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Performing arts

S/he loves me (not)

Strauss' wistfully comic opera ponders mortality and bends gender.

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Published 4/19/2000

Richard Strauss’ 1911 opera Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose) is a delicate balancing act on several levels, juggling sadness and comedy, resignation and hope, reality and illusion. Michigan Opera Theatre’s production occasionally upsets the bittersweet balance, erring too heavily on the side of slapstick, but it still has plenty going for it – even at three-and-a-half hours long.

While director Alexander Donath’s pacing is erratic and his penchant for screwball comedy can be distracting, the singing, overall, is laudable. Nepotism reigns in this Rosenkavalier, with Helen Donath singing the role of the Marschallin, her husband, Klaus, conducting and their son Alexander directing.

The plot involves the Marschallin, whose youth and beauty are fading fast, turning to the comfort of lovers in her husband’s absence. Her current beau, Octavian (a "trouser role" which Strauss wrote for a mezzo-soprano), eventually spurns her for the affections of a younger, more vibrant woman, Sophie. The Marschallin’s lecherous cousin, Baron Ochs, also has the hots for Octavian when he sees "him" disguised as a female maid. The plot, which resembles Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, is a little too cute and coy for comfort, but it’s redeemed by the Marschallin’s exquisite reflections on the inevitable approach of age and its attendant sadness where love is concerned.

Helen Donath turns in a memorable performance, dolorous and resigned, yet free of gooey sentimentality. She delivers her Act I monologue, in which she predicts that she’ll lose Octavian, with heartfelt wistfulness. However sad she is about the passage of time, she knows that it’s futile to fight it. When she confesses that she sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to stop the clocks, her delivery is piercingly tender, aching in its desperation.

Although Donath’s pear-shaped tones are often lovely, she doesn’t float her high notes as many Marschallins do to underscore the character’s poignancy. The fact that Donath is middle-aged probably adds to the pathos of her performance. A young soprano is hard-pressed to grasp the evanescence of time and what it means to face losing one’s youth.

Margaret Lattimore, making her MOT debut, is a standout as Octavian. Her high mezzo is bright and trumpetlike. She soars easily into the stratosphere, as Strauss singers must, without losing volume. Lattimore also plumbs the depths of her character. She’s playing a teenage boy, so her emotional range is necessarily limited, but she knows how to project sulkiness rather than mere petulance. Lattimore is a young singer to watch.

Despite a nasally timbre, Tonna Miller’s sweet, high soprano is ideal for Sophie. Her pert portrayal effectively projects her character’s youth and naïveté.

As Baron Ochs, Kurt Link doesn’t quite exude the randy oiliness his character demands. His bass is orotund, but his voice lacks sufficient color.

Area resident Scott Piper is impressive in the small role of the Italian Tenor. With no time to warm up, the tenor has to sing full-throated in a high tessitura. Strauss wrote exceedingly well for females (many of his songs were written for his soprano wife), but the composer is largely unsympathetic to male voices, particularly tenors.

In the pit, Klaus Donath holds the difficult score together nicely, but his accompaniments (particularly at the beginning of the second act on opening night) get heavy-handed. He showed his skill, however, in the touching trio of the third act, scaling the forces down to a feathery pianissimo.

Allen Charles Klein’s sets are effective, save for the garish first-act bedroom scene, which conjures up bordello chic rather than 18th-century rococo elegance.

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