R. Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier, R. Fleming, F. Hawlata, S. Koch, D. Damrau, J. Kaufmann, Munich Philharmonic, C. Thielemann (Decca, 2009)
The cast was led by two veterans in the roles of the conniving old Viennese nobles, who are parallel in many ways to the calculating Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont in Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses. Renée Fleming made a savvy and puissant Marschallin, a role that fits her like a glove, like much Strauss, including her historic interpretation of the Countess in Capriccio. Franz Hawlata was an absolute hoot as the lecherous Baron Ochs -- a role he has sung so many times and in so many places, including Chicago -- like a bull crashing through every china shop on stage. If there were vocal limitations in both of these voices, there was enough expertise to disguise them and enough dramatic mojo to make one overlook these defects.
The title role was to have been sung by Sarah Connolly, who withdrew for health reasons. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel, already familiar to Washington audiences from several performances with Opera Lafayette, stepped in to save the day. She has sung Octavian at the Wiener Staatsopera, Paris, and Graz, and although it was reportedly a role that did not suit her at first, she was captivating dramatically and a vocal force in it in this format. So we had two-thirds of the luminous trio that comes at the end of the third act, where the Marschallin (Fleming) removes herself as the obstacle stopping her young lover, Octavian (Houtzeel), from taking up with the younger Sophie. (The Verdi opera, Il Corsaro, heard on Sunday night from Washington Concert Opera, ends with a similar gesture, with music that is banal by comparison.) What we did not have was a Sophie with all the vocal requirements. Soprano Marisol Montalvo showed pretty much the same strengths displayed in her 2010 NSO appearance, some very pretty and pure-toned high notes (if occasionally soured by intonation concerns), but also the same weaknesses, meaning that she was easily overpowered at many moments. Once again, Christoph Eschenbach's devotion to a favorite musician seemed to have taken precedence over the demands of the work.
Anne Midgette, Delightful NSO ‘Rosenkavalier’ features Fleming, Montsalvo and newcomer Houtzeel (Washington Post, March 10)
Tim Smith, Eschenbach leads National Symphony in semistaged Rosenkavalier with Renée Fleming (Baltimore Sun, March 10)
The second part of the NSO's Strauss celebration will feature soprano Iréne Theorin in excerpts from Elektra and Salome (March 20 to 22).