baron Ochs (Andrew Greenan, left) makes it obvious to the Marschallin (Twyla Robinson, center), that he has designs on her “chambermaid” who is really Count Octavian (Anke Vondung, right) in disguise; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

For members of the  San Diego audience who worry that their local opera company’s performance of the Strauss classic may not meet the international standards for “Rosenkavalier” performances, they should feel re-assured that what was seen in San Diego would pass muster anywhere.

In fact, producing “Rosenkavalier” is a highly refined art, assayed by the very few operatic managements. The artists who sing the major roles are part of an elite fraternity (and sorority).

I suspect that at any given time there are fewer artists that are regarded as first rank Marschallins or Octavians than heldentenors or dramatic sopranos of equal world reputation singing the major roles in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.  A role debut as the Marschallin is a world event, and San Diego Opera has presented the world with just that.

It hadn’t originally intended to. The San Diego Opera is noted for casting its performances many years into the future. Two of the originally planned cast –  those scheduled to sing the Marschallin and Baron Ochs – withdrew. That, of course, is a hazard of making casting choices years in advance. But things seem to work out more often than not.

In a period such as currently exists, in which there are more first rate opera singers available than opera performances to employ their skills, an opera company’s casting crisis often becomes an opportunity to  introduce a singer (often one under contract for later performances at that company) to their audiences at an earlier time than otherwise would have been possible. British bass-baritone Andrew Greenan was tapped for Ochs, and American soprano Twyla Robinson for the Marschallin.

The Rose-Cavalier in San Diego

Although “Rosenkavalier” has been performed in San Diego on three previous occasions (including a performance by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin on a 1960 San Francisco Opera tour, one of four times the San Francisco company brought the world renowned German soprano to San Diego) and in 1976 and 1992, one assumes that a large part of the San Diego audience had not seen it performed live previously.

The San Diego Opera sought to observe the opera’s centennial by giving its audience a solidly respectful presentation of Strauss’ operatic masterpiece. It borrowed the San Francisco Opera sets, which themselves are based on the famous Alfred Roller sets that launched the opera in 1911 (see S. F. Opera – A Center for “Rosenkavalier” Excellence: June 24, 2007). They enlisted Lotfi Mansouri, long associated with the San Francisco Opera production and other stagings of the opera, as director.

The resulting production is one that conforms to the rich production history of this opera. Unlike many productions, I will not have to spend any time explaining how the performance was updated to emphasize this or that concept, with which the composer and librettist would likely have been unfamiliar. Instead, if you want a sense of how Mansouri staged the opera and the artists performed it, simply pick up a copy of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and read the very detailed stage directions.

In another case of “luxury casting” the brief, but hugely important, role of the Italian tenor was played by the stylish Donizetti specialist, Stephen Costello (who later in the month will sing the title role of Gounod’s “Faust” in San Diego). The 29 year Richard Tucker Award winner sang the immensely challenging aria – Strauss’ paean to the Italian lyric style – poignantly, and with seeming effortlessness.

[Below: Stephen Costello is the Italian Tenor; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

There are arguably more sopranos that would prove to be excellent Marschallins than actually get to sing the role. The Marschallin is such an iconic assignment, and producing “Rosenkavalier” creates such difficulties, that companies prefer an established “name” artist. Very often this means that, although the Marschallin is supposedly around 30 years of age, she is often played by artists who are in their 50s (or beyond).

In a society where 50 is the new 30 this does not matter too much. The Marschallin’s depression that she, a married woman, will certainly lose her teenage lover Octavian to someone his own age is always affecting. Yet, it is still worthwhile to see the opera done with a Marschallin nearer in age to her character’s.

Robinson proved to be an engaging Marschallin. Already expert in playing Mozart’s dignified ladies of station – Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan Tutte”, the Countess in “Nozze di Figaro” and both Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” (for my review of her Donna Elvira, see Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007), she was an elegant presence in the two acts in which she appears.

