DER ROSENKAVALIER – A Viennese Bon-Bon at San Francisco Opera

By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

San Francisco Opera’s DER ROSENKAVALIER is a shimmering success. Second in the company’s Summer 2007 trio, this production of Richard Strauss’ beloved comic opera is a graceful romp through 18th Century Vienna. The sets and costumes are based on Alfred Roller’s creations for the opera’s Dresden premiere in 1911 and freshly reconfigured by Belgian designer Thierry Bosquet whose previous SF Opera credits include THE MERRY WIDOW, AÏDA, LOUISE and the Fall 2006 re-mounting of DIE FLEDERMAUS. The overall appearance of the production, while a clear glimpse into a dusty past, is appropriately opulent and becoming to the stations of its primary characters – second tier royalty and nobility, the nouveau riche, assorted gentry, and a host of mischievous hoi polloi.

DER ROSENKAVALIER. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

The multi-faceted story turns easily in the capable hands of stage director Sandra Bernhard. Following traditional lines, Bernhard’s dramatic sensibility is most apparent during the large ensembles. Whether mincing and doting through the busy boudoir of the Marschallin, “Princess Marie Therese” (Soile Isokoski), fawning in the suddenly popular salon of Herr von Faninal (Johen Schmeckenbecher), or wink-winking in the bordello/dining room of an easily-bribed innkeeper (Matthew O’Neill) – Sandra Bernhard bandies broad comedic chaos while zeroing-in on the erotic entanglements of the politely-intertwined socialites. The end result is even layers of light textured comedy, bittersweet romance, dreamy twists and (gender-bending) sprinkles, and just enough buttery nostalgia to hold it all together.* David Gockley has engaged Bernhard, recently accepted as the director of Houston Grand Opera, for SF Opera’s much-anticipated Fall 2007 swords & sandals headliner, SAMSON AND DELILAH. While the score of Bavarian-born Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (“The Rose-Bearer”) may be an acquired taste for some, those holding onto it as the sweetest confection* in the canon of Grand Opera reserved their standing ovation for Conductor Donald Runnicles.

Conductors Donald Runnicles and Richard Strauss

The opera sustains a number of gimmicks. The romantic 17-year-old Hero, “Octavian”, is a gender-bending trouser role. He is wonderfully fleshed-out by lyric-mezzo Joyce DiDonato. While such roles beg hints of long-stepping male swagger and a stern façade (ala Anderson Cooper), they are never about chicanery or authentic male impersonation. Rather, it’s about the groom not appearing prettier than the bride and the bride not emasculating the groom. Young Octavian struggles between two anxious ladies – the mature, much-experienced and married “Marie Therese” against the teen-aged virgin debutante “Sophie” (Miah Persson). In her own guise, this past April 26th mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was presented the second annual Beverly Sills Award – a prize of $50,000 – which followed her Metropolitan performances as “Rosina” in Rossini’s Il Barbiere Di Siviglia. Ms. Sills, a definitive coloratura soprano, is likewise known for her interpretation of the role. Last year the generous diva awarded the prize to the generous baritone, Nathan Gunn, SF Opera’s hunky hair-trimming “Figaro” of 2006. Seems La Sills doesn’t hold a grudge and knows the difference between boys and girls.

Joyce DiDonato, Soile Isokoski, Miah Persson. Photos by Terrence McCarthy

The second consideration is the character of “The Marschallin” – in today’s world, an Urban Cougar. Occasionally, the role is an honor accorded to a long-established and world-renowned Soprano – at the right time, in the right place, and for an auspicious occasion. For SF Opera General Manager David Gockley (who admits DER ROSENKAVALIER to be among his personal favorites) Soile Isokoski is most certainly that distinguished performer. Viewers of the PBS “Great Performances” broadcast of “Vienna State Opera, The 50th Anniversary Reopening Gala” will recall her fiery performances as “Donna Elvira” in the Act One finale of Mozart’s DON GIOVANNI and as “The Marschallin” in a scene from DER ROSENKAVALIER. In the opening night performance, Ms. Isokoski’s “Marie Therese” evoked memories of another soprano pursued by Octavian-type admirers, the venerable Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. A young and impetuous Richard most certainly carried a torch for some unavailable stellar soprano. He immortalized her into “Marie Therese”.

