Der Rosenkavalier has seen better days, and better daze, at the Met. While many repertory staples have been refreshed in recent years, Strauss’s essentially human comedy keeps returning in the creaky production created by Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn in 1969. Time, as the Marschallin memorably muses, is a strange thing, and in this instance it has not been kind.
This performance suggested a free-for-all ritual. One cannot blame Edward Gardner, whose imposing, untraditional conducting vacillated between impetuous speed and luxurious leisure. But Robin Guarino, who has inherited the staging, cheapens the narrative with irrelevant sight gags. One telling detail: when Baron Ochs is “wounded” in act two, a quackish doctor swoops down to shoot the pompous gent with a hypodermic needle in the seat of his pants.
The cast, at best, was uneven. Martina Serafin, echt-Viennese, imbued the Marschallin with fine dignity, paying equal attention to vivacity and melancholy. Her singing, alas, proved less sensitive, especially in pianissimo flights. Peter Rose’s booming basso feared no descents, though his Baron Ochs – more ox than baron – emerged needlessly crude and charmless. With Elena Garanča on maternity leave, Alice Coote introduced an uncommonly robust, excessively clownish Octavian, whose mellow tone sometimes turned strident. A late replacement for Mojca Erdmann (reportedly recovering from pneumonia), Erin Morley looked properly demure and sounded properly ethereal as Sophie. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen exuded savoir-faire as her father, and Eric Cutler salvaged the daunting aria of the Italian tenor with passion.
This shaky revival, not incidentally, commemorated the centennial of the first Met Rosenkavalier. Contrary to popular revisionism, the premiere was inauspicious. Max Smith reported it this way in the New York American: “To say that [the opera] won immediate favour in this city would be far from the truth. The audience showed unmistakable signs of apathy … Many persons felt bored after the first half hour … and expressed themselves in terms emphatic. Musical connoisseurs and professional critics in general, were by no means elated.” And now elation turns elusive yet again.