Wednesday, January 12, 2022

In memoriam: Maria Ewing

Maria Ewing, January 1977. Photographer: Jack Mitchell. Image source: The Detroit News

Mezzo-soprano Maria Ewing has died at age 71. She had an acclaimed opera career performing roles such as Carmen, Salome, Mélisande, Poppea, and Dido, but I want to honor her for an earlier role.

When I was a teenager I watched, mesmerized, as she embodied the passionate 16-year-old page Cherubino in Jean-Pierre Ponelle's film version of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), broadcast on my local PBS station. Cherubino's ardent behavior, confused feelings and obsession with sex were a mirror of my own; that he was portrayed by a beautiful woman (who, at 25, was not that much older than her character) was delightfully disconcerting. Her performance planted in me a seed of curiosity about opera; that it took almost two more decades to finally germinate and begin to develop is due solely to my own stupidity.

Maria Ewing's performance of Cherubino's "Voi che sapete" from Ponelle's film, with Mirella Freni as Susanna and Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, accompanied by the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Karl Böhm: [ends at 1:02:03]

Lorenzo Da Ponte's words:

Voi che sapete
che cosa è amor,
donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.
Donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.

Quello ch'io provo
vi ridirò,
è per me nuovo,
capir nol so.

Sento un affetto
pien di desir,
ch'ora è diletto,
ch'ora è martir.

Gelo e poi sento
l'alma avvampar,
e in un momento
torno a gelar.

Ricerco un bene
fuori di me,
non so chi'l tiene,
non so cos'è.

Sospiro e gemo
senza voler,
palpito e tremo
senza saper.

Non trovo pace
notte né dì,
ma pur mi piace
languir così.

Voi che sapete
che cosa è amor,
donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.
Donne, vedete
s'io l'ho nel cor.
You who know
what love is,
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.

All that I feel
I will explain,
Since it is new to me,
I can't understand it.

I have a feeling
Full of desire,
Which is now delight,
Now suffering.

I freeze, then I feel
My soul is on fire,
And in the next moment
I turn again to ice.

I seek for a treasure
Outside of myself;
I know not who holds it
Nor what it is.

I sigh and I groan
Without wishing to,
I flutter and tremble
Without knowing why.

I find no peace
By night or day,
But still I like
to languish this way.

You who know
what love is,
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.
Ladies, see if it is
what I have in my heart.

Maria Ewing's comic expressions, yearning eyes, trembling lips and sheer adolescent ardor are simply adorable. She remains for me the definitive Cherubino.

In 1978 while performing as Dorabella in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at Glyndebourne Festival Opera she met renowned director Peter Hall. Despite the two-decade gap in their ages they fell in love. After his divorce, in 1982 they married and their daughter Rebecca Hall was born. Hall, an actress and director, has written about her mother's mixed-race heritage. For more information about Maria Ewing's operatic career, please see The Guardian.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Der Rosenkavalier at Garsington Opera

Miah Persson as the Marschallin and Hannah Hipp as Octavian at Garsington Opera. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: The Guardian/Observer

Staging Richard Strauss' and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer) is one of the most difficult tasks in opera. First you must cast four superb singers who are also excellent actors. And then you must put them onstage and stay out of the way.

Garsington Opera's 2021 production of Der Rosenkavalier is beautifully sung by an exceptional cast, and Strauss' score is ravishingly played in Eberhard Klokeby's reduced transcription by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Jordan de Souza. Unfortunately, director Bruno Ravella fell at the second hurdle. Unable to resist the temptation to "improve" Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, instead he makes staging choices that distract from the action and work against the drama.

A quick synopsis (you can skip the next three paragraphs if you're familiar with the opera): The libretto sets the opera in Vienna in the mid-18th century. Act I takes place in the boudoir of the Marschallin, the aristocratic wife of the Field Marshal. While her husband is away the Marschallin has spent the night with a young man half her age, the enraptured 17-year-old Octavian. As they are relaxing over a post-coital breakfast a distant relative of the Marschallin, the boorish Baron Ochs (which literally means "ox"), bursts in. Barely avoiding discovery, Octavian hides and hurriedly disguises himself as a chambermaid, "Mariandel." The deeply-in-debt Ochs has come to announce his betrothal to the young daughter of the rich merchant Faninal, and to ask the Marschallin to choose one of her relatives to present the traditional silver rose to his fiancée. He is distracted from his task by the pretty Mariandel, though, and while explaining his request to the Marschallin is simultaneously trying to arrange an assignation with the maid. The Marschallin, playing with fire, suggests her cousin Octavian as the rose-bearer.

