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Joyce DiDonato (Octavian) and Soile Isokoski (The Marschallin)
25 Jun 2007

San Francisco underscores complexity of “Rosenkavalier”

Just whose opera is “Der Rosenkavalier” anyway? The title — to begin with the obvious — says it’s youthful Octavian, pinpointing his role as the bearer of the rose that is to seal the marriage contract of Ochs and child-like Sophie.

Above: Joyce DiDonato (Octavian) and Soile Isokoski (The Marschallin)
All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera


It’s in performing that task that he falls in love with Sophie and sets out to unmask Ochs and rescue her from the union with him. Thus it’s surprising to read that the working title of the opera was “Ochs von Lerchenau,” assigning to this elder in the cast a hegemony hard to find in the completed opera.

The answer, of course, is so simple that one hardly need ask the question at all. For the central figure in “Rosenkavalier” is the Marschallin — “Resi,” not only because all others in the drama are defined by their relation to her, but because of the immense weight that composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal have woven into the complex character of this woman at a crossroads in life.

Any doubt about this assertion is removed by studying — not merely reading — the text of the Marshallin’s monologue that ends Act One of “Rosenkavalier.” And it was here that the shortcomings of the production on stage at the San Francisco Opera in June were most sharply felt. (At this point one recalls with amazement how relatively recent it was that in this country one listened to this essential section of the drama with only a summary of the plot in hand.)

This self-confrontation that begins with the Marschallin looking in a mirror and realizing that she — caught now between the contradictory faces of “love” as incarnate in Octavian and treasure-seeking Ochs — is at a turning point in her life. And it is the Marschallin of Soile Isokoski that makes this staging problematic. Just 50, the Finnish soprano sang intelligently and with refinement, yet her Marschallin was more country club than Kärntnerstrasse. Indeed, it was surprising to read that she has been a success in the role in both Dresden and Vienna, the two cities that are “home” to “Rosenkavalier.”

Isokoski has an essentially small voice, adequate perhaps in Europe’s smaller venues, but insufficient for the War Memorial Opera House, where the opera was seen on June 21. More disturbing, however, was the absence of warmth, of that climacteric, mid-life, near-valedictory radiance, that the role demands. Isokoski had clearly thought her way through the Act-One monologue, yet one missed the accents, the stress on crucial lines, that make the text meaningful — and moving. In it the Marschallin reflects on her own arranged and loveless marriage. (Although she has been wed for a considerable time, the question is nowhere asked whether she is a mother. One tends to think not, but it’s a further point to consider.) “Die Zeit, sie ist ein sonderbar Ding,” the Marschallin sings, “strange, this time business.” And it’s here that one must pause and praise Hofmannsthal, Strauss’ major librettist, for what is no doubt the finest text in all of opera. (One assumes too blithely, by the way, that “Rosenkavalier” is written in Viennese dialect. Hofmannsthal created rather an idiom all its own to tell the story of this opera — still strangely billed as “comic.”) Heidi Melton (Marianne, far left), Miah Persson (Sophie), Joyce DiDonato (Octavian), and Noah Stewart (Faninal's major-domo, far right) Not to turn a review into a German lesson, but Hofmannsthal took advantage of long-established license to omit the adjective ending that in common practice would make time “ein sonderbares Ding.” It’s the absence of the ending that makes this poetry and complements the haunting meditative force of Strauss’ music at this point.

The monologue is a moment of major crisis in the life of the Marschallin, and it prepares the way for her re-entry into the drama late in Act Three. (She is completely absent in Act Two.) The Marschallin, although she here foresees her loss of Octavian from the outset of the drama, is nonetheless unable to rise above it when it happens. The role calls for renunciation — “Entsagung,” to use the word made commonplace in German by Goethe, that real-life Giovanni, when a late-life love fell short of fulfillment. She must transcend the limits of personal passion to offer an example of humility, dignity and strength. And this Isokoski did not do. Indeed, she approached the monologue as narrative rather than as the introspective interior monologue that it is.

Miah Persson (Sophie) and Joyce DiDonato (Octavian)It’s a hard thing to put into words, but the recollection of another Marschallin helps makes the point. At age 62, Italy’s Renata Scotto, the Butterfly of an era, performed the Marschallin — her first role in German — at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. Before opening the final trio, in which the Marschallin recalls her vow to love Octavian so much that she would also love his love another, the Italian soprano left the young couple behind her and stepped close to the footlights. At that moment she conveyed a pain so intense and all-consuming that sitting in the audience one felt is physically. That’s the stuff that a great Marschallin is made of, and Isokoski was more involved in telling the woman’s story than in communicating the searing experience of it. “Rosenkavalier” is not the place for Brecht’s alienation technique.

