A modern Rosenkavalier at the Met goes pop culture

By Raymond Beegle
Published: October 19, 2009

Artists often prove to be prophets. Certainly a great number of notable painters, novelists, poets, playwrights, and musicians at the beginning of the 20th century prophesied what the majority of politicians and clerics denied. That was no less than the dissolution of European culture and its institutions, as they had been known since the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire eleven hundred years before. It had become increasingly difficult for mankind to deny the unfolding of its murderous and cruel dark side, which was soon to culminate in decades of world wars. With Salome and Elektra, Strauss caused a sensation by addressing this chilling truth. Following these two violent indictments, Der Rosenkavalier was conceived: a sometimes, melancholy, sometimes humorous, but always graceful farewell to the past. The setting is an idealized Vienna of the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment, the time of Lessing, Kannt, and Rousseau, when every philosopher wrote some kind of essay about the sublime and the beautiful, and our culture, as many historians would have it, was in full bloom.

The tides of melancholy and humor sedately ebbed and flowed tonight under the direction of Maestro Edo de Waart, who was inclined to address the myriad nuts and bolts of this score rather than its voluptuous qualities. Still, he was a solid ally for Susan Graham, the Rosenkavalier of the evening, who presented a penetrating view into the heart of this mercurial and many-faceted hero. Octavian’s breaking out of the chrysalis of boyhood: his adolescence, his idealism, his apprehensions, his growing into manhood, was gracefully portrayed and well neigh perfectly sung. The rendezvous between Mariandl and Ochs showed Graham’s comic gift to great effect, and the presentation of the silver rose to Sophie, amid the mandatory chandeliers and cherubim, was especially brilliant. Unfortunately Sophie’s responding phrases, sung by the Swedish soprano, Miah Persson, did not spin with the same suppleness and breadth as those of the rose bearer. Persson has a sweet but not particularly memorable voice, and gave a rather tepid accounting of this idealistic and well-bred youngster in the thrall of first love.

Kristinn Sigmundsson made more than a cliché of the Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau, whose carnal indiscretions, being of the overt and clumsy sort, are not as acceptable as those of the discrete Marschallin.  Although a flamboyant buffo, there was no doubting the presence of a very fine voice. Now and again, when singing, for example his “favorite waltz,” (reminiscent of Joseph Strauss’ Dynamide), one comes to see that the Baron has traces of gentlemanly qualities, and does not find beauty exclusively in the female form. This served as a counterbalance to his arrogance and foolishness, and generated a certain amount of sympathy for him when he is eventually exposed, ridiculed, and dismissed in the elaborate ‘wienerische Maskerad’ of the final act.

Certainly in all of opera the character of the fairy tale Princess Marie Theresa von Werdenberg is one of the most complex.  Although a highly individual personality, she is also an institution, representing many of the views, mannerisms, and accomplishments – that is to say the culture - of her epoch. Aristocratic, rich, beautiful, she is obsessed at the age of 32 with the passage of time and the loss of her youth. The wife of a Feldmarschall, she is engaged in a voluptuous affair with a teenaged boy. She finds herself bored with a life of privilege, and sees through the fawning attitudes of the many who are in need of her good will. She is wise enough to know when her hold over Octavian has come to an end, and with good grace and strength of character relinquishes him to his newfound love. Aside from the first act monologue, her complexities are generally played out in sequences of surprisingly short duration. A look, a gesture, a phrase, is often pivotal and heavily weighted with meaning. The dramatic challenges for the Marschallin in this respect are great, demanding from the outset a compelling eminence and formidable stature. It was thrilling to see the way Sena Juranac, Leonie Rysaneck, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf met these challenges, dominating the stage, as they did, with their presence, constant, electrifying, even when they were silent.  

Tonight, regrettably, this presence proved to be a glaring absence, especially in the last act where at times one had to search among the assortment of characters on stage for the great Marschallin, wrapped as she was in her Hollywood stardust. Reneé Fleming has an exceptionally pretty and obedient voice, and she is an intelligent musician, but even in her best singing, which took place in the final trio, there was something derivative, something reminiscent now of Lehmann, now of Rysanek, now of Schwarzkopf. None of it seemed to be her own personal possession. These older singers lay claim to a virtue that Fleming does not share. They lay claim to an occlusive relationship with their culture, the great Western European culture, and its attendant musical conventions. Miss Fleming, in contrast, is a hybrid, living in both the world of a popular music industry, and the venerable classical tradition.  As the Marschallin is in many ways a symbol of her own epoch, perhaps Reneé Fleming is a symbol of ours, representing a phenomenon described by M. Rostovtzeff in his Decay of Ancient Civilization, as: “…the gradual absorption of the educated classes by the masses, the consequent simplification of intellectual life… the gradual leveling down of standards.”

In order to see the implications of this phenomenon more clearly, let us take an example more explicit than that of Reneé Fleming. Let us take the example of a recorded performance, made some years earlier, of Debussy’s Beau Soir, sung by the celebrated American mezzo-soprano, Barbara Streisand. It is possible that she took great trouble, to learn the pitches and their duration, the diction, the phrasing and the meaning of each word. One can observe, as well, a carefully placed tenuto here, or decrescendo there, but her longstanding relationship with her culture – pop culture- has placed the style of this song, it’s spirit and deeper truth- its greatness, in a word - light years beyond her artistic grasp.

To a lesser degree, but still, to a degree, the same is true of the pop singer/opera singer Reneé Fleming.  In spite of careful study, and analysis, in spite of coaching, and listening to singers of the past, and in spite of her distinguished schooling, her liaison with pop culture insinuates itself in both music and gesture, bleeds through, and ultimately trivializes the complex character she portrays. This new genus of entertainer appearing at the Metropolitan Opera, this genus of pop singer/opera singer, opens itself to serious speculation. One wonders: Would the spell cast by Maria Callas have been so profound, had she recorded all of the pop tunes on the radio in the 1960’s? Would Lotte Lehmann (in spite of wrong notes) have brought such mystery and wonder to the character of the Marschallin had she sung Marlena Dietrich’s show tunes as well? Would Renata Tebaldi have been the same Tosca, had she, on occasion, stretched out on the floor at Carnegie Hall, like her successor, Karita Mattla, and crooned some cabaret song about golden earrings?  One wonders.

Raymond Beegle is Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, has written for Fanfare Magazine, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.