Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony Orchestra stage "Der Rosenkavalier," Sept. 29, 2016
By Keith Powers
Andris Nelsons has promised at least one opera concertante during the Boston Symphony Orchestra season each year. With Friday evening’s performance of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” Nelsons ensured that this year’s opera would make a lasting impression.
Gathering together an impressive cast—including the soprano who is perhaps Strauss’s greatest interpreter of this generation, Renée Fleming—Nelsons led the extensive forces called for in the comic opera through a gorgeous, taut performance Thursday evening at Symphony Hall.
“Rosenkavalier” is a beautifully balanced work, with a premise as old as the ancient Greeks: an aging lothario (in this case the compelling bass Franz Hawlata, as Baron Ochs), full of himself, who sets his sights on a young bride (brilliant soprano Erin Morley, as Sophie).
There is, of course, a more appropriate young suitor lurking (the incomparable Susan Graham, in the trouser role of Octavian). The old man’s delusional, over-inflated opinion of himself leads him through multiple pratfalls, before the young lovers find each other and happiness.
If this were the complete plot, “Rosenkavalier” would be like any of a dozen famous comic operas. But the action and emotion pivots around the Marschallin (Fleming), herself with a young lover (none other than Graham), but who understands many things, including, in the end, that the young must be with the young.
The comedy is inherent in “Rosenkavalier,” never forced. The plot, the libretto (a wild amalgam of high and low dialects), the styles of singing—and especially the instrumental music. For this reason especially, “Rosenkavalier,” a staple of the opera stage, works beautifully in concert.
While there was much slapstick—Graham extracting a conductor’s baton from Nelsons’s podium, and “stabbing” Hawlata being the most risible—almost none of the opera’s story hinges on the sight-gags or non-verbal interactions that drive most comedies.
In many ways, these singers did more with ten square feet of space encircling the conductor than many productions do with an acre of opera stage. Hawlata especially—with his physical flair for the comic moment—shifting his body, bellowing at the chorus, wandering precariously among the string players, all but stole the show.
Of many highlights, the singing stood out. Fleming inhabited the role of the almost-aging, impetuous but wise Marschallin. The voice does not glow, as it did once. But the voice is real, alive, piercing and sturdy, spot-on in pitch and in attack.
Graham sang and acted like an artist at the peak of her talents. Hawlata’s comic genius threatened to overshadow everyone and everything—even his own vocal acumen. And Morley, reprising the Sophie she created in the Met’s 2014 production of “Rosenkavalier,” sang effortlessly, lusciously, easing into the highest registers. Of the multiple minor roles, tenor Stephen Costello lived up to his character—An Italian Singer—with show-stopping authority.
The score alternates between bracingly chromatic and clever kitsch. Optimum balances were not always achieved—some of the less robust singers fared poorly. But that would be expected, with the large pit orchestra onstage for this concert performance—with a chorus, and offstage musicians as well.
The repeated use of waltzes as comic signposts—played most notably by the offstage banda of Act III, but also woven into the action—was delicious. There were many instrumental solos and chamber moments; most memorable, concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, at the very end of Act I, climbing up to his highest registers in a completely exposed solo line.
After an hour-and-a half of continuous playing, everyone could have used a tune-up. Lowe, working hard to find pitch, created a tender, human, not-perfect-but-who-is? moment.
Only one performance remains, on Saturday, Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. 888-266-1200; bso.org