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A Straussian Summer with Der Rosenkavalier

By Speight Jenkins

Originally, I had planned to revive our 1989 production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in the summer of 2006. When the budget work was done, it was clear that this was simply impossible. The forces involved and the huge overtime problems make Die Meistersinger a mini-Ring. We will do the opera, but it will have to be done after a specific fundraising campaign such as we mount for the Ring.

It then occurred to me that it has been nine years since our very successful production of Der Rosenkavalier. I had originally thought of bringing it back in the regular season; that idea died on the altar of the budget as well, because Der Rosenkavalier needs a lot more rehearsal and demands huge forces not practicable in the regular season. I asked Asher Fisch, who was slated to conduct the Meistersinger, if he would switch to Der Rosenkavalier. He was delighted to do so, both because he loves the work and because he would have conducted it in Israel before our production. I had to make sure that our director, Dieter Kaegi, was available. When he first directed the new production in 1997, it was a great success, and I wanted him to return. Fortunately, he was free.

My first reason for wanting to revive Der Rosenkavalier—other than that it is one of the great operas and that we have a great production of it—was for Carol Vaness. Though each of the five principals in Der Rosenkavalier are vitally important and must be of a top caliber in order for the opera to make its effect, the Marschallin is primus inter pares. It is not an easy role to sing, but that’s the least of it. Because she is one of the greatest characters in opera, probably the wisest woman, she demands a personal interpretation (I know that this is a role and might therefore take another pronoun, but the Marschallin to me is not just a character; she exists). And in my experience, no matter how great the artist’s voice, interpreting the Marschallin takes some very special qualities. The first is to have lived. That sounds simplistic, but I have seen more than a few young, beautiful sopranos make no impression in the part as they simply have not the experience to convey the meaning and feeling of the Marschallin (Hofmannsthal, unfortunately, said that her age was 32, fine for the eighteenth century, maybe fine for 1911, when the piece received its premiere, but wrong for 2006).

I thought that Carol Vaness had the right characteristics and that the time is perfect for her. She is a beautiful woman, her voice is in wonderful shape, and she has had enough experience to bring real meaning to the opera’s words. She has told me that three times before she agreed to do the part yet didn’t sign the contract because it didn’t feel right. This time she has been working with joy on the part. She also confided that the Marschallin often brings her to tears, tears that she is enjoying now so that she won’t have to yield to them when she sings the role in August.

With Carol Vaness signed up, my next step was to see if Peter Rose was available for Baron Ochs. I can’t bear the coarse buffoon interpretation of many who perform it, and I have seen Rose’s Baron. It’s got plenty of rough edges, but he’s basically a country gentleman, not a peasant. He also has in spades the vital quality of charm. Rose, who had been supposed to sing Pogner in the Meistersinger, was more than happy to switch to one of his favorite roles.

The title role has to look and sound just right. When the production was first given at Seattle Opera, Angelika Kirchschlager made her U.S. debut here with a brilliant Octavian. For this production, I knew I had found the young woman I wanted when Alice Coote sang in Handel’s Alcina in San Francisco. A great voice, a vibrant personality, an aristocratic carriage and great looks, all of these characteristics spell the Count Rofrano. She did her first Octavian in Los Angeles last summer, and she was happy to do it again in Seattle.

The most surprising addition to the cast came from Die Meistersinger. I had invited the distinguished baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, as well known for Lieder as for opera, to Seattle . When the opera was changed, his manager told me that he would be very interested in the part of Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier. I was more than delighted. He should bring us a new and important interpretation of Sophie’s father.

Finally, the Italian Singer is always a problem. Strauss and Hofmannsthal created the role for a repertory company and intended to have the tenor who was currently singing Cavaradossi, Rodolfo, or even Radames to have a short night singing the important, one-shot role. For Seattle Opera, as for all companies not in a rep situation, bringing in the kind of tenor who can sing the role properly is a challenge. Since Vinson Cole became internationally famous for singing the Italian Singer in the recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan many years ago, I knew he knew the part. But would he do it? When I asked him, he said he hadn’t done the part in quite a while and wanted to sing it through again before he agreed. I was delighted when he told me that it still felt good and he’d do it.

So with the addition of many important smaller and not-so-small parts, we were ready to go on our Straussian summer.