A last comment on this Marschallin: In a mere two words Hofmanmsthal/Strauss gave the Marschallin one of the great exits in opera. She leaves the stage with Sophie’s upward-striving, nouveau riche father, who — with no idea of what has really gone on — remarks insipidly about the new match: “Well, that’s the way it is with young people.” “Ja, ja,” she says. The words, more spoken than sung, can be delivered in many ways. Bad losers say them with a “come-up-and-see-me-sometime” batting of the eye; others make “Tja, tja,” a resigned shrug of the shoulders that translates loosely: “Another day; another lay.” As with the great monologue Isokoski spoke them outside herself with no indication of feeling. She might have been operating in the third person.

Major interest in the SFO revival of the company’s 1993 production that has seen Felicity Lott and Renee Fleming as the Marschallin was the role debut of Joyce DiDonato as Octavian. The fast-rising American mezzo, already famous on both sides of the Atlantic as Cherubino, Rosina and the Cinderellas of both Rossini and Massenet, was a wondrously youthful, indeed, even adolescent Octavian who sang without effort in a many-colored. While she was a delight in her exuberance, the absence of an equal partner leaves DiDonato’s Octavian for the moment a work-in-progress that will grow through coming years. She is further a fine actress, ideally suited in appearance for this greatest of trouser roles. Strange that Isokoski, a largely removed Marschallin, was never swept into the wake of the erotic exuberance with which DiDonato opened the performance.

The one truly perfect member of this cast was Sweden’s Miah Persson, who — not surprisingly — has already sung Sophie at the Salzburg Festival. Persson had it all — the beauty, the convincing innocence and the healthy touch of rebellion with which she realizes that she is nothing more than the pawn in the self-advancement game that pairs her father with the lecherous Ochs.

Jeremy Galyon (A Notary, far left), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs, in red), David Cangelosi (Valzacchi, background), and Catherine Cook (Annina, background)The Ochs in this Scandinavian-heavy cast, a last legacy of Pamela Rosenberg’s unlamented tenure as SFO general director, was Iceland’s Kristinn Sigmundsson, a favorite here since his exemplary King Marke in last October’s “Tristan und Isolde.” Aware that despite his uncouth and bumptious behavior Ochs is an aristocrat and a gentleman, Sigmundsson eschewed the slapstick that often makes this figure a cartoon caricature played for laughs.

Robert McPherson sang the Act-One Italian aria someone too robustly.

Last but by no means least, the person who made this “Rosenkavalier” memorable in quality was conductor Donald Runnicles, who is approaching the end of his 15-year tenure as SFO music director. Remarkable perhaps that in his non-verbal role it was Runnicles who displayed the greatest appreciation of — and sensitivity to — Hofmannsthal’s poetry. Indeed, the nuances sometimes missing on stage were all there in his work with this late great masterpiece of opera. And although Runnicles gave full rein to the open sexuality of Strauss’ score, he never allowed it to descend to the level of sweat and steam. And thus it’s no wonder that Runnicles is today among the most respected conductors of Strauss and Wagner in Germany.

Adding a historic perspective to the staging was Thierry Bosquet’s recreation of Alfred Roller’s sets for the 1911 Dresden premiere of “Rosenkavalier,” an idea hit upon by then-SFO general director Lotfi Monsouri.

Sandra Bernhard, long a member of the SFO production staff, directed this revival. A person richer in Straussian smarts might have done more to bring coherence to the staging.

Joyce DiDonato recently received the second annual Beverly Sills Artist Award — at $50,000 the largest of its kind in the US — from an endowment in honor of Sills, who, along with Nathan Leventhal, selects the winners. The purpose of the award is to aid recipients in career enhancement, including funding for voice lessons, vocal coaching, language lessons, related travel costs, and other career assistance. The first winner of the award, given last year, was baritone Nathan Gunn. DiDonato is an alumna of the SFO Merola Program, the Houston Grand Opera Studio and the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program.

This production marked the SFO debuts of Isokoski and Persson.

Wes Blomster

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