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Opera review: Centennial 'Der Rosenkavalier' at San Diego Opera

April 4, 2011 |  2:45 pm

Rose
This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Richard Strauss’ instant and ever-popular “Der Rosenkavalier” -- a period operatic farce about sex and aging and renewal that turns unexpectedly profound and contemporary -– had its premiere in Dresden on Jan. 26, 1911. This year's “Rosenkavalier” centennial, however, has garnered surprisingly little attention.

New productions of Strauss’ opera are few anywhere and performances are especially rare this season in the United States. But San Diego Opera stepped up to the plate Sunday afternoon. Not only has the company mounted “Rosenkavalier” for the first time in 19 years, but its “new” production couldn’t be older.

A true commemorative event, this “Rosenkavalier” is an adamantly traditional one that Lotfi Mansouri first mounted for San Francisco Opera in 1993. Sets by Thierry Bosquet are patterned after the Dresden originals by Viennese painter Alfred Roller.

To its credit, San Diego Opera has gone through considerable effort with mixed but not unimpressive results. It has also, with this production and performance, opened up a couple of cans of interesting worms.

The original cast was to have featured the young German soprano Anja Harteros as the Marschallin, the Viennese princess who has an affair with 17-year-old Octavian before reluctantly turning him over to a young debutante, Sophie. But Harteros cancelled a few weeks ago for unstated medical reasons, and her capable if slightly stilted last-minute replacement was a promising young American, Twyla Robinson, singing her first Marschallin.

Octavian, the rose-bearer of the title, a trouser role for a mezzo-soprano, is usually overshadowed by the Marschallin’s timely wistfulness in her first awareness of fading youth. This time, though, “Der Rosenkavalier” was, thanks to Anke Vondung’s intense and serious Octavian, a striking coming-of-age drama.

In an affectionate and nostalgic program note to accompany his affectionate and nostalgic staging, Mansouri says that the opera “should not and cannot be updated” or any other way messed with, given its representation of 18th century customs during the Empress Marie Therese’s reign in Vienna.

But of the theme of “Rosenkavalier” is that time does not stand still. San Diego is not 1911 Dresden. I entered the faceless Civic Theatre handing my loose change to the contemporary homeless who loiter by the marquee.

The German conductor Christof Perick led a generally idiomatic and smooth performance, but the first sounds from the confident San Diego Symphony in the pit were of unmistakable American brass.

The Dresden Semperoper website has a photo gallery of its “Rosenkavalier” productions over the last century. For nine decades, they were traditional, even if the singers favored contemporary makeup. In 2000, the company created an edgy, excellent modern staging by Uwe Eric Laufenberg. That production was revived for the 100th anniversary performance in January, and Vondung was the Octavian, as she is in a 2007 performance from Dresden filmed for DVD.

Despite her San Diego costumes and the faded sets, Vondung's Octavian retained modern Dresden’s spirit. A cocky boy goes from the bed of an older women to a realization of love in meeting Sophie. But what made Vondung, whose voice is deep and stout, an unusually convincing Octavian was not romance but the discovery of compassion.

The chemistry between Vondung and Robinson’s Marschallin was more sexual than loving. Robinson’s stateliness reminded me more of “Gone With the Wind” than her having gone back to old Vienna. She is an effectively penetrating soprano, not a creamy one. I hope she doesn’t get weepy as she grows into the role.

Andrew Greenan was a substitute for the revered Italian baritone Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was to have sung his first Ochs in San Diego but changed his mind about taking on the role. Greenan was an inoffensive but not unsympathetic as the penniless oaf who hopes to wed Sophie for her fortune. He would have had his hands full had he succeeded, given Patrizia Ciofi’s situation-comedy style mugging. Whenever she had high notes, she stopped acting and put all her effort on a top that may not be as flexible as it once was.

“Rosenkavalier” is a populous opera. Joel Sorensen and Helene Schneiderman, as the Italian troublemakers Valzacchi and Annina, had the right spunk. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, as Sophie’s parvenu papa, Faninal, was properly pompous. Stephen Costello made handsome work of the Italian tenor’s aria. Others came and went with panache, none more so than John Duykers as the Marschallin’s Major-Domo.

There are few traditional “Rosenkavalier” productions left anywhere. The Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera have lavish aging ones with little or no life left in them. San Diego bucks the trend, maybe for the last time. But the company gets away with it mainly thanks to an Octavian who refuses to bear a wilted rose.

RELATED: Strange but true

                'Rosenkavalier' Restored, After a Fashion, in S.F.

For the record: 4:09 p.m.: An earlier version of this review misspelled Anja Harteros and John  Duykers.

-- Mark Swed

"Der Rosenkavalier," Civic Theater, 1100 3rd Ave., San Diego; 7 p.m. Wednesday and April  12, 6 p.m. Saturday; $35-$220; (619) 232-7636 or www.sdopera.com. Running time: 4 hours.

Photo: Anke Vondung as Octavian bearing a silver rose in San Diego Opera "Der Rosenkavalier." Credit Ken Howard / San Diego Opera.

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