[Below: the Marschallin (Twyla Robinson) reflects on the passage of time; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Vondung made a vivid impression as Octavian, one of the longest and most difficult roles in the mezzo repertory. The presentation of the silver rose to Sophie in the second act is one of grand opera’s most overpowering scenes, and, Vondung, dressed in Thierry Bosquet’s costumes in the classical silver rococo style with white wig, made a believable rosenkavalier.

Her Sophie, Patrizia Ciofi, I had seen in Wernicke’s “Great Gatsby” period production at the Opera National de Paris (which James Conlon conducted in 2002), and, as I reported last Fall, was deeply impressed by her Gilda in London (see 21st Century Verdi: Hvorostovsky, Ciofi, Kim, Aceto in McVicar’s Illuminating “Rigoletto” – ROH Covent Garden, October 11, 2010) and was delighted that San Diego had secured her brilliant coloratura voice for the duets with Vondung’s Octavian and the trios joined by Robinson’s Marschallin.

[ Below: Octavian (Anke Vondung, left) assures Sophie (Patrizia Ciofi) that he will work to break up her unwanted engagement, if she will commit her love to him; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtest of the San Diego Opera.]

Portraying this slice of life of the 18th century Viennese upper classes requires a large retinue of supporting artists. In the Marschallin’s service are two esteemed American artists associated with lead roles –  John Duykers as her Major-domo, and basso Kevin Langan (her Notary, and in the third act a Police Commissioner who used to be her husband’s orderly).

Her four footmen (doubling as the waiters in the third act inn scene) were Andrew Bennett, Stephen Branch, Anthony Ballard and Michael Blinco). Also ready to provide services were a Milliner (Tiffany Carmel) and an Animal Trainer (Manuel Paz Castillo). The three noble orphans were played by Natalie Mann, Ava Baker Liss, and Cherylyn Larson. The mute part of the young boy servant, Mohamat, was played by Francis Goonan.

[Below: Octavian (Anke Vondung, front left) challenges the Baron Ochs (Andrew Greenan, front right) to a duel as Ochs’ retinue looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Baron Ochs’ retinue included his illegitimate son Leopold (Matthew Roehl). The Baron von Faninal’s Major-Domo was played by Simeon Esper (who doubled as the third act Innkeeper).

Stephanie Weiss played Marianne, the duenna in charge of Sophie’s chastity and reputation. Serving anyone who would pay for their devious services were the comic conspirators Annina (Helene Schniederman) and Valzacchi (Joel Sorensen).

Effective in the role of Sophie’s father, the nouveau riche, newly enobled Baron von Faninal, who ultimately emerges as a classier noble than Ochs, the blue-blood baron whose condescending ways are one of the “Rosenkavalier” running gags.

[Below: Faninal (Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, left) reveals to Sophie (Patrizia Ciofi) that he is rethinking the idea of her marriage to Ochs; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera. ]

Christof Perick was an authoritative conductor and the San Diego Opera orchestra sounded brilliant. The quality of the singing never varied, with the famous women’s ensembles peerlessly performed.

Ultimately, the success of “Rosenkavalier” rests on the effectiveness of the trio of Octavian, the Marschallin and Ochs. Vondung, Robinson and Greenan proved superb in their roles. Vondung has considerable experience in the role. Although Greenan had sung the role in Cape Town, South Africa, his performances as Ochs in San Diego will likely be a career milestone. Seeing Twyla Robinson’s role debut as the Marschallin convinces me that this she wil become a major presence in the elite sorority of world class Marschallins.

The San Diego Opera showed that the Western Hemisphere can produce a praiseworthy perfromance of this century old operatic classic.

[Below: the Marschallin (Twyla Robinson, left) explains to the Baron Ochs (Andrew Greenan, center) that he must leave and forget all that has happened, as Count Octavian (Anke Vondung, right) realizes that his own life has been transformed; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Celebrating “Rosenkavalier” in live performance in 2011 requires a trip to Continental Europe or Japan, or alternatively, to this excellent production by the San Diego Opera. I recommend it highly.

[For my comments on the production that San Francisco Opera brought to San Diego in 1960, see: 50 Year Anniversaries: Schwarzkopf, Boehme in San Francisco “Rosenkavalier” – September 29, 1960.]