Central to the success of any production of "Der Rosenkavalier," Strauss' glittering comic opera of the Vienna of the late 18th century, is a dramatic performance of the role of Marschallin that radiates a confident and gracious aristocratic bearing. But at the same time she must reveal a vulnerability to both the fading of her beauty as she approaches middle age and the probable loss of her young lover, Octavian, to a woman nearer his own age.
In the Canadian Opera Company's new "Rosenkavalier," soprano Josephine Barstow has created a Marschallin who nearly ideally embodies all these traits. She has an unobtrusive patrician beauty and seemed intuitively to project the bittersweet emotions brought on by the sadness of her forced marriage, the joy of her idyllic love affair and the knowledge that it can't last. And she does this with a steadfastness of character that tells the audience that when the crisis arrives she will have the inner fortitude to weep, then rise above it all and put her life back together.
Barstow's voice was also filled with the kind of richness and warmth that musically enhanced her dramatic posture at every turn. Her intonation was sure, her phrasing sinuous and gemutlich, like the lilting Viennese waltzes that dot Strauss' magnificent score. If there was a flaw in Barstow's performance it was in her projection, which on occasion did not have quite the authority needed to make the subtlety of her vocal performance apparent beyond the middle of the house.
The other major roles are all, to one degree or another, caricatures.
Octavian, one of the most famous "pants" roles in all operadom, is here sung by mezzo Delores Ziegler. She sang with a great deal of clarity and a lean, articulate quality, but without much of the breadth or warmth that might make an audience occasionally forget that this is a woman trying to portray a male role. Designer Elizabeth Dalton, whose sets were generally excellent, didn't help the male image much in Ziegler's costuming, allowing her dark hair to fall flowingly beyond shoulder length and doing very little to suppress her obviously ample bosom.
In Act 2, Octavian is the intermediary between the lecherous Baron Ochs and his intended child bride, Sophie (soprano Cheryl Parrish), with whom he falls instantly in love. Parrish is the cast's weak spot. Her voice is thin and edgy in intonation, conveying an almost miniature quality rather than youthfulness. Yet in the duets with Octavian, Ziegler still does not emerge as significantly more masculine vocally than Parrish.
Artur Korn as Ochs produces an exceptionally round, well-focused bass voice with strong projection of the many bottom-end tones that punctuate the score. In painting Ochs' character, though, Korn may have erred. Ochs is supposed to be much more malevolent and crude than, say, Falstaff, but Korn always seemed to dilute the vulgar and lecherous qualities with a laugh, and as a result his Ochs seemed more a buffoon than truly detestable.
Director Stephen Lawless tried to give the stage action all the glitter it deserves. For the most part he succeeded but did allow a few of the crowd scenes to become frantic rather than spontaneous.
Strauss calls this opera "a comedy for music," and it was obvious that Maestro Julius Rudel was doing all he could to see that the orchestral line assumed its proper prominence. But the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra did not respond to his urging, often was sluggish, failed to produce a glowing sound and wasn't able to hold its own with the stage horseplay of Act 3.
Some of the production's shortcomings are the type that may improve with repeat performances, but it simply does not have the commanding presence and authority that a company of this stature ought to put forward as a season-ending showcase.
"Der Rosenkavalier," opera by Richard Strauss
New production by Canadian Opera Company starring Josephine Barstow, Delores Ziegler and Artur Korn, conducted by Julius Rudel.
At the O'Keefe Centre, Toronto; performances at 8 p.m. tomorrow, Thursday and Saturday.