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Lyric Opera’s charming ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ a beauty to behold, but too ‘earthbound’ to enchant

By Wynne Delacoma | For the Sun-Times

Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” is a poignant blend of darkness and light. A cruel undercurrent runs beneath its lilting waltzes and sumptuous settings in 18th-century, aristocratic Vienna. There’s the cruelty of aging, personified by the worldly-wise Marschallin, a woman well aware that her affair with 17-year-old Count Octavian will end when a prettier, younger woman captures his heart. There’s the cruelty of male prerogative: the boorish Baron Ochs who feels free to stalk any woman who catches his eye.

‘DER ROSENKAVALIER’

Recommended

When: Through Mar.13

Where: Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets: $20-$349

Info: 312-827-5600; lyricopera.org

Running time: 4 hours, 5 minutes with two intermissions

A balanced blend of darkness and light were fully present Monday night at the Civic Opera House when Lyric Opera of Chicago unveiled its new production, borrowed from the San Francisco Opera, of Strauss’ homage to Mozartean elegance. Soprano Amanda Majeski was an intriguing Marschallin, projecting gracious authority while struggling with the painful fact that her youth was forever past and gone. An Illinois native and alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center training program, she sang with a strong, bright, expressive tone. Her seamless lyricism in the opera’s introspective moments conveyed the Marschallin’s essential goodness of heart. In Act III, disgusted by the crude Baron, Majeski’s low vocal line brimmed with scorn.

Making his Lyric debut, British bass Matthew Rose was a superb Baron Ochs, a towering figure pursuing women with the ruthlessness of a hedge fund operator plotting a billion-dollar score. His powerful bass was agile and handled Strauss’s wide-ranging melodies with conversational ease. Even when bellowing like a dying man after a none-too-fierce duel in one of the opera’s comic moments, Ochs never slipped into caricature. Though an unrepentant cad, Rose’s Ochs was a fully drawn character.

In one crucial area, however, Lyric’s “Der Rosenkavalier” lacked a sense of real people dealing with deeply human emotions. The chemistry between Octavian and Sophie, the young woman who steals his heart from Marschallin, was grievously missing. The Sophie of Christina Landshamer, a German soprano making her American operatic debut, seemed ill-at-ease and stiff. She kept her eyes glued on conductor Edward Gardner, and her voice turned unpleasantly harsh at times. We’re supposed to believe that Octavian and Sophie fall madly in love at first sight, but little in either singer’s body language indicated more than respectful reserve. They negotiated Strauss’s soaring melodies well enough, but their love duets lacked color and emotional depth. The sense of romantic longing, so clear between the Marschallin and Octavian, simply wasn’t there.

Matthew Rose as the boorish Baron Ochs and Christina Landshamer as Sophie in Lyric Opera's production of "Der Rosenkavalier." | PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER

Matthew Rose as the boorish Baron Ochs and Christina Landshamer as Sophie in Lyric Opera’s production of “Der Rosenkavalier.” | PHOTO BY CORY WEAVER

In contrast, in scenes with Marschallin, French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch was entirely believable as the teen-aged Octavian. (In a nod to the traditions of Mozart’s day, Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wrote the role of the young Octavian for a female singer.) Slim and light on her feet, Koch’s Octavian was a thoughtful youth. Studying the beautiful Marschallin with a steady, attentive gaze, he embodied both seriousness and youthful sensuality. A soft warmth crept into Koch’s crisp mezzo during their love scenes. (Koch sings Octavian through Feb. 20; English mezzo-soprano Alice Coote takes over the role March 4-13.)

A strong supporting cast helped keep the action rolling at a brisk pace, however. As Faninal, Sophie’s nouveau rich father, baritone Martin Gantner was as wily as Ochs, angling to marry off his daughter to the Baron to bring a touch of class to his bourgeois family. Always a lively presence, tenor Rodell Rosel was deliciously oily as Valzacchi, the publisher of a Viennese gossip sheet. Aided by the gleefully corrupt Annina (Megan Marino), he reveled in plots to bedevil the rich and famous. Stage director Martina Weber deployed the platoons of servants and hangers-on with aplomb amid the gilded walls and smoky pastels of Thierry Bosquet’s luxurious sets and costumes.

Out-of-synch super titles were a distraction in Act II, and at times the textures in Lyric’s orchestra sounded muddy. With few romantic sparks between Sophie and Octavian and too few flashes of airy, quicksilver sparkle from the orchestra, Lyric’s “Der Rosenkavalier” felt disappointingly earthbound.

Wynne Delacoma is a local freelance writer and the former longtime classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.