Few works in the standard repertory test an opera company's world-class bona fides more acutely than Richard Strauss' most endearing and popular stage work, "Der Rosenkavalier."
Everything about it is big, from its Wagnerian length (more than four hours, including two intermissions), to the outsize musical demands it makes on the conductor, a large cast and ample orchestra, to the many challenges it presents to the production team.
Lyric Opera has, to a great extent, proved itself equal to the demands with its intelligent, strongly cast revival of "Der Rosenkavalier," which opened Monday night at the Civic Opera House.
German director Martina Weber, in her Lyric debut, paid Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the compliment of telling their bittersweet comedic drama of love, loss and the end of relationships straight, as the two geniuses of the theater envisioned it: Her staging was traditional, in the best sense, unburdened by the Eurotrashy excesses that modern "Rosenkavaliers" are heir to.
Similarly traditional were the production designs, on loan from San Francisco Opera and last seen here in 2006. Thierry Bosquet's grand sets and handsome period costumes recreate the historic decors designed by Alfred Roller for the work's 1911 premiere, their painted flats comfortably evocative of mid-18th century Viennese interiors: posh, plush and, in the final act, tacky. (Don't miss the sly in-joke in the Marschallin's levee when the Animal Trainer brings on stage an adorable trio of Cavalier (get it?) King Charles spaniels.)
With Lyric's resident Straussian, music director Andrew Davis, otherwise engaged, the company entrusted this cornerstone Strauss opera to his British compatriot, Edward Gardner. This accomplished conductor scored an impressive company debut with Monday's performance, drawing a rich, flowing, idiomatic and finely balanced reading from Lyric's ever-dependable orchestra. His musicians luxuriated in the sumptuous scoring without overpowering the singers in this long and taxing opera. Conversational passages were kept light and animated, with a rococo grace appropriate to the period in which "Rosenkavalier" is set. Standard cuts were observed, none injurious.
One trusts Lyric has extended Gardner an open invitation to come back to Chicago whenever his busy schedule allows.
Strauss specified that his heroine, the Marschallin, be no older than 32. Matching her real-life age to that of the character, soprano Amanda Majeski (who's 31) sang beautifully as the Marschallin, aka the Princess von Werdenberg, wife of a field marshall in Imperial Vienna. This is the second starring role the Ryan Opera Center star alumna has taken at Lyric this season, following her Countess in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" last fall.
The Marschallin is engaged in an affair with a teenage count, Octavian. Entrusted with the ceremonial presentation of a silver rose to the virginal young Sophie as prelude to her arranged marriage to the boorish Baron Ochs, Octavian instantly falls in love with the charming girl, just as she takes an instant dislike to the oxlike Ochs. The Marschallin soon comes to realize what has happened and reluctantly gives up her lover, in one of the most poignant farewells in all of opera. The Illinois-born Majeski carried herself with great poise and grace as she lofted creamy tone and ravishing pianissimos into the stratosphere. She was touching in her character's rueful monologue about the passage of time.
What the singer as yet lacks, and what greater stage experience in the role surely will give her, is a deeper command of verbal and musical nuance. But the potential is clearly there, and she earned herself an extended ovation Monday.
As the eponymous rose cavalier, French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch looked suitably androgynous and sang vibrantly in the trouser role of Octavian. This count behaved in a coltish, headstrong manner, resentful when he wasn't in control of every situation.
Octavian clearly enjoyed his elaborate masquerade designed to foil the lecherous Ochs, who seeks to marry Sophie to acquire the dowry her father, the nouveau riche Faninal, is only too happy to bestow in exchange for his daughter's becoming a baroness. Octavian achieved this by disguising himself as the chambermaid "Mariandel," luring the baron to a would-be tryst at a seedy country inn, by which to expose Ochs as the womanizing scoundrel he is.
That said, there was a certain Gallic froideur about Koch's portrayal, and I couldn't detect great romantic chemistry between his character and that of the silvery-voiced German soprano Christina Landshamer, who was making an admirable American debut as Sophie, although their voices blended exquisitely in the sublime final trio with Majeski, and the rapturous duet that follows. (Don't leave early or you will miss some of Strauss' most glorious music for women's voices and orchestra.)
Alice Coote will take on the part of Octavian for the Lyric performances of March 4-13.
The role of Sophie sometimes is treated rather as a throwaway to provide a third female voice for the trio, but Landshamer brought real vocal and dramatic presence to this "spirited filly," as her intended called her. She made no secret of her disgust over Ochs' behavior even as papa Faninal (German baritone Martin Gantner, savoring every delicious syllable of the talky German text) delighted in the prospect of his daughter's marrying up.
Another strong Lyric debut was that of British bass Matthew Rose as a younger-than-usual Ochs, who sang and played Sophie's would-be husband as a provincial Falstaff with a scheming heart and wandering eye, convinced of his irresistible sexual charisma. I did miss the Viennese dialect that German-speaking basses bring to this role but found Rose's unusual characterization interesting.
The singer and the stage director refused to make a loutish buffoon of Ochs, which is usually how he's portrayed: Vulgar and pompous he may be, but he still has noble blood in his veins (as he never ceases to remind us) and that's how Rose played him. He really sangthe role, as opposed to barking it, commanding the gallon-jug low notes for the baron's drunken Act 2 waltz.
There were sparky performances all around from Rene Barbera as the dulcet-voiced Italian Singer, Rodell Rosel and Megan Marino (a dynamo) as the intriguers Valzacchi and Annina, Laura Wilde as Sophie's duenna and young Zach Thomas as the Marschallin's diminutive page. Present and past members of the Ryan Opera Center acquitted themselves nicely in other supporting roles. The lighting designs of Duane Schuler proved apt for every dramatic situation.
In all, a "Rosenkavalier" to cherish.