Strauss Sopranos Soar at Carnegie Hall and the Met

A superlative cast plus Robert Carsen’s fin-de-siècle staging make the Met's latest Strauss production a must-see.

Two women in Edwardian dress stand on stage near a soldier
Der Rosenkavalier creates a “ceremonious and impossibly beautiful Vienna-that-never-was.” Ken Howard/Met Opera

When details of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2022-23 season were first announced, news of soprano Lise Davidsen singing her first-ever Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s beloved comic opera Der Rosenkavalier created quite the buzz. Many wondered if the impressively bold voice that wowed Met audiences in Ariadne auf Naxos and Elektra would be suited to the notably softer and subtler Marschallin. All doubt was banished by the time the curtain fell on her much-anticipated role debut. Davidsen’s rising star has fully, truly risen!

Strauss at at Carnegie Hall

That debut arrived at the end of a Strauss-filled weekend that began four days earlier when the American Symphony Orchestra presented Daphne, a late one-act that premiered 27 years after Rosenkavalier, in concert form. For the past quarter century, ASO music director Leon Botstein has championed lesser-known works by the composer: recording Die Ägyptische Helena and Die Liebe der Danae and, last summer, conducting a rare staging of Die Schweigsame Frau at Bard Summerscape.

Like Helena and Danae, Daphne draws from Greek myth–this one involving Apollo’s futile pursuit of the virgin Daphne, whose stubborn resistance to the god results in her being turned into a laurel tree. Librettist Joseph Gregor devised a short yet windy “bucolic tragedy” primarily remembered for the soprano’s glowing final transformation. Strauss, however, couldn’t leave well enough alone and later composed an uninspired unaccompanied choral epilogue, An den Baum Daphne, which Botstein performed first!

A dutiful, intrepid conductor, Botstein drew mostly fine playing from the ASO and assembled an accomplished group of singers who did considerable justice to their challenging roles. As the heroine’s parents Gaea and Peneios, Ronnita Miller admirably managed her subterranean tessitura, while young Stefan Egerstrom impressed with his forthright bass. Aaron Blake sang strongly as Daphne’s unfortunate suitor Leukippos, while fellow tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven coped heroically with the near-superhuman demands of Apollo, another example supporting the contention that Strauss hated tenors!

On the other hand, Strauss loved sopranos—he even married one. As Daphne, Jana McIntyre soared confidently in her long monologues and punishing duet with Apollo, though her light voice lacked a needed warmth. Rarely glancing at her score, she sweetly embodied the virgin’s love of nature and commitment to purity.

Strauss at Lincoln Center

Several days later, Erin Morley (who would surely make an ideal Daphne) returned to the role of Sophie, which she took when Robert Carsen’s updated production of Der Rosenkavalier premiered at the Met in 2017. Once again, the always-radiant soprano makes a lovable chatterbox–one instantly repelled by Baron Ochs, whom her social-climbing father has arranged for her to marry. Another veteran of that first production, Günther Groissböck, repeats his astonishing Ochs. Instead of the usual aging and overweight slob, his slim and aggressive Baron is a dangerously manic, yet ultimately ineffectual lech whose inevitable comeuppance Carsen turns into a delicious romp. If Groissböck’s potent bass-baritone has become less easy and rounded over the past six years, his boundless energy and pungent diction remain enormously entertaining.

After Isabel Leonard withdrew several months ago, the Met tapped Samantha Hankey to take over the title role of Octavian. Since her debut there in 2018, the singer has appeared at the Met primarily in small supporting roles. During Tàr, Todd Field’s recent mesmerizing film about power and predation in classical music, “Samantha Hankey” whizzes by in a shower of real name-dropping. Though fictional Lydia Tàr dismisses Hankey, real-life Met audiences loudly embraced her as a superb Octavian, one of opera’s greatest trouser roles.

Her vibrant mezzo impeccably and tirelessly traces the young man’s tumultuous maturation from the Marschallin’s gushing boy-toy to Sophie’s stalwart defender. Hankey clearly relishes her/his disguise as the maid Mariandel, eschewing the off-pitch whining some mezzos adopt for that subterfuge. Time stands still when Hankey joins Morley in a heavenly “Presentation of the Rose.”

Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstal indicated that Marie-Thérèse is 32 and Octavian 16, but one can usually recall sopranos a good deal older performing the role of the Princess von Werdenberg until the very end of their opera careers. For example, Renée Fleming was 58 when she opened this production. Ordinarily, the singer portraying Octavian is both younger and taller than his Marschallin and Sophie, but at over six feet, Davidsen towers over not only Hankey but everyone. Her height, along with her relaxed imperial authority, easily command the proceedings as any Marschallin must.

In her prior Met roles, Davidsen was much more impressive vocally than dramatically. While her prodigious vocal gifts shook the opera house–especially as Chrysothemis in Elektra–her acting came across as earnest rather than inspired. However, the elegant and introspective Marschallin must have touched a chord as her wistfully subtle portrayal clearly surprised and delighted the opening-night audience. Her deliciously ecstatic post-coital exchanges with Hankey display a hitherto unseen onstage flair, and she handles Ochs’s obstreperous cavorting with amused aplomb.

Davidsen’s lushly blooming voice might not have seemed a natural fit for the Marschallin’s many conversational scenes, but her strong middle register and clear (if still improving) diction put across her crucial dialogues better than some of her predecessors. When she needs to assert herself, her soprano rings out majestically: she embodies a confident woman in her robust prime rather than one in melancholy middle age. Octavian’s departure thereby becomes a painful episode in a life that will see other loves. The gorgeous trio after she releases Octavian to Sophie has rarely been so transporting: three glowing voices build to a shattering climax crowned by Davidsen’s full-throated high B-natural as she allows herself a brief searing cry of sadness.

Simone Young, returning to the Met podium after more than two decades, leads an occasionally explosive and scattered Rosenkavalier, but the orchestra plays sumptuously for her, suggesting that things will grow smoother as the run proceeds. Supporting roles were capably filled by Brian Mulligan as a dithering Faninal, and Thomas Ebenstein as the wily Valzacchi with Katherine Goeldner as his squally co-conspirator Annina. The Met presents more mellifluous Italian tenors than René Barbera, but his endearingly flamboyant Enrico Caruso impersonation won delighted applause both from the Marschallin and many in the audience.

To the dismay of many, six years ago the Met replaced its creaky, soft-focus 18th-century Rosenkavalier production with Carsen’s often-louche 1911 update. It brims with unsentimental business that elicits from its audience conspiratorial nods rather than tears. Carsen’s vision remains immensely entertaining, and its shocking ending (no spoilers here) unsparingly points the opera’s cavorting high society toward its eventual crashing demise.

This revival will likely be long remembered for Davidsen’s unexpectedly revelatory first attempt at an iconic diva role. Even more than her previous Met appearances, her Marschallin suggests what a valuable and well-rounded artist she is becoming. Strauss lovers should either rush to the Met or attend the April 15th HD transmission, because unfortunately, no Strauss operas are on tap next season.

Der Rosenkavalier continues at the Metropolitan Opera through April 20.
Strauss Sopranos Soar at Carnegie Hall and the Met