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CLO's 'Rosenkavalier' opens the heavens in New London

New London – For any regional opera company to stage Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” in a small city is an undertaking fraught with obstacles, but after successfully staging the first-ever Wagnerian opera in Connecticut last season, the Connecticut Lyric Opera took the challenge Friday evening — and largely succeeded.

The performance at the Garde Arts Center was satisfying, in part, simply because it happened. CLO Music Director and Conductor Adrian Sylveen has been on a mission to bring great operas seldom attempted on small stages to audiences here, and just to attend a Strauss opera in New London felt eventful.

But in the recurring leitmotif for the CLO, the long evening of music fulfilled devotees’ anticipation primarily because of the outstanding, detailed performance of the Connecticut Virtuosi Orchestra, the bedrock of this company’s decade of success. Perhaps the most defining quality of Strauss’ large-scale works is the complexity of his orchestration, and the demands on the 36-piece orchestra were unrelenting. Even through several long on-stage pantomimes setting up plot elements, the orchestra delivered a thrilling concert-quality performance. It is a long score, with few start-and-stop set pieces, and Sylveen led an unflagging, coherent, often gorgeous evening of music.

The roadblocks to actually staging “Der Rosenkavalier” are many.

First, there are issues of scale.

The comedy is set in storybook Vienna, a world layered with nobility and footmen and intriguers, and Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyworld may be the only appropriate set. It is impossible to make “Rosenkavalier” sets too ornate, so the CLO sets simply have to get a free pass. When all 35 principals, choristers and supernumeraries filled the stage in Act 3, the stage was strictly standing room only.

Problems of scale include the opera’s running time. The uncut opera has about three hours and 10 minutes of stage time, so an edited version was performed at the Garde. The cuts were well-placed for musical content (and isn’t that what counts?), but for those unfamiliar with the opera, the purpose of many of the characters became obscure, when their episodic purpose was curtailed. And, as a comedy, jokes from imperial Germany of 1911 (“I am not an Italian general — I stand my ground”) did not get the laughs in New London they surely got in Dresden.

The cast of singers was huge — 16 named principals — and as such, uneven. But the key characters were at their best when it mattered most.

“Rosenkavalier” is a pointedly universal tale of ordinary human fears wrapped in a boiling sex farce, Strauss’s obvious nod to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” At the center of it is the Marschallin, a member of the high aristocracy encountering the reality of middle age, sung by soprano Kathleen Callahan-Hardman. She has a teenage lover, Octavian, sung by mezzo soprano Kerry Gotschall. The “trouser role” of a mezzo portraying a male youth is both another nod to “Figaro” and an indulgence of Strauss’ preference to write for soprano voices.

The worldly Marschallin knows she cannot hold onto her hot-blooded young lover for long, and Octavian is dispatched to deliver a ceremonial sign of betrothal — a silver rose — to the teenage Sophie, sung by soprano Katrina Holden, on behalf of the crude and clueless Baron Ochs, sung by baritone Christopher Grundy. To make a very long story short, Octavian and Sophie fall in love. They conspire to trap Ochs in a compromising situation, and the Marschallin acknowledges her game is up and stands aside to let the two teenage lovers be one.

As Octavian, Gotschall was very much at the center of it all, and her characterization of the impetuous, in-love-with-love youth was convincing and energetic. Through the first act, her singing was unfocused, with a motoric vibrato, but she warmed as the opera progressed and became central to the finest vocal ensembles.

As the Marschallin, Callahan-Hardman was the vocal star, rich and unforced in her many languid passages, fully conveying the nuances of her character, such as in her calmly powerful Act 1 soliloquy “Da geht er hin,” when she considers her own fading youth, confessing that on some nights, she leaves her bed to walk the palace and stop all the clocks.

Grundy was vocally secure as Ochs, especially in his drunken reverie singing the famous Act 2 waltz, yet seldom as broadly farcical as the plot would have it.

And as Sophie, Holden was perfectly cast, teenage-fresh in both character and voice, making the most of the ringing top to ensembles given to her role. This is a singer who will be welcomed should she return to the CLO stage.

The opera’s scene-stealer was mezzo Heather Petri in the role of palace intriguer Annina, who made the most of comic situations with a Chaplinesque flair for stagecraft.

And thanks, to Strauss’ scoring, the orchestra’s horn and wind sections had starring roles throughout.

But what makes “Rosenkavalier” Strauss’ most enduring work are the moments when the farce stops and, as Sylveen puts it, “the heavens open up.” Gotschall and Holden were beautifully balanced in the heavenly Act 2 duet in the presentation of the rose scene, “Mit Ihren Augen voll Tränen,” and their final, calm love duet, “Ist ein Traum.”

The final trio is one of opera’s best-known set pieces, and Friday, the CLO did it justice. From Callahan-Hardman’s commanding and centered opening, through the layers of chromaticism with Holden soaring, the ensemble crafted wave after wave of unhurried, pure pleasure.

It is a shame that the Garde performance was so poorly attended, one of the smallest audiences for this established company. But those who knew and sought out the musical delights of “Der Rosenkavalier” could not have been disappointed.


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