The Presentation of the Rose: Madison Leonard as Sophie and Hannah Hipp as Octavian. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

In Act II, Octavian presents the silver rose to Faninal's 16-year-old daughter Sophie; as soon as the two young people set eyes on each other they fall in love. When Ochs arrives to sign the marriage contracts, Sophie is appalled by his crude behavior and refuses the marriage despite her father's threats. Octavian rises to her defense; swords are drawn and the Baron receives a scratch. After Octavian is forced to leave, the Baron receives a note from Mariandel asking to meet.

In Act III the Baron has arranged for an intimate dinner with Mariandel at a seedy inn, but of course it's a trap set by Octavian. Faninal, Sophie, and the Marschallin all arrive at the inn; Ochs, exposed and humiliated, flees. Sophie senses that there is a disturbingly intimate connection between Octavian and the Marschallin; Octavian is torn between the two women he loves; and the Marschallin recognizes that the time has come for her to give up Octavian.

Where does Ravella go wrong in staging this story? Let me count the ways.

Ravella and designer Gary McCann have changed the opera's roccoco 18th-century setting to the mid-century modern 1950s. This would be fine if there was a dramaturgical reason for the update. Instead, the main impetus for the change seems to be that it allows the Marschallin (Miah Persson) and Sophie (Madison Leonard) to be dressed in glamorous Dior "New Look"-style frocks instead of elaborate 18th-century gowns.

Madison Leonard as Sophie and Hannah Hipp as Octavian. Photograph: Julien Guidera. Image source:

But the 20th-century setting introduces a host of incongruities. Horses and carriages play essential roles in all three acts, for example. In Act I the Marschallin is alerted to the arrival of Baron Ochs (Derrick Ballard) by hearing his horse and carriage in the courtyard, and at the end of the act her servants tell her that Octavian (Hannah Hipp) has left by leaping onto his horse and riding away at a gallop. In Act II Octavian arrives at mansion of Herr von Faninal (Richard Burkhard) in a line of carriages, and when Ochs is wounded (or in this production, "wounded"), Faninal tells his servants to ride his ten carriage-horses to death to fetch a doctor. And in Act III, the Marschallin eases Faninal's distress by offering him a ride home in her carriage. Needless to say, none of this is very likely in 1950s Vienna.

In this production Octavian is dressed as some sort of military-school cadet, and carries a sword. But that doesn't explain why Ochs is also carrying a sword when he goes to Faninal's mansion. In the 18th century, of course, aristocratic men often carried swords, especially at formal occasions, but by the 1950s swords were hardly ever worn except with ceremonial military, diplomatic or scholarly uniforms. Ochs has no military rank and is certainly no diplomat or scholar. He has to carry a sword, though, because Octavian would not draw his against an unarmed member of his own class.

Finally, Sophie has been in a convent while her sight-unseen marriage to Baron Ochs has been arranged by her father. It's a straightforward deal: the Baron gets the young, beautiful Sophie, plus Faninal's money to pay his enormous debts; Faninal and his descendants achieve high social standing. But is this plausible in 1950s Austria? Rich businessmen already had high social standing: they were seen as leading the "economic miracle" that was pulling Austria out of postwar immiseration and famine. At the same time, the status of the Austrian nobility had been significantly diminished. Noble titles had been abolished in the aftermath of World War I, and one scholar has written that World War II left Austria with "a social structure largely free of the quasifeudal shackles of the powerful old conservative order." [1] (By the way, according to Hofmannsthal's libretto Faninal has gotten rich by supplying the army, but for a decade after World War II Austria was occupied by U.S., British, French, and Soviet forces, and essentially didn't have its own military.) In short, Ravella's staging doesn't engage in any way but the most superficial with what would have been the actual circumstances of the characters in the time period he's chosen.

