Opera News, December 2012
R. STRAUSS: Der Rosenkavalier (CD)
It's easy to forget that this finely coordinated Rosenkavalier was recorded at a live performance. Whether as a result of German etiquette or German engineering, the audience at Baden-Baden on this occasion in January 2009 is mute. The floorboards make not a whimper; voices and instruments emerge with warmth and clarity. And the moments of quiet lyricism that most distinguish the performance, especially in the Marschallin's pivotal scenes late in Act I, achieve a rare degree of intimacy and directness.

Christian Thielemann, a supportive conductor with singers (nowhere more so than in the tenor monologue in his Vienna Tristan a few years ago), helps to make this a great occasion for Renée Fleming in one of her best roles. The conductor ideally cushions her slow, poised unfolding of the Marschallin's introspective lines, keeping the instrumental texture feather-light. The effect is like witnessing an inspired accompanist in a seasoned lieder partnership.

Fleming has always relished details, and in this case they feel natural, motivated, part of the fabric. The monologue's final line, about bearing our inevitable fate as mortals — "und in dem 'Wie' da liegt der ganze Unterschied" (and the how is what makes all the difference) — becomes a resonant thumbnail portrait of the Marschallin; we hear both the pain and the forbearance, her depth and her charm. The word "wie" glows warmly and is echoed in the inflection of the same vowel in "Unterschied"; but the lightness of the phrasing is what really counts.

At soft volume, Fleming skillfully brightens her rough lower register to maintain the wistful mood. Elsewhere, too, the quieter moments have true Straussian elegance — in her G on the word "Rose" and especially her radiance throughout most of the final trio. Full-voice attacks can be a little raw, but in the expressions of anger at Ochs in Act III they have dramatic relevance. Early in the opera, both Fleming and the Baron Ochs, Franz Hawlata, lack the ideal power for the fast, hectic dialogue, but they compensate with rhythmic agility, vocal characterization and — not only in his case — comic details such as Viennese dialect.

Diana Damrau's dynamic Sophie is memorable for her glistening high notes and graceful phrasing, an ideal rendition of youthfulness and rapture. She risks harshness in voicing the young woman's arriviste pretensions early in Act II, but her disappointment just before the happy end is also vividly portrayed, helping to maintain dramatic tension. Sophie Koch's mezzo is not quite robust enough for the role of Octavian, in which the singer must provide dark counterpart to the sopranos and sometimes compete in the soprano range. But this artistic singer clearly grasps the character's exuberance and warmth.

Whether he is deliberately pampering a light-voiced cast or sees this as a fundamentally pastel, nostalgic work, Thielemann's tempo choices produce one of the slowest, longest versions of Der Rosenkavalier on disc, even among live recordings. While it makes all the traditional cuts in Ochs's scenes, this performance still runs longer than the uncut versions by Erich Kleiber and Georg Solti. The result is not leaden, although it is surprising in a conductor known for dynamism.

The approach suits the Marschallin's scenes as well as the Italian Tenor solo, a fine, deliberately paced legato performance by rich-toned Jonas Kaufmann, who is almost too smooth to mark the sixteenth-note runs as more than a portamento. Other slow-motion scenes are less effective. One occurs in the opening dialogue between the lovers, which at least gives Koch's Octavian a chance for some expansive phrases; more serious is the halting "presentation of the rose" scene, which loses some of its magic at the eyedropper pace. Some comic touches, such as the Annina and Valzacchi ensembles, would gain from acceleration, as proven in Carlos Kleiber's live video versions.

One detail confirms the lyrical bias. There is almost a transformation of the oafish Baron Ochs in his final realization ("Mit dieser Stund' vorbei" — from this moment, it's all over), where the pace comes to a crawl and Hawlata's Baron accepts his losses, not as the score suggests in outrage, but in an uncharacteristic phrase of refined mezza voce in a tenorial head tone.

Ochs's boisterous exit music restores excitement, with infectious rhythms and some especially fine flourishes from the Munich Philharmonic horns; generally, Act III is livelier than the others. But that gossamer "Mit dieser Stund' vorbei" lingers in the memory. It wins sympathy for the comic villain, yes, but it also makes him sound not just foiled but emasculated — perhaps even enlightened. Here, Baron Ochs has, in effect, his own Marschallin moment.

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