Soile Isokoski and Richard Strauss

DER ROSENKAVALIER, “Final Trio” – with Kathleen Battle, Frederika Von Stade, Elizabeth Söderström

Pop music descriptions are often burdened by the term “infusion” to explain (or apologize for) the influence upon or actual insertion of rhythmic forms and/or unrelated ethnic expressions into the new work. In the “Final Trio”, Strauss uses Waltz tempo (3/4–time) – seemingly anachronistic to the 18th Century setting of “Der Rosenkavalier” – to resolve the conflicting situations of his passionate threesome. In the early 19th Century when the waltz started gaining popularity among the plebeians and was then daringly insinuated into the parties of the patricians – criticism leveled against the danse included the intimate proximity of the couple dancing, the fact that it was easily grasped and required virtually no previous experience, and that acceptable social behavior was flying out the window.

THE MARSCHALLIN: Now I’m rather prejudiced against men … [Octavian reacts] … only in general, of course!

Referring to the bewitched and blushing young Sophie, Marie Therese says to Octavian (vacillating in 6/8–time), “Go quickly, and do what your heart tells you.” The Princess/Marschallin is done with being bothered and bewildered by teenaged cavaliers. Octavian replies, “I swear I don’t understand what you have in mind.” Strauss then pulls at the knot of his perfectly tied theatrical ribbons with her reply:

THE MARSCHALLIN (to Octavian): You are so like a man! Go to her.
OCTAVIAN: As you command. [He turns to Sophie and takes her hand.]
THE MARSCHALLIN (to herself): Today, tomorrow, or the next day. Have I not told myself? Did I not make a vow that I would it endure it quite calmly?

THE FINAL TRIO – Miah Persson (Sophie), Soile Isokoski (Marie Therese, the Marschallin) and Joyce DiDonato (Octavian). Photos by Terrence McCarthy

In the next slightly-more-than four minutes, composer Richard Strauss presents one of the purest moments in all of Grand Opera; a gift the Magi might have offered. With a few simple and repeating lines of text, sung by the characters through a sequence of 80+ measures, over a span of 2-octaves ranging to High B in the Key of D-flat – Strauss opens a window to the music of the spheres.

THE MARSCHALLIN: I wanted to love him in the right way. And even love his love for another. I never thought I would have to endure it so soon. There stands the boy, and here I stand. He will be as happy with that girl as any man knows how to be
SOPHIE: I feel as when in church, holy and awed. And yet unholy, too. I know not how to feel.
OCTAVIAN: I want to ask what has happened to me, but that question is forbidden. So many things seem unbelievable, but they happen, and you believe them.
THE MARSCHALLIN: In the name of God. [She exits.]

In his poem, Little Gidding, T.S. Eliot concludes with:
Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

To order tickets on-line:
Tuesday, June 19th, 7:30 pm
Thursday, June 21st, 7:30 pm
Sunday, June 24th, Matinee – 1:30 pm
Wednesday, June 27th, 7:30 pm – With Martina Serafin as THE MARSCHALLIN
Sunday, July 1st, Matinee – 1:30 pm
Sunday, July 1st, Matinee – 1:30 pm – With Martina Serafin as THE MARSCHALLIN

* Ask Seán about his Viennese Walnut Cookies. Inquire of Seán at

Also recommended:
CD: Richard Strauss: Orchestral Songs – featuring Soile Isokoski
DVD: Der Rosenkavalier – featuring Kiri Te Kanawa, directed by John Schlesinger
DVD: “Vienna State Opera, The 50th Anniversary Reopening Gala”

See Seán’s recent articles and reviews:

JOAN of ARC – Dolora Zajick, A Simmering Success!
SAMSON vs DELILAH at AT&T Park – Can Stadium Survive Biblical Shearing?
$55 MILLION – This Pacific Heights Mansion Is YOURS!
LE PETIT TRIANON – San Francisco Artists Exhibit at Her Majesty’s Pleasure
LA VIE EN ROSE (La Môme) – Biography of Edith Piaf – A Sensation at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival
JERSEY BOYS – Earth