Savor Renée Fleming in “Der Rosenkavalier,” at the MetOne of the biggest theatrical risks that Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, took in crafting the structure of their most popular opera, “Der Rosenkavalier,” was to allow their principal character, the Marschallin (the wife of the Austrian field marshal, and a princess to boot), to leave the opera for the entire second act and for the first half of the third. When she returns, with great flourish, as the lodestar of the opera’s finale, she is supposed to bring with her a moral clarity that she alone embodies—something in short supply by that time, since her lecherous country cousin, Baron Ochs, has taken complete charge of the proceedings in her absence. (Ochs means “ox” in German. Get it?) Much of the advance publicity for Robert Carsen’s new production of the work at the Metropolitan Opera has centered on its Marschallin, Renée Fleming: Will this staging, which débuted on Thursday night, be the diva’s farewell to staged opera, or won’t it? Probably not, but this will likely be that last time in which she appears in one of the small collection of roles—Rusalka, Desdemona, and the like—with which she built her superstar career. So, while I wasn’t surprised by the production’s focus on Fleming, I was startled at the relish with which Carsen takes the Marschallin down a notch, and with it the whole society over which she holds sway. Was this what the diva really had in mind?Carsen, in a brilliant move, has updated the original setting—mid-eighteenth-century Vienna, during the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa—to that of the opera’s composition and première, 1910-11, when Franz Josef’s Austro-Hungarian Empire was about to take a plunge into the abyss of the First World War, and take all of Europe with it. The Vienna of Freud and Musil, of Schiele and Klimt, of Karl Kraus and Peter Altenberg: brilliant, dazzling, decadent, doomed. It also suits our own time and place, in which a morally compromised President holds mercurial and ill-informed command over a country in which even those who devour the news regularly might have lost track of how many wars we are currently fighting. (Five? Six?) Carsen comes by this honestly, from the libretto. Ochs wants to restore his finances by marrying into a recently ennobled, nouveau-riche family whose patriarch, Faninal, is supplying the Empress’s army in the Netherlands. The up-to-date Faninal deals in Howitzers and machine guns, showing off his wares to military brass moments before his daughter is to be betrothed. (The boxes of guns and ammo are decorously branded with the name “Faninal,” as if they were from Raytheon or Smith & Wesson.) The emphasis on uniforms and matériel not only recalls the Vienna of Robert Musil and Hofmannsthal’s pal Count Harry Kessler—both aesthetes with military backgrounds—but that of contemporary America, in which gendarmes drag civilians off airplanes not to the tune of Viennese waltzes but to the siren song of Shareholder Value.So let’s take this new production and savor it, since it probably won’t linger as long as did Carsen’s staging of “Eugene Onegin,” which was received skeptically in 1997 but was beloved by the time it last filled the Met stage, in 2009. The singing is splendid, not only from Fleming, carefully husbanding her resources until the great trio in the finale, but also from Elīna Garanča, who invests the pants role of Octavian, the Marschallin’s young lover, with a mixture of boyish sensitivity and hawk-like watchfulness that balances masculine and feminine impulses on a knife’s edge. But Carsen and his production team got roundly booed on Thursday, probably for their handling of Act III more than anything else; until then, the director’s minute crafting of action, gesture, and mood was a vivid tapestry that corresponded intimately with the opera’s music and words, even if it took those elements into risky territory.In Act I, Fleming’s Marschallin, arising from her capacious bed and a fervent night of lovemaking with Octavian (her husband, whose portrait looms above her bed, is away on one of his interminable hunting trips), is an elegant and vivacious thirtysomething who, in the act’s closing minutes, acquires the melancholy wisdom that her liaison with her seventeen-year-old lover will inevitably end when the strapping Octavian sees better (and younger) opportunities elsewhere. The production’s cultural references go beyond that of the fin de siècle, and Fleming’s star exit—she is dressed for church, and walks out through a succession of towering doors, each opened by the invisible lackeys—recalls that of Alida Valli in another Viennese epic, “The Third Man”: instead of walking into the camera, right past Joseph Cotten, she turns her back on us, with more regret than anger. (In real life, Valli was an Austro-Hungarian baroness.)
So far, the balance between timelessness (the inherent pathos of the Marschallin’s situation) and timeliness (Carsen’s rage for relevance) is maintained. But Act II belongs to Ochs and to the anarchic forces that drive him. The leering Baron examines Faninal’s demure and lovely daughter, Sophie, like a piece of horseflesh, while his crude country servants drain the liquor cabinet and have their way with Faninal’s female staff. Octavian, employed by Ochs (at the wily suggestion of the farsighted Marschallin) to present the silver rose of betrothal, not only falls in love with Sophie but joins with her to somehow prevent the hideous arranged marriage into which she has been thrust by her socially ambitious father. Which side will win? Ochs, lightly and comically wounded by Octavian’s sword, is usually cast as a fat and ungainly older man. But Carsen’s “tell” is to bring in Günther Groissböck, who not only offers a performance of confident vocal swagger but is dashing, handsome, and merely forty.Act III brings victory for Sophie and Octavian, but at a price. Octavian, posing as a maid, lures the lusty Baron to a shabby inn, in an elaborate plot to embarrass him in front of his potential father-in-law. But it’s here that Carsen goes overboard, and the riotous cultural references, now defiantly of the nineteen-twenties, outstrip any dramatic logic. Hofmannsthal’s shabby Gasthaus is now a whorehouse—not necessarily a bad concept (this is the Vienna of Arthur Schnitzler’s “La Ronde,” as well), but it’s a place in which a princess would never appear. Octavian’s maid is no blushing provincial but a brazen Blue Angel in tights, à la Marlene Dietrich; the innkeeper, deftly played in drag by one of the company’s great comprimarios, Tony Stevenson, is now a madam; and the brothel’s “all-girl band” is right out of “Some Like It Hot,” a movie crafted by another Viennese genius, Billy Wilder.The Marschallin makes her grand entrance, but in a weakened state. Instead of aging by a few days, she is now a decade down. Her previously loose and tawny hair is now marcelled and peroxide blond; her glittering but shapeless black gown projects the expensive glamour of a society matron. And then the rot really sets in. Ochs finally figures out that the Marschallin and Octavian have been longtime lovers, and his subsequent threat of blackmail, easily dismissed in typical productions, now has real force, as Groissböck delivers it while staring down at a seated, defensive Fleming; his humiliation may well be avenged. Sophie and Octavian, now happy at last, go at it on the brothel’s big bed, a replica of the Marschallin’s, from Act I; the Marschallin makes her exit not on the arm of a relieved and grateful Faninal but on that of the police inspector, who was once in her husband’s service and who is now clearly in line to be her next lover.Having backed himself into a corner, Carsen’s final gesture is a ridiculous pantomime in which the Feldmarschall makes his long-awaited return, leading a platoon of troops outfitted with Faninal’s weapons; Octavian will die in the war, just like the Cherubino of Mozart and Beaumarchais, the character on which he was modelled. All night, I’d been wondering why the Met brought a first-rank cast and a first-rank director together with a second-rank conductor, Sebastian Weigle. A first-rate maestro would not only have elicited more sensitive (and softer!) playing from the excellent Met orchestra but would have let us experience Strauss’s score as a sonic theatre of ideas, just as Mozart’s and Wagner’s were. Here Carsen’s ideas take precedence, and ultimately they just go too far.