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Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier. Opera By Request at the Church of the Redeemer. June 10.
The inveterate opera buff is an omnivore. No, I’m not talking about caloric food, but spiritual nourishment. The true-blue opera fanatic seeks out shows big and small, from the grandest presentations at the Met (in our case here in Toronto – the Canadian Opera Company or Opera Atelier) to operas in concert with piano accompaniment. When it’s performed with spirit, passion, commitment, and heart, it’s always worth hearing.
To celebrate its 10th-anniversary, Opera By Request put on Strauss’s beloved Der Rosenkavalier. It’s an opera I’d seen many times over the years, but sadly not enough in Toronto. The last time Torontonians got to see it was way back in 1990 when the COC programmed it with British soprano Josephine Barstow as the Marschallin — that’s a long 27 years ago, folks. When I found out OBR was putting it on, it was too good to pass up.
OBR is an artist-driven organization. All its projects are proposed by the artists, providing them with the opportunity to perform roles that otherwise they might not have the chance to do. One of Strauss’s grandest pieces, Der Rosenkavalier on a budget is quite an audacious undertaking. It’s a large scale and musically complex score, not to mention long at over three hours of music without cuts! But then OBR is used to big challenges — I understand they’ve done Lohengrin — even Götterdämmerung, albeit in concert!
This Rosenkavalier is semi-staged, with an 8-player chamber reduction created by Brenda Patterson for Victory Hall Opera in 2016. OBR even commissioned a beautiful silver rose for the occasion, from Martin Kloiber of Steelflex Welding in Calgary.
I attended the second performance on Saturday, June 10. A full house, with added seating at the back. A chamber orchestra is much preferable to the piano, noticeable right away in the very grand opening, with heavy participation by the French horn (well played by Christine Passmore), its music signifying — to put it politely — the Liebesnacht of Octavian and the Marschallin. The seven musicians (1 each of violin, cello, clarinet, horn, harp, percussion, and piano) played their hearts out. Kudos to violinist Corey Gemmell, for his beautiful solo accompanying the Marschallin at the end of Act One. Ditto to the pianist Nicole Bellamy for doing the lion’s share of the work. It’s impossible to replace a full Strauss orchestra which typically numbers seventy or more players. But this performance was honest and honourable — and never less than enjoyable.
The singing of the principals was very fine, especially considering they had to sing this demanding score two nights in a row, something that’s just not supposed to happen.
I was impressed by the very fine Octavian of mezzo Barbara King, singing with a big, rich sound. Octavian is very long and very high, but she was fully up to the task. Katharine Dain was an unusually youthful Marschallin, lovely in the Act One Monologue. At the close of the act, her line “…da drinnist die silberne Ros’n” with its arching high piano was beautifully done, as was the opening line of the Final Trio. One could wish for a stronger lower-middle register, but overall she did beautifully.
The third principal, soprano Danielle Dudycha, was a lovely Sophie. Together with King, they sang a really beautiful Presentation of the Rose. And it was nice to see that they completely dispensed with the score for this scene. Her high register was pure and strong, up to a high D, one only wished for true high pianissimo, but that would be nitpicking here.
German-born, Calgary-based veteran bass Uwe Dambruch was a near perfect Baron Ochs, his facility with the language served him well in his music, so much of which is conversational. Ochs also has the best melody of the score – the Waltz, and Dambruch did it full justice, singing both high and low notes perfectly. He was well partnered by mezzo Melissa Peiou as a saucy and lively Annina.
The supporting cast was all up to the task, particularly Faninal (Michael Robert-Broder) who sang an impressive “Ein ernster Tag, ein grosser Tag” that opens Act Two. The Children’s Chorus did well in their Act Three Scene, although one little girl had trouble staying awake through the long scene to sing her last “Papa, papa!”
The staging was just enough to give the audience a tantalising taste of the full version. Given the space limitations and the essential concert performance set-up, various scenes were not staged. Through it all, conductor and head of OBR William Shookhoff led the forces with a firm and knowing hand. He is to be congratulated for pulling off this huge project, and let’s hope there’ll be many more in the future.