Outstanding production shows talent, hard work
By Peter JacobiH-T Reviewer | email@example.com
February 27, 2012
In the unpublished recollection of his years as dean of the Indiana University School of Music, the late Wilfred Bain noted that the 1966 production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” was “a major undertaking,” that it had “one of the most beautiful productions ever to be staged” here, that it had but a single performance, and that the sets were later sold to the Seattle Opera Company, an act the school “never should have done.”
Forty-six years later, IU Opera Theater has mounted on the stage of the Musical Arts Center what folks involved in its preparation repeatedly referred to as “a major undertaking,” that this reviewer rates as “one of the most beautiful productions ever to be staged” here, that is, thankfully, getting four performances, and with sets that one trusts will not be sold but retained for future revival.
And that is said not only because the sets by Bill Forrester and the costumes by Linda Pisano are stunning, important enough reasons, but because what the performers on stage and the musicians in the pit and all their mentors have done to prove that — with will, hard work, and the right talents — a university’s opera program, at least the one at IU’s Jacobs School, can do justice to a work as demanding as “Rosenkavalier.”
It can do more than justice. The current production — in its physical presence and as music and theater — is outstanding. The success begins in the pit where so many of the musical treasures of the score originate. Strauss made the orchestra a major character, in that all the themes of the story and all the moods it generates are so profusely reflected in what the musicians in the pit provide: the romance, the rue, the buffoonery, the quiet and the boisterous, the composer’s affectionate tribute to a Vienna of old.
Conductor David Effron had made sure the participating orchestra, the IU Philharmonic, would contribute the needed dramatic flavors, while also acing the technical hurdles, from the whooping horn blasts of the introduction to the joyful calm accompanying a new and budding love that marks the opera’s end. For the Philharmonic, the task was enormous, what with “Rosenkavalier’s” considerable length adding to Strauss’ herculean musical requirements. The task was accomplished brilliantly.
For all of the orchestra’s importance, what happens on stage ultimately determines how an audience reacts to the whole. Effron and coaches and savvy stage director Vincent Liotta had worked diligently to familiarize two casts with the world of “Rosenkavalier,” a fragile blend of theatrical make-believe and very human behavior, as established by Strauss and his collaborating wordsmith, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.
That must have been a mammoth task for Liotta. He had to make the singers, as individuals, comfortably inhabit plausible, if also in some cases comically absurd, characters in an implausible realm, this while giving flow to two concurrent plot lines. One is a comedy of manners centered on an ill-mannered nobleman, Baron Ochs; the other concerns shifting romance and aging and involves, first, the flirtation of the teenage Octavian with the 32-year-old Marschallin, then her generous step-aside, allowing Octavian to hook up with the lovely young Sophie, whom Ochs would like to wed. Liotta is a master at such maneuverings. He has been so once again with this “Rosenkavalier.”
The opera requires a huge cast; the list of characters ranges from notary, police commissioner and animal seller to milliner, footmen and maids. To each has been given a roadmap of behavior and actions. But the Strauss/von Hofmannsthal focus is on Octavian and his two amours and on Ochs. It must be so in a production that works. IU’s production works.
Octavian is a trouser role, set for a mezzo-soprano. Strauss loved the female voice, singly and in ensemble. His choice allowed for that delectable Presentation of the Rose duet when Octavian and Sophie first meet and for the trio/duo combination that concludes the opera, as the Marschallin releases the boy to follow his heart with Sophie. Amanda Russo on Friday and Sarah Ballman on Saturday provided the requisite high notes and vocal body for Octavian and managed to be sufficiently effective in approximating the opposite sex in their cross-genders assignment. The two Sophies, Hye Jung Lee and Evelyn Nelson, were fetchingly girlish and possessed the musically complementing bright lyric soprano.
A surprise was how two young sopranos — Pauliina Linnosaari, a Performer Diploma candidate, and Heather Youngquist, a recent Jacobs School graduate — took hold of the Marschallin as character: her passion and reserve, her wisdom and goodness, her sadness about aging and resilience. Their more dramatic voices fulfilled Straussian demands far better than one could have hoped. When the women sang, there was magic in the air.
Two seasoned pros were brought in to portray Ochs, bassos Ethan Herschenfeld and Pawel Izdebski. They were excellent, low notes and up, and captured the role of a boorish oaf, one still capable of earning the viewer’s sympathy.
Most everyone contributed to things seen and heard, prominently among them baritones Gabe Helton and Nathaniel Olson as Sophie’s father; sopranos Suna Avci and Christa Ruiz as Sophie’s Duenna; tenors Benjamin Cortez and Lorenzo Garcia and mezzos Nicole Shorts and Emily Smokovich as a pair of intriguers, and tenors David Margulis and Andrew Lunsford as the Italian Singer.