Since she first played the role with the Houston Grand Opera in 1995, and despite excellent performances by other sopranos, no American soprano has been as closely identified with Richard Strauss’ Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier than Renee Fleming.
For twenty-two years, from the Paris Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper, the San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, the Baden Baden Festival, the Royal Opera House, and now again at the Met, Ms. Fleming’s art has introduced her audiences both to one of opera’s most remarkable characters and, at the same time, to one of America’s finest singing-actresses.
Now Ms. Fleming has indicated that the Marschallin will be her farewell role, as she scales back her operatic career.
Herbert F. Peyser has noted,
If the piece is in some respects sprawling and over-written, it does contain a piece of moving character-drawing which stands with the most memorable things the literature of musical drama affords.”[i]
Following her predecessor, Lotte Lehmann, who eased into retirement with the Marschallin, Ms. Fleming has quoted the great soprano,
Whenever I closed the door on Sophie and Octavian to leave them to their bliss, I always felt as though I were closing a door upon a part of my own life, taking leave with a smile.”[ii]
And so, with the close of Richard Carsen’s new Der Rosenkavalier, Ms. Fleming may be closing a door for all of us.
Ms. Fleming won early praise for her command of Mozart’s operatic heroines. Forty-seven-year-old Richard Strauss wanted to write a Mozart opera, so he and his longtime collaborator, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal wrote Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and set it in 18th century Vienna.
Nevertheless, the opera was, at heart, about the early twentieth century.
A passing-the-torch-to-the next generation story, Der Rosenkavalier reveals Strauss sensing that Old Europe’s days were as numbered as the days of the Marschallin’s days with Octavian.
Time, like the restless armies of Europe, was marching on. Robert Carsen, the director of this provocative production of Der Rosenkavalier, chose to set the opera, not in the 18th century, but in pre-World War One Vienna. The shadow of the world’s most devastating war, the war which didn’t end all wars, but did end, for all intents and purposes, all of European civilization, hovers over every word and note. Many of the characters in Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier will end among the almost two million Austrian casualties of the war. (The war’s debris would be labeled Modernism, and the trash collectors, the avant garde.)
Designer Paul Steinberg’s rendition of the Marschallin’s home in Act I is brutally burlesqued by his tawdry Act III bordello. In addition, the costumes given to Octavian as Mariandrel by designer Brigitte Reiffensteul have the fascinating aura of a grotesque parody of the Marschallin’s Act I colors and silhouette.
The updating of the opera’s circumstances seems eminently appropriate and effective as America commemorates the one hundredth anniversary of her entry into the Great War.
Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg, the Marschallin, the lonely war bride of the Austrian Field Marshall, passes her time with young lovers, as her husband is away mobilizing the troops. Her latest, Octavian, is, like the previous young lovers, of draft age, and soon to be called up, should war erupt. Hoffmannsthal himself was called up for military service at age forty, even before war was declared. And Strauss’ son Franz volunteered at age seventeen
Within the atmosphere of Ecclesiastes, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow ye shall die”, the Marschallin confronts her own mortality, and like the author of Ecclesiastes, acknowledges that there is indeed a time for everything under heaven.
Now is not the time for the Marschallin to hold onto her youth, symbolized by her young lover.
Now is the time for her to move courageously into the next phase of life, whatever that may bring – if not motherhood, then perhaps widowhood, or life as an Austrian grand dame.
The Marschallin’s progress is aided by an all-star cast of singing-actors. Matthew Polenzani’s caricature of Caruso the Italian Singer is a cameo highlight. Markus Bruck makes his Met debut with great aplomb and style as Faninal, Austria’s Answer to Shaw’s Andrew Undershaft, who decorates his new McMansion with the latest in armaments. Erin Morley’s Sophie is as feisty as one can get as the love stuck and heart-broken betrothed. Gunther Groissbock’s Baron Ochs gives the role perhaps the most layered interpretation ever seen or heard, and the results are amazing, as he makes the very difficult role seem a breeze to sing.
Also bidding farewell to Der Rosenkavalier is Elina Garanca, who has played Octavian for seven years and two months. One may never see a finer performance of the all-but-impossible trousers role.
Finally, Renee Fleming’s Marschallin.
Ms. Fleming seems to deliberately accentuate the character’s youthful pretentions and phoniness in the early part of Act I. Then she has an epiphany as she sees herself in the mirror. From then on Ms. Fleming’s Marschallin is a serious and heart-breaking study of one who must leave what she has loved. A finer farewell performance could not be wished.
Through this character and her actions, Strauss reveals his view of life as a whole, of its greatness and weakness, its sublimity and its absurdity. We may be separate from Ms. Fleming, but we are not passive. We see her Marschallin upon the stage, isolated in time and space, as an emblem of ourselves, a representative of all people. As Ms. Fleming’s Marschallin undergoes for us, we achieve a sense of freedom. Her actions resonate in us. As they do, Strauss’ opera takes on a somewhat utilitarian purpose. Poet-playwright Shelley identified this operatic theatre’s purpose as no less than “teaching the human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of itself.“[iii]
[i] Herbert F. Peyser, Richard Strauss.
[ii] Renee Fleming, The Inner Voice. The Making of a Singer.
[iii] Paul Kuritz, The Making of Theatre History. New York. Prentice Hall, 1988.