Saturday, February 13, 2016

Opera Review: In Chicago, a perfect "Rosenkavalier" revival

Act I
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
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The Lyric Opera of Chicago's revival of its 2006 production of Richard Strauss's bittersweet romantic comedy "Der Rosenkavalier" ("The Cavalier of the Rose"), which runs through March 13, has everything a great night at the opera should have: wonderful music, superior singing, fine acting by a cast who are all just right for their roles, eye-popping sets and costumes, and impeccable playing from a first-class orchestra. Those of us who love opera live for productions like this.

First performed in Dresden in 1911, "Rosenkavalier" was an immediate success with both audiences and critics alike. Productions quickly popped up at La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, and The Metropolitan in New York. Today it's easily Strauss's most popular opera and a part of the core repertoire. It's certainly no stranger to the Lyric stage, where some notable singers have appeared in it.

Act II
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Much of the opera's success stems from the depth and intelligence of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto. Working closely with the composer, von Hofmannsthal took what started out as a typical romantic farce about young lovers Sophie and Octavian (the titular cavalier) outwitting the boorish Baron Ochs, who is being forced on Sophie as a husband, and added a worldly-wise depth to it with the character of Octavian's older lover, the noble Marschallin.

In her mid-thirties, the Marschallin is nearly twice Octavian's age and sees all too clearly that their affair must eventually end. Her Act I ruminations on the transitory nature of happiness and her final renunciation of Octavian in the exquisitely beautiful trio at the end of the third act lend her character a richness that makes her immediately appealing. That final trio, along with the duet for Sophie and Octavian that follows, also gives the comedy a rueful edge that contrasts wonderfully with the door-slamming farce that has gone before.

L-R: Amanda Majeski and Sophie Koch
Photo: Cory Weaver
"Rosenkavalier" is, in short, a combination of great drama and great music. And Lyric has given us a production to match.

In the key role of the Marschallin, Lyric is blessed with the presence of soprano Amanda Majeski. An Illinois native, Ms. Majeski has impressed me in the past at Opera Theatre of St. Louis as Musetta in "La Boheme" (2009) and Rosina in "The Marriage of Figaro" (2010). Her work here is sheer perfection. She's no stranger to the part, having sung it in Frankfurt last season, and has clearly mastered the character's many moods, from her flirtatiousness with Octavian following their liebesnacht in her bedroom at the start of the first act to her gracious philosophical resignation in the trio of the last. A lyric soprano, Ms. Majeski has a voice of both warmth and power, enabling her to make herself heard over Strauss's large orchestra while still floating ethereally over more intimate scenes. She simply could not be better in this role.

Matthew Rose
Photo: Cory Weaver
On opening night, the "breeches" role of Octavian, who is appointed to present a silver rose to Sophie on behalf of the loutish Ochs and instead becomes smitten with her, was given vivid and convincing life by French mezzo Sophie Koch (she'll be replaced by Alice Coote beginning of March 4). She has the deep, rich voice the part demands and is strikingly convincing as an awkward and sometimes petulant teenaged boy. When, as part of the comic plotting, Octavian is obliged to disguise himself as the Marschallin's maid, Ms. Koch is completely believable as a young man trying, with mixed success, to pass himself off as a woman. It's the sort of thing that calls for skilled physical acting and she does it well.

German soprano Christina Landshamer rounds out the trio of principal women as the much put-upon Sophie, trying to reconcile her filial duty to her social-climbing father (given vivid comic life by baritone Martin Gantner) with her disgust at the rude an arrogant Ochs and her sudden love for Octavian. She has a transparent, lovely voice and a fine sense of comic timing that serve her well.

L-R: Christina Landshamer and Sophie Koch
Photo: Cory Weaver
Bass Matthew Rose's Ochs is a perfectly pitched bit of ham-fisted comic buffoonery, delivered with a sure and powerful voice. Convinced of his aristocratic bearing and fatal attraction to the opposite sex, Ochs is actually about as subtle as the lumbering bovine after which he is named, and Mr. Rose makes him every bit as comically repulsive as he needs to be. When Ochs is publicly humiliated in the final act and forced to accept the failure of his plans to marry Sophie for her fortune, Mr. Rose seems to physically shrink before our eyes as the character's macho façade crumbles. It's masterful.

In fact, every member of this huge cast is impressive, right down to the smallest roles. That includes tenor Rodel Rosel and mezzo Megan Marino as the wily Italian "intriguers" Valzacchi and Annina, tenor René Barbera as the golden-voiced Singer whose attempts to serenade the Marschallin are constantly disrupted by Ochs's quarrel with her notary, and even child actor Zach Thomas as the Marschallin's mute page Mohammed. Given that there are 27 named roles, that's saying a lot.

Amanda Majeski in Act III
Photo: Cory Weaver
Director Martina Weber shows a good grasp of the dramatic arcs of individual scenes and moves her large forces about skillfully to create appealing stage pictures. She also does an impressive job of keeping focus exactly where it needs to be at all times, even in large crowd scenes like the one in the first act, in which the Marschallin's apartment is overrun with petitioners, entertainers, and even some fatally cute dogs. As someone who has had to share a stage with live animals from time to time, I can assure you that any director who can prevent them from stealing focus clearly knows her stuff.

Strauss wrote a wonderfully lush and engaging score for "Rosenkavalier." The orchestral prelude, with its unabashedly erotic depiction of Octavian and the Marschallin's night of passion (complete with orgasmic whoops from the horns) is a neat bit of tongue-in-cheek comedy, and the big waltz theme from the second act is irresistible. It's lavish, complex, and delivered with consistent assurance and polish by conductor Edward Gardner and his musicians.

L-R: Christian Landshamer, Sophie Koch, and
Amanda Majeski in Act III
Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Thierry Bosquet's sets and costumes perfectly capture the mid-18th century setting of the opera, with elegantly coiffed women, dashing men, and imposing, richly appointed rooms. The Marschallin's bedroom, in particular, looks stunningly realistic, especially when illuminated by Duane Schuler's lighting. The opulent look of the opera neatly matches its lavish sound.

If you go, by the way, make sure you stay in your seat for the first five minutes or so of the first intermission, when Stage Manger John W. Coleman narrates the massive set change from the Marschallin's bedroom to the reception hall of the grandiose town house of Sophie's father. It's a fascinating look at the backstage magic that usually occurs behind the Lyric's massive curtain.

Lyric Opera's flawless production of "Der Rosenkavalier" continues through March 13 at the Civic Opera House in Chicago; visit the company web site for ticket information. Maestro Gardner and Director Weber have made a number of minor cuts, but even so "Rosenkavalier" clocks in at just over four hours, including two 25-minute intermissions. For any other romantic comedy that might be too long, but for Strauss and von Hofmannsthal's elegant and bittersweet confection, it's just right. I recommend it without reservation.

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