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Eschenbach leads NSO in compelling 'Rosenkavlier' in concert with stellar cast

The stars aligned Saturday night in Washington, producing four hours of cosmic music-making.

Onstage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a cast headed by celebrated soprano Renee Fleming joined the National Symphony Orchestra and its eloquent music director, Christoph Eschenbach, for a semi-staged presentation of Richard Strauss' incandescent opera "Der Rosenkavalier." This one-time-only event proved so satisfying in so many ways that it's a pity it wasn't preserved on film.

Even without sets or costumes (beyond a few telling touches), the performance was visually alive. Stephen Pickover, who vibrantly directed the NSO's concert version of Beethoven's "Fidelio" in 2012, again demonstrated a flair for making every inch of a narrow space in front of an orchestra count, and for getting palpable involvement and dramatic flair from singers. It was easy to visualize an opulent production all the while.

Of course, the great thing about opera in concert form is that it puts the music front and center, in this case some of the most glorious music in the repertoire. Never mind that, with an orchestra onstage, balances can be awfully tricky. Sure enough, there were times on Saturday when voices were swamped, but such moments were fleeting. By and large, little was lost.

Fleming, born to sing Strauss, has owned the role of the Marschallin for several years now, and she made plain that it is still very much hers.

She inhabited the character, especially in the melancholy closing moments of Act 1, when the Marschallin admits her fear of passing time, passing affections. Fleming made that scene remarkably real and touching. For the most part, the soprano's tone had plenty of its familiar creaminess; more importantly, her phrasing was deeply incisive at every turn.

In the title role, Stephanie Houtzeel, a late substitution in the cast, enjoyed quite a triumph. The mezzo proved capable of effortless vocal power as well as the finest dynamic shadings. The richly stylish musicality was matched by terrific stage presence; her portrayal of the in-love-with-love Octavian could not have been more alive with personality.

Speaking of personality, the hall could barely contain that of Franz Hawlata as the insufferable Baron Orchs. The singer oozed every bit of the character's slime, making each drop funny, and he sang up a storm as well, endearing himself to the large audience. Hawlata's singing exit through the hall at the end of Act 2 was an extra kick.

As Sophie, the tender teen whose arranged marriage to Ochs is happily thwarted by Octavian, Marisol Montalvo easily caught the character's girlish days and ways. If the soprano's tone was on the thin side, its silvery quality still hit the spot. 

The supporting cast was uniformly enjoyable, especially Adrian Erod as Farinal. His warm, smoothly produced baritone and lieder-like care for text paid great dividends. A last-minute substitute in the cast, Mario Chang, confidently delivered the rhapsodic aria of the Italian Singer in Act 1 (more variety of volume would have made it doubly effective).

Eschenbach had the opera unfolding with plenty of sweep, not to mention lots of froth for the comedy. And when it came to the passages of supreme lyricism -- the Presentation of the Rose, the Trio -- the conductor, just as you would expect from this extraordinarily sensitive musician, allowed for the most exquisite, time-suspending phrasing. The conductor ensured that the heart of "Rosenkavalier" could be truly felt. 

From the horns' opening burst, there was no doubt that the NSO was going to have an impressive evening. This orchestra does not perfrom opera with any frequency, yet it seemed thoroughly at home.

There was a sense of involvement throughout, and, aside from some dicey-sounding spots during the first part of Act 3, admirable clarity and cohesiveness to the playing. The strings poured on a lush tone; the woodwinds had an extra degree of panache; the brass came through with a good deal of power and suavity.

All in all, a cherishable night.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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