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A ‘Rosenkavalier’ Refreshed : The Music Center Opera Gives Strauss’ Masterpiece a New Look

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

One approached the Dorothy Chandler with a certain degree of trepidation Sunday night.

The Music Center Opera was venturing its first encounter with Richard Strauss’ ever-poignant, ever-daunting “Der Rosenkavalier.” That, of course, was cause for rejoicing. But the road to the premiere hadn’t exactly been smooth.

It was no secret that the staging scheme imported for the occasion would defy tradition. Some of the advance reports, moreover, were discouraging.

If all had gone as first planned, this would have been a “Rosenkavalier” with a Berlin accent--a production directed by Gotz Friedrich with his wife, Karan Armstrong, in the key role of the Marschallin. When financial problems reportedly intervened, however, an unhappy Friedrich headed for the exit, taking the prima donna with him.

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Apparently unfazed, Peter Hemmings, impresario in residence, turned to the English National Opera, which was preparing a new “Rosenkavalier” of its own in a modernist staging by Jonathan Miller. Enlisting the New York City Opera and the Houston Opera as co-producers, Los Angeles blithely bought into the British product.

That is, Los Angeles bought the spacious sets of Peter J. Davison and the handsome period costumes of Sue Blane as devised for Miller. Their “Rosenkavalier,” it should be stressed, did not take place in the 18th-Century Vienna of the Empress Maria Theresa, which Strauss and his inspired librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had so carefully delineated. Miller had chosen to move the plot to 1910, the period in which the opera was written.

In so doing, he turned his back on a lot of formal Baroque ritual and he trampled some specific historical references. Still, he wasn’t the first “Rosenkavalier” director to toy with the fast-forward button (both Ruth Berghaus and Friedrich had exercised similar revisionist options), and Miller’s concept did suggest some interesting sociopolitical connotations.

The director had told an interviewer that he saw the work as the requiem for a decaying Hapsburg empire “just before the shot in Sarajevo brings it all to an end.”

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Responses to the British “Rosenkavalier” were decidedly mixed at the premiere last February. Max Loppert, one of England’s most astute and most respected critics, found the staging “pallidly thin-blooded,” the concept “flimsy.”

Luckily, something seems to have been won with transplantation. Most of the time, Miller’s “Rosenkavalier” struck at least one veteran of too many Straussian wars as a stimulating delight.

But was it really Miller’s “Rosenkavalier”? At the London Coliseum, the opera was sung in English. At the Music Center, it was sung--by a completely different cast--in the original German, or in reasonable facsimiles thereof, with supertitles flashing vague translations atop the proscenium arch.

Most crucially, perhaps, Miller did not come here to work with the Los Angeles team. The job of imparting, interpreting and modifying his ideas fell to his erstwhile assistant, David Ritch.

The results couldn’t always make perfect sense. Rustic barons didn’t wander around Vienna in 1910 carrying swords. Courtly manners changed rather drastically over the centuries. The conceit of a woman playing a boy who impersonates a girl who is courted by a lecher takes on unexpected sexual connotations in the sleazy dawn of the Freudian era. It is hard to find the shadow of the first world war either in Strauss’ sunny score or in Hofmannsthal’s elegant poetry.

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Still, the Los Angeles version of this “Rosenkavalier” exerted considerable compulsion. It was good to see the opera stripped of empty cliche. Although one missed the ghost of Mozart that normally haunts the opera, it was reassuring for once to see all traces of buffo caricature banished from the stage, along with most traces of cloying sentiment.

Miller--and/or Ritch--focused the characters with uncommon sensitivity and clarity. The mellow Marschallin, now portrayed by the willowy Ashley Putnam, is more a woman here, less a princess, but her renunciation of love retains its pathos. Octavian becomes a young officer, and his spiffy military uniform supports the inherent gender charades nicely. The lusty Baron Ochs--still more baron than ox--looks a bit like a misplaced Mandryka, but Strauss probably wouldn’t have minded that.

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The director, whoever that may be, allows a few dubious steps in the direction of vulgarity. Ochs’ henchmen take the liberty of plopping themselves on the Marschallin’s bed. Annina allows herself a rather rude, if undeniably amusing, gesture of Italianate contempt behind Ochs’ back. Mohammed, the Marschallin’s little page, is not brought back to cap the evening with the hanky-waving exit so picturesquely described in the music.

Never mind. This “Rosenkavalier” tells its convoluted tale with clean lines, uncluttered vistas and ample wit. The poetry is timeless, and it is simple.

Davison’s stark, faintly stylized designs, evocatively lighted by Jean Kalman, avoid Jugendstil fussiness. The Marschallin’s boudoir is all airy grandeur. The nouveau-riche excesses of Faninal’s palace are defined by a high bad-taste painting leaning against one wall, and bronze statues of nude pseudo-Greek warriors lined up outside the windows. Only the last act--a suddenly Brechtian set within the set--is cause for puzzlement.

On Sunday, the cool but always vivid stage pictures were complemented in the pit by Jiri Kout, who conducted with brisk bravado, considerable flexibility and a knowing sense of intimacy. He accompanied the voices--some fragile--sympathetically, and he coaxed remarkably elegant responses from the enlarged Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. The maestro even got the instrumentalists to sing a swooping upward glissando along with the agitated Annina in the last act, as if Grand Avenue were really Ringstrasse.

The cast was worthy.

Putnam’s lovely, subtly inflected Marschallin has come a long way since its Santa Fe tryout in 1989. The characterization still may bear a trace of Barbie-doll plastic here, a bit of fashion-model chic there. Her initial change of mood at the levee may suggest little more than distress at having a bad-hair day. But the soprano now conveys innate dignity and authority from the start, physically as well as vocally, and she still manages to sustain a crucial aura of vulnerability.

She rises gracefully to the great moments: the Marschallin’s half-smiling, half-crying resignation at the end of the first act--accompanied here by a wistful puff on a cigarette; her nose-to-nose confrontation with the stubborn Ochs at the inn, and, finally, her noble acceptance of the inevitable as she leaves Octavian with Sophie.

Octavian was Frederica von Stade, wonderfully lithe and impetuous, warm and lyrical, honest and ardent as always. Sumi Jo, liberated from the angry stratosphere of the Queen of the Night and singing Sophie for the first time, seemed properly pert but sounded a bit strident.

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Helmut Berger-Tuna, a stalwart from the Stuttgart Opera, made his U.S. debut as an Ochs who looked for all the world like a smug hedgehog (that’s a compliment) and sang with splendidly pungent wit. His basso may not be the biggest or blackest in the world, but he really savors the parlando style, fears no range extremes, and plays deftly with the Viennese dialect.

The strong and vast supporting cast included Michael Gallup as an endearingly pompous, open-throated Faninal, Jonathan Welch as an Italian Tenor of genuine vocal passion, Suzanna Guzman as an irresistibly wily Annina, Jonathan Mack as a suitably oily Valzacchi and Angelique Burzynski as a sweetly giddy Leitmetzerin.

With John Atkins as the put-upon notary, Louis Lebherz as the crusty police officer, Beau Palmer as an innkeeper equipped with a smashing B-flat, and Steven M. Porter as Ochs’ lovably idiotic Leopold, even the tiniest roles were in exceptionally good hands.

The program magazine contained the usual self-congratulation, lots of biographical data and two background essays, but nary a word on the vast changes imposed by the director. Strange priorities.

* “Der Rosenkavalier,” final entry of the Music Center Opera season at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, will be repeated Wednesday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m., with additional performances June 7 and 10 at 7 p.m. and June 12 at 1. Tickets $20-$105 at the box office, (213) 365-3500.


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