26 June 2007
stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
The San Francisco opera season resumed (for me, at least; I think Don Giovanni actually opened first) with Der Rosenkavalier. Lovely sets, excellent singers, new insights into the work, and I kept thinking, My God, this is so long. First the good stuff: I liked the recreation of the original Alfred Roller designs, though as always I wish directors were a little more conscious of sightlines – the opening scene had everyone in my left-hand side of the orchestra straining to see the Marschallin and Octavian tucked away in the left-hand corner of the stage. Everyone has justifiably been crazy about Joyce DiDonato’s boyishly manly Octavian, one of the more convincing trouser-role performances I’ve ever seen, but the ones who really caught my attention were Sophie and Baron Ochs. Sophie was performed by a gorgeous young Swede, Miah Persson, who was exactly the right combination of naïve and imperious; I especially liked the way she sang her part of the Presentation of the Rose as if she had carefully memorized it and was proud of herself for performing it flawlessly, as indeed Sophie would have done and felt. Baron Ochs was Kristinn Sigmundsson, who brought out the Falstaff in Ochs rather than reducing him to the usual crude country cousin. He physically towered over everyone on stage until Jeremy Galyon showed up as the notary and then the police commissioner, though it’s hard to tell if it’s because he’s especially tall or if the rest of the cast is fairly short. I especially liked the way he listened attentively and started applauding naively halfway through the Italian tenor’s aria; after the Italian signals disapproval, he shrugs and goes back to his negotiations; usually Ochs is entirely unmoved by art. Of course, making Ochs more sympathetic makes the third-act shenanigans even less amusing and more drawn-out than they already are. I never find pranks very funny, and they pall on repetition – the thought of having to sit yet again through the bohemians’ antics is just another reason for me to avoid La Boheme. Like it or not, most of us are closer to Ochs – buffoonish, status-anxious, oblivious – than to anyone else on stage, which brings us to the Marschallin, who of course is the character every audience member likes to think of him- or herself as being. Soile Isokoski, who is much better looking than her head shot suggests, was good if a bit subdued, and I give her full credit for pulling off the difficult task of performing a “wise” role and seeming actually wise instead of condescending – maybe the secret is to perform from a place of love rather than power (Hans Sachs is similarly difficult to pull off). But though her foresight and compassion with Octavian are what grabs the audience, it should be noted that at some level the audience is also taking in that, first, she has no problem finding younger lovers on whom to lavish the aforesaid foresight and compassion (which is a form of controlling them), and, second, she has an absolutely unassailable social and economic position – it’s all very well to sneer at Ochs, but his snobbish insistence on his social status comes from ignorance and lack of sophistication and a fear of being slighted, and is sadly where most of us find ourselves, much as we might like to pretend that we are immovable jewels in the crown of Maria Therese. I find the Marschallin a bit too much a wish-fulfillment figure (as opposed to her obvious model, the delicately sorrowful Countess Almaviva in Nozze di Figaro, the gently ironic treatment of whose relationship with Cherubino keeps her in a more realistic perspective). By the second or third time the Marshallin declares that “she had had enough of men, just then,” I started to find her renunciation a bit self-dramatizing. I also started wondering if her cuckolded husband had had enough of women, just then. Which brings us to one of my problems: there are so many beautiful moments in Rosenkavalier – I can put up with the third-act pranks knowing that they culminate in the trio, for example – but everything seemed to happen about twice as many times as it needed to. Four hours is a long time to sit through a domestic comedy; I can sit through Parsifal or the Ring or Tristan without a thought for time, because those stories demand the extraordinary, but it’s relevant to my point that the only Wagner opera where I go in thinking about how long it’s going to last is Meistersinger. I’ve always enjoyed Rosenkavalier, and its pre-postmodern play with parody, identity, and pastiche is something that would appeal to me. So what was my problem? I’m really not sure. I wasn’t in the mood to go to the theater (which is why I buy tickets in advance; if I depended on going when I felt like it I’d leave the house about twice a year). Usually a performance puts me in the mood, but this time, despite its many excellences, it didn’t. I was surrounded by talkers and felt tired. My failure to respond whole-heartedly could be my fault. I might have felt differently on another night. I might also have seen Rosenkavalier once too often for the glorious moments to overcome the sense of familiarity.