Favorite operas

The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier moved several friends of mine to post on Facebook about their favorite operas, with Rosenkavalier as the starting point (a great many friends of mine are serious opera enthusiasts).  I’ll start with two of the lists, noting an oddity in them; then pass to some notes on opera and its history; and finish off with notes on Rosenkavalier and the new Met production.

Favorites. Jack Hamilton followed up on Rosenkavalier with the comment:

Don Giovanni [Mozart] and Turandot [Puccini] are also in the running. And the under-appreciated Abduction from the Seraglio [Mozart].

And Jess Anderson added:

[Der Rosenkavalier] is beyond question one of the greatest of all operas, together with The Marriage of Figaro [Mozart], Don Giovanni [Mozart], La Traviata [Verdi], Madama Butterfly [Puccini], Elektra [Strauss], Tosca [Puccini], The Magic Flute [Mozart], Aida [Verdi], Norma [Bellini], and about a dozen others.

First note: Mozart, with four operas on these two lists taken together, wins the popularity contest, trailed by R. Strauss, Puccini, and Verdi, with two each, and Bellini, with one. (Wagner should get on the list, and Rossini, and there should be more Verdi. Donizetti? Bizet? Offenbach?)

The four Mozarts are nearly all of what I think of as Mozart’s “big 5”: his five great operas, all first performed in less than a decade at the end of the 18th century Second note: (and of Mozart’s life)

Abduction (1782), Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), Così fan tutte (1790), Magic Flute (1791)

(The first and last are Singspiele (with spoken dialogue rather than recitative) in German; the others are all in Italian, with librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte.) Only Così is not on the favorite opera list above (though it would be on mine); the opera will become important below, in connection with

the achingly beautiful Mozart tercetto [“Soave sia il vento”]. You can watch a performance here  by Renée Fleming, Thomas Hampson, and Susan Graham. (3/29/17 posting)

Second note: Mozart is not only the most numerous, but he is also the earliest in these lists. There’s a sense in which what we think of as opera these days begins with Mozart, and it begins with a bang.

Opera as an art form. Opera as an art form combines two artistic genres that tell stories: theatrical productions on stage, with acting, sets, and costumes; and musical productions in which a story is told in a concert setting through singing, often with an orchestral accompaniment (as in oratorios). Opera often incorporates dances as well. And the setting of dialogue to music, in recitatives alternating with arias and ensemble pieces, is characteristic of opera (and oratorio).

These elements come together at the end of the 16th century and thrived for almost 200 years before Mozart came on the scene. During this period there were operas in German, English, French, and Italian by (among others) Schütz, Lully, Purcell, Handel, and Gluck. Their librettos were largely drawn from classical mythology and the Bible.

Mozart and his librettists for his great operas chose more real-life subjects, often involving noble or well-born characters, but with a considerable infusion of sympathetic ordinary people (drawn from comic theater or folk traditions); class differences play a significant role in the librettos. So do romantic and sexual entanglements. In consequence, Mozart’s great operas struck many at the time as coarse and vulgar and laden with social content — a fact exploited by Peter Shaffer in his 1979 play Amadeus (and its re-workings on film and in later productions, including an astonishing National Theatre version last year, one I’ll write about in a separate posting).

In any case, after Mozart, operas tended very much to focus on all-too-human characters, drawn from a great social range, from nobles and princesses to courtesans and rogues.

Rosenkavalier: the basics. From Wikipedia:

Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose or The Rose-Bearer), Op. 59, is a comic opera in three acts by Richard Strauss to an original German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It is loosely adapted from the novel Les amours du chevalier de Faublas by Louvet de Couvrai and Molière’s comedy Monsieur de Pourceaugnac. It was first performed at the Königliches Opernhaus in Dresden on 26 January 1911 under the direction of Max Reinhardt, Ernst von Schuch conducting. Until the premiere the working title was Ochs von Lerchenau. (The choice of the name Ochs is not accidental, for in German Ochs means ox, which depicts the character of the Baron throughout the opera.)

The opera has four main characters: the aristocratic Marschallin, her very young lover Count Octavian Rofrano, her coarse cousin Baron Ochs and Ochs’ prospective fiancée Sophie von Faninal, daughter of a rich bourgeois. At the Marschallin’s suggestion Ochs gets Octavian to act as his Rosenkavalier and present the ceremonial silver rose to Sophie. But when Octavian meets Sophie they fall in love at first sight. By a comic intrigue they get rid of Ochs with the help of the Marschallin, who then yields Octavian to the younger woman. Although a comic opera, Der Rosenkavalier also operates at a deeper level. Conscious of the difference in age between herself and Octavian, the Marschallin muses in bittersweet fashion over the passing of time, growing old and men’s inconstancy.

Rosenkavalier at the Met. “Review: Renée Fleming’s Poignant Farewell to ‘Der Rosenkavalier’”, by Anthony Tommasini on the 24th:

Elina Garanca, left, as Octavian, and Renée Fleming as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera (photo: Sara Krulwich/NYT)

For weeks, the opera world has been abuzz about what the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier’’ would signify for the career of the superstar soprano Renée Fleming. In recent seasons, she has been retiring her signature roles one by one, and with this “Rosenkavalier,” Ms. Fleming, 58, is saying farewell to one of her best: Strauss’s Marschallin, an attractive, worldly-wise princess in 18th-century Vienna.

The Met’s highly anticipated production opened on Thursday. And however Ms. Fleming’s career evolves, she should be proud of the magnificent performance she gave.

Has her voice lost a little bloom and richness? Maybe so. I hardly noticed, for all the melting lyricism, subtle expressivity and emotional vulnerability of her singing. She has long been one of the finest actresses in opera and, for this production, directed by Robert Carsen, the Met has given Ms. Fleming a cast of singers with which she can really act. Especially the mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, a revelation as Octavian, the 17-year-old count with whom the older, married Marschallin is having an affair. With her short, fair hair and androgynous allure, Ms. Garanca is eerily convincing in the role of a randy adolescent boy, and her plush, sensual voice is ideal for this vocally demanding music.

The dramatic chemistry between Ms. Fleming and Ms. Garanca came through in their every exchange, including a complex moment during their long, crucial scene in Act I, set in the Marschallin’s bedroom. The princess is suddenly swept up by an awareness of frailty, of how everything we grasp dissolves like a mist or a dream, she says. This, she knows, will sooner or later include her affair with Octavian.

Ms. Fleming sang Strauss’s fraught lines with an affecting blend of tremulous anxiety and wistful warmth. Ms. Garanca’s Octavian, looking as if he had absorbed a body blow, delivered a teary-eyed, bewildered yet self-absorbed response. Watching Octavian’s distress, Ms. Fleming’s Marschallin melted and, summoning motherly comfort, stroked her disconsolate lover’s head.

The conductor, Sebastian Weigle, led a distinguished performance that captured the restlessness of the music’s heated episodes, while drawing out its sublime flights and pungent sonorities. Mr. Carsen’s production updates the setting to Vienna in 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, a time when the aristocratic order that had endured for centuries was about to crumble under the horrors of World War I, as he has explained in interviews.

That updating (with sets by Paul Steinberg and costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) effectively plumbs the story’s undercurrents. But Mr. Carsen has more in mind than giving the opera an early-20th-century veneer. “Der Rosenkavalier” has profoundly beautiful music. But this long work gets bogged down with heavy-handed comedic episodes that last too long, mostly involving the crude, blustering Baron Ochs, a cousin of the Marschallin.

A celebrated love triangle, poignantly resolved in the final trio of the opera. You can watch a concert performance here of the tercetto by Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, and Kathleen Battle.(Claudio Abbado conducting).

This final trio is a serious competitor for the title of most beautiful trio in opera. Along with the Act I trio in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, in which Don Alfonso (the instigator of the deception at the heart of the comic opera) and the two sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi say goodbye to the women’s fiancés, Ferrando and Guglielmo, as the men sail off to war. (The remaining principal character is an entirely comic role: the maid Despina.)

The Mozart is merely transcendently beautiful (though poignant in its use in the film Sunday Bloody Sunday, with its love triangle), but the Strauss has the poignancy built into the situation of Rosenkavalier (and incorporates musical motifs that run through the entire opera). Points to Strauss, I guess. And of course to Renée Fleming.

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