Worse, though, than the multiple anachronisms introduced by Ravella's choice of period is his mishandling of the stage action. Ochs is far too clownish, signalled by his mass of unruly red hair, superabundant Victorian-style whiskers, and loud suits. In his memoirs Strauss himself wrote of the Baron, "Most basses have presented him as a disgusting vulgar monster with a repellent mask and proletarian manners. . . This is quite wrong: Ochs must be a rustic Don Juan of 35, who is after all a nobleman, if a rather boorish one, and who knows how to conduct himself decently." [2] This Ochs is simply a buffoon, which flattens the character.

Colin Judson as Valzacchi, Derrick Ballard as Baron Ochs, and Kitty Whately as Annina. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

Ravella's revisionism renders the Marschallin's private moment at the end of Act I less poignant. We've learned that, like Sophie, the Marschallin as a young woman was brought straight from a convent and "thrust into an unwelcome and cruel marriage to a rough, unloved, middle-aged nobleman," the Field Marshal. [3] This memory leads her to reflect on the passage of time and its inexorable cruelty. Traditionally as the curtain closes the Marschallin gazes into a mirror with deep melancholy and then slowly lowers it or turns away. In this production the Marschallin sprinkles a bit of perfume onto a handkerchief and inhales the scent, smiling wistfully. The perfume is likely attar of roses, a drop of which (we'll learn in Act II) is placed in the center of the silver rose presented to the brides of the aristocracy. But if she is remembering her betrothal to the Field Marshal, why would she smile, even wistfully, at the memories evoked by the scent of roses?

Other dramatic moments small and large are similarly undermined, especially in Act II. The Presentation of the Rose is underwhelming: when Octavian arrives to present the rose he is alone, despite the line of carriages in which he and his retinue have supposedly arrived. During the love duet between Octavian and Sophie, a Cupid figure appears and lounges about onstage. The Cupid first makes an appearance in Act I as a sort of substitute for Mohammed, the Marschallin's young African servant. This choice could have worked, but introducing Cupid during the Presentation of the Rose is ham-handed and pulls our focus away from the lovers. The music itself, with its sensuously intertwined voices, tells us that they're falling in love.

The music tells us, but perhaps due to pandemic protocols the singers remain far apart and generally look at the audience rather than one another, undercutting the sense of their dawning mutual passion. The need to maintain proper pandemic distance is also perhaps the reason why the Baron and Octavian don't cross swords (the Baron doesn't even draw his) before the Baron is "wounded" by Octavian and cries out "Murder!" And speaking of pulling focus, the milling about of Faninal's army of servants is often distracting, as is the frequent rearrangement of the furniture over the course of the act. McCann has dressed Ochs's servants in a motley array of costumes, some rudely rustic. For such an occasion even impoverished barons would dress their servants in matching (if well-worn) livery. And why does Ochs bring his own (drunken, lecherous) priest? Surely he and Sophie are going to be married on Faninal's schilling in St. Stephen's Cathedral with the archbishop presiding.

Another mis-step occurs in the Act III inn scene, where "Mariandel" is far too bold and sexually aggressive with the Baron. The Baron is taken aback, but why? He's invited her there to seduce her, after all. This also begs the question of what Mariandel/Octavian would do if the Baron responded eagerly to her/his provocations, as he well might, and it contradicts the character Mariandel must assume in front of the police sergeant as an innocent young woman being drawn into the sexual snare of a powerful and unscrupulous man.

I don't want to be too hard on this production. Even if Ravella's direction is often misconceived, it's remarkable that a small house such as Garsington (full capacity 600 seats) was able to mount a staging of this demanding work with international-level performers onstage and in the pit.

