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As ideal as I'm likely to see
on 10 March 2010
Back just after the Ice Age I was in NEMS (owned then by Brian Epstein) in Whitechapel in Liverpool when they took time out from pushing Beatles records to air the brand new Solti Der Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin's Act 1-ending aria to be exact. It had just received an uncharacteristically heartfelt and emotional review in the Gramophone. "Is it as good as they say?" asked one of the customers. The assistant was so choked he could hardly respond. And that's Der Rosenkavalier to me. If you can get though it without wiping away the odd tear, there has to be something up with the performance. This one provides many teary moments and is as close to ideal as I ever expect to find.
Fleming at this stage of her career seems born to play the Marschallin, potentially the best since Schwarzkopf in my opinion, and she certainly delivers here. The range of her acting has improved tremendously. There's an inner wisdom about her sadness that is absolutely perfect for this role. Of course, the voice is breathtaking. But the velvet glove only softens an iron fist where appropriate, where she's ticking-off Ochs for instance. Elsewhere there is an autumnal quality to her voice and her portrayal. More than once the eyes glitter with emotion. In all respects it is a masterpiece of a performance.
But by no means do the positives end there. Sophie Koch as Octavian almost steals the show, for once convincing both as man and maid with her Mick Jagger mouth and unselfconsciously-masculine movements. Her duets with Diana Damrau's Sophie are magical. No bubble-head, this Sophie, but a girl of spirit and self-assurance. In the third act trio the three voices blend perfectly, none submerged, none taking centre stage. Spectacular.
I'm a Hawlata fan and love his portrayal of Ochs, not the usual caricature but a middle aged man still with an eye for the ladies and capable of chasing down the less-wary ones. Perhaps his voice is a touch lighter than the standard Ochs but what you lose in the act 2-closing "dir zu lang" is more than compensated elsewhere.
Franz Grundheber's Faninal, too, steps outside tradition. He is not just a social-climbing sycophant. He is a self-made man with the poise and pride that implies, won over at first by the chance to see his daughter make a good match, angry when he discovers the true nature of his prospective son-in-law.
Jonas Kaufmann, deputizing for an indisposed Villazon, beautifully delivers his star turn as the singer at the levee. This is indeed a dream team.
I was tempted to hold off buying this disc, knowing that Fleming's Met performance with Graham as Octavian and probably Schafer as Sophie would be forthcoming. What tipped the balance for me was the prospect of Herbert Wenicke's stage production and Christian Thielemann conducting the Munich Phil. Neither disappoints. I loved this production with its thrilling use of mirrors, its sense of period without slavish adherence to a period look. It combines the best of traditional ambience with modern techniques to construct a spectacle with which none but the most pedantic traditionalist could quibble. Substituting a pierrot for the little black servant is a wonderful touch entirely in keeping with the spirit of the opera.
Strauss demands a special kind of conductor and since Kempe is no longer with us, one of his successors with one of his orchestras isn't a bad substitute. If Thielemann is rhythmically a little more rigid than Kempe, a little less flowing in the faster sections, he is still able to clarify complex textures and realize the wonders of Strauss's orchestration.
I bought this on blu-ray. Both sonically and visually it does the new medium proud. Extras are interviews with all key cast members and conductor, and are excellent.
In every way, a magnificent version of a magnificent work.