For Strauss Lovers Only

Fans of Der Rosenkavalier will probably find much to like in Houston Grand Opera's new production of Richard Strauss' comic opera. However, this new production is probably not strong enough to win over those who are less enthusiastic about the work.

HGO has assembled a stellar cast for this production. Internationally renowned soprano Renee Fleming portrays the aging Marschallin while mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, is cast in the trouser role of Octavian, the Marschallin's teenage lover. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, a Grammy Award-winning recording artist, makes her HGO debut as Sophie, Baron Ochs' reluctant bride-to-be. Bass Eric Halfvarson is the boorish Baron Ochs while John Fowler sang the role of the Italian tenor at last Friday's premier.

The cast, for the most part, sang magnificently on opening night. The Houston Symphony Orchestra, under the leadership of Christoph Eschenbach, performed Strauss' music with zest and verve. Still, and sadly, the opera failed to live up to its comic potential until the third act.

Der Rosenkavalier is exceptionally long for a comic opera. HGO's production runs a little more than four hours. The work, with only a handful of arias, duets and ensemble numbers, lacks some of the key elements that make opera enjoyable for many people. And Strauss annoyingly relies primarily on recitative to move the action along.

Strauss was heavily influenced by Richard Wagner's belief that the music should be secondary to the story of the opera. That's not to say that Der Rosenkavalier doesn't have its musical high points; the third act trio of the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie and the love duet of Octavian and Sophie at the end of the work are among the finest passages in opera. But what Gioacchino Rossini once noted about Wagner's music -- "Wagner has beautiful moments, but dreadful quarter-hours" -- can be said of most of Strauss' operas.

Since Der Rosenkavalier relies so heavily on recitative, its comic elements have to shine through brightly for the work to be truly entertaining. On Friday, this didn't happen until the third act, nearly three hours after the curtain went up.

Even with the best of casts, the 75-minute first act can be numbingly boring. The Italian tenor's aria midway through this act is one of the few oases in a desert of recitative. Fowler's rendition of this beautiful, but all-to-short aria was heartfelt and soulful; one hopes enough people were still awake to appreciate it. Fleming also offered a moving interpretation of the Marschallin's lament, "Kann Ich Mich Auch An Ein Maedel Erinnern," at the end of the first act.

The second act, where the lecherous Baron Ochs behaves badly while at the home of his betrothed, Sophie, has the potential to be riotously funny. Unfortunately, it came across as only mildly amusing, inducing just a smattering of periodic laughter from the audience.

Some of the problems with this production became evident in the second act. For one, cast members acted more like they were performing in an opera seria than an opera buffa. Halfvarson is sufficiently boorish and loutish as Ochs, one of the few purely comic figures in the opera, but his character comes across as more sinister than humorous.

Similarly, while the sets for the first and second act -- depicting the Marschallin's bedroom and a receiving room at Sophie's estate, respectively -- are elegant, they tend to detract from the comic nature of the opera. One gets the impression of watching a melodrama rather than a comedy.

Another problem stems from the staging and costuming. When Strauss created Der Rosenkavalier, he envisioned a comic opera in the tradition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set in 18th-century Vienna. Baron Ochs was conceived as country bumpkin out of place in the midst of the refined Viennese aristocracy. But the HGO production places the action in early 20th-century Vienna, during the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ochs is elegantly attired in a stylish suit from that era; he might well have come across as more comical if the opera had been kept in the 18th century as written and he was outfitted in an ill-fitting powdered wig, a foppish three-cornered hat and an ornate but outlandish coat.

If the second act was disappointing from a comic perspective, it was more satisfying musically. Mentzer and Upshaw offered a touching rendition of the duet, "Mit Ihren Augen Voll Traenen." The act ended on a musical high note as Halfvarson sang along delightfully to opera's famous waltz number.

In the third act, set in a sleazy inn where Ochs has gone bent on seduction only to fall victim to a series of hilarious pranks arranged by Octavian, Der Rosenkavalier at long last reached its comic potential. Halfvarson had the audience roaring with laughter when, at one point during a seduction attempt, he ripped off his toupee and threw it to the side .

The third act also contains the opera's finest music. Fleming, Mentzer and Upshaw sang the work's great trio number, "Hab Mir's Gelobt, Ihn Lieb Zu Haben," magnificently. Mentzer and Upshaw also offered a beautiful rendition of the famous love duet, "Ist Ein Traum, Kann Nicht Wirklich Sein," to conclude the opera.

In the end, it is the singing that partially redeems this particular production of Der Rosenkavalier. For the many devoted fans of the opera, this will probably make it worth the price of admission. But those who like operas with big arias, duets and ensemble numbers might be well advised to stay at home, or not arrive until the third act.

Der Rosenkavalier plays through May 5 at the Brown Theater, Wortham Center, 500 Texas Avenue, 227-2787.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bruce Guynn