Miah Persson as the Marschallin. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

This was the first assumption of the role of the Marschallin by Miah Persson, who earlier in her career was a famous Sophie (I saw her in that role in the 2007 San Francisco Opera production, with Joyce DiDonato as her Octavian). Persson has personal glamour to spare and looks smashing in the 1950s-era costumes. Her portrayal, though beautifully sung, doesn't yet quite convey the inwardness and vulnerability of my favorite Marschallin, Gwyneth Jones. But those additional dimensions of the character may develop over time, and in this production their absence may be largely the fault of her director.

This is also the first time Hannah Hipp sings Octavian. She may not quite match Brigitte Fassbaender's early-Elvis charisma in the role, or Elīna Garanča's uncanny impersonation of a 17-year-old boy, but she is convincingly ardent in Act I, giving voice to waves of emotions Octavian hasn't yet learned to control (or at least conceal). In Acts II and III, it's true, the sparks that are supposed to fly between Octavian and Sophie seem more like embers, but the two singers' expression of passion is not helped by pandemic distancing protocols or their director.

Hannah Hipp as Octavian and Madison Leonard as Sophie. Photograph: Johan Persson. Image source: Garsington Opera

Madison Leonard is wonderful in her role debut as Sophie. She is convincingly girlish in both looks and manner, but has the vocal resources needed for the role's spectacular high notes. And her sorrowful realization in Act III that she is not Octavian's first love was most touching. I will be following her career with great interest.

Derrick Ballard sings the role of Baron Ochs quite well; he does not bark or bluster his way through, and is lacking only the role's very lowest notes (which for comic effect are written to be almost impossible for anyone to reach). He does everything asked of him by Ravella, and is not to blame for the director's and designer's misconception of the character as nothing more than a loutish bumpkin. But that characterization neutralizes the threat he represents to the Marschallin in Act III once he figures out who "Mariandel" really is and what Octavian was doing in the Marschallin's bedroom so early in the morning. Without that threat, Ochs' dismissal comes too easily.

A final word about Jordan de Souza's conducting of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Der Rosenkavalier is a long opera that can bog down at points (particularly in the first half of Act III). De Souza shapes each act's long dramatic arc beautifully, while allowing details in the score to emerge without calling undue attention to themselves or halting the flow. And he achieves such a full, lush Straussian sound with the Philharmonia that unless it had been mentioned in the program I would not have realized that they were employing Eberhard Klokeby's reduced transcription of the score for mid-sized orchestra (likely another pandemic concession). De Souza and the musicians and singers he leads provide a very assured performance of Strauss's sublime music.

So there are many musical and visual reasons to enjoy this production, and I would urge curious readers to explore it for themselves. Garsington Opera and OperaVision are generously making it available for free through April 30, 2022; production details and a video link can be found on the Garsington Opera website. A trailer for the production:

More posts on Der Rosenkavalier:

  • Glyndebourne: The 2018 Glyndebourne revival of Richard Jones' production set in pre-WWI Vienna.
  • The Marschallin's farewell: Der Rosenkavalier at the Met: A review of the DVD of Renée Fleming in her final appearance as the Marschallin, partnered with Elīna Garanča in her final appearance as Octavian, in Robert Carsen's problematic 2017 production at the Metropolitan Opera.
  • The Rosenkavalier Trio: A review of Michael Reynolds' book Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell Press, 2016), which details the important contributions of Count Harry Kessler to Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, including a hitherto unsuspected source.
  • Opera Guide 3: Der Rosenkavalier: A brief history and synopsis of the opera, with recording recommendations.

  1. Radomír Luža, Austro-German Relations in the Anschluss Era (Princeton University Press, 1975), quoted in Harry Ritter, "Grasping Toward Austria: The Anschluss - Book Review" (1979). History Faculty and Staff Publications 27.
  2. Richard Strauss, Recollections and Reflections (Boosey & Hawkes, 1953), a translation of Betrachtungen und Erinnerungen (Atlantis Verlag, 1949) by L.J. Lawrence, pp. 160-161. The translation I quote is from a different source that I haven't been able to identify.
  3. Norman Del Mar, Richard Strauss: A critical commentary on his life and works, Vol. 1 (Barrie and Rockliff, 1962), Ch. IX, excerpted in Alan Jefferson, Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (Cambridge Opera Handbooks, 1985), p. 41.