Singers excel in Kennedy Center's production of Strauss' 'Der Rosenkavalier'

November 14, 1995|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The best parts of Richard Strauss' music are almost invariably about nostalgia -- the sense of loss for what can never be again. Even in his juvenilia, Strauss was the poet of lost time and in "Der Rosenkavalier," which debuted in 1911 when the composer was only 47, he crystallized to perfection this strain in his music. In his next 11 operas (the last of which came in 1944) and in his valedictory "Four Last Songs" of 1948, Strauss was to repeat again and again the sense of letting go that characterizes the great soprano trio that closes "Rosenkavalier."

If Strauss couldn't get "Rosenkavalier's" music out of his head, how can one expect it of the average listener -- particularly in so fine a production as the one that the Washington Opera unveiled Saturday night at the Kennedy Center?

The greatest strength of this production, despite director Mi

chael Heinricke's intelligent direction and Washington Opera music director Heinz Fricke's knowledgeable conducting, was its singers.

With the possible exception of Mozart, no composer was ever so in love with the sound of the female voice as Strauss. In "Rosenkavalier," he created three great roles: that of the Marschallin for a lyric soprano at the peak of her vocal ripening; a great pants role for a mezzo in Octavian, the Marschallin's 17-year-old lover; and an almost matchlessly light and silvery part for a soubrette in the virginal Sophie, for whom Octavian -- at Time's dictates -- must leave his mature mistress.

It is the hope of every Sophie to grow into a distinguished Marschallin. Helen Donath, singing the role for the first time in this production, is one of the lucky ones.

Donath, whose Sophie was memorialized in the 1969 Solti recording, brings to the Marschallin the same radiance of voice and warm, believably human qualities that characterized her Sophie. Donath's lyric soprano does not have the lushness of timbre and the vocal heft one associates with the part. But the intimate acoustics of the center's Opera House are kind to Donath's gleaming voice as it moves easily and confidently, capturing the role with a minimum of sentimentality but a good deal of sentiment.

Donath has a fine Octavian in Jeanne Piland, an American mezzo who has enjoyed success in this role in Europe. Her Octavian is young, ardent and strong. Her "Mariandel" -- an interesting piece of stage business in which a soprano playing a young nobleman is called upon to impersonate a chamber-maid -- is amusing without being exaggerated. The best of Washington's "Rosenkavalier" is that Piland's strong mezzo and Donath's velvety lyric soprano match each other so beautifully.

Unfortunately, that cannot be said about the Sophie of Janet Williams. This young soprano does a good job projecting Sophie's youthfulness but misses some of her vocal allure. On Saturday night, her voice did not seem sufficiently well supported -- it had a tendency to disappear at subdued levels and to turn strident at high dynamic levels. This kept the final trio from completely achieving the seamless legato and sense of time standing still that caps "Rosenkavalier."

The male obstacle to female happiness in "Rosenkavalier" is the Marschallin's loutish country cousin, Baron Ochs. In the American bass Eric Halfvarson the Washington Opera has one of the world's finest Ochses. Halfvarson's singing is always big and dark and imposing, and his impersonation was undeniably funny.

In lesser roles, David Evitts, William Joyner, Jennifer Davis Jones, Kathleen Segar and Peter Volpe contributed to this "Rosenkavalier's" excellence.

Washington Opera

What: "Der Rosenkavalier"

Where: Kennedy Center Opera House

When: Nov. 16, 18, 21, 24 and 26

Tickets: $52-$110

Call: (202) 416-7800 or 1-800-OPERA

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