Most beloved of all the dirty-old-man-gets-his-comeuppance comic operas, Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” returned to the L.A. Opera repertory to close out the company’s 19th season. Set aside memories of the company’s lumbering earlier mounting of the work; this new version is an authentic triumph, staged with high imagination, superbly sung, down to the smallest of its multitudinous roles and led with high spirits.
Credit, above all, the theatrical imagination of director Maximilian Schell, who, with designer Gottfried Helnwein and lighting wizard Alan Burrett, has stripped the Straussian candy box of its customary oh-so-Viennese decor and, on practically bare stages, reconstructed the drama of the work through simple stage pieces and wondrously suggestive saturated lighting.
That last element, in particular, works to define the conflict of character to vivid effect: the grotesque Baron Ochs, who appears as if cloaked in neon; the noble but aging Marschallin, the pale blues bleeding into her facial makeup as well.
To this marvelous array of color, director Schell has added his own repertory of action. Complementing the opera’s three busy-busy act preludes, Schell has exhumed excerpts from the ancient silent film of the opera overseen by Strauss himself in the 1920s, directed by Robert Wiene (of “Dr. Caligari” fame); they fill the backdrop nicely while nothing much happens onstage. For the farcical scenes toward the end, Schell concocts his own brand of hilarity: not the “four orphans” called for in Hofmannsthal’s text but a stageful of whomping brats all in ghostly white.
The touchstone of a “Rosenkavalier” performance is the great last-act Trio for the three women’s voices, which is not merely a virtuosic challenge but a matter of balance and tone. It’s hard to recall a past ensemble more fluent, more radiant — and more heartbreaking — than this latter-day combo: Adrianne Pieczonka as the Marschallin resigned to losing her young lover, British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as that ardent swain and Elizabeth Futral in the throes of love newborn. All are individually wonderful through a long evening; their coming together, as an ensemble impeccably shaped under Kent Nagano’s exuberant baton, is more wondrous yet.
Vienna-born Kurt Rydl is the lecherous and ultimately discomfited Baron Ochs, mastering the absurdity of the role, the concomitant mix of highborn and country-boob accents and the treacherous low notes with which Strauss has peppered the score. Robert Bork finds an equally authentic accent as the nouveau riche Faninal.
Down the long cast list, there isn’t a voice or a characterization out of place. The season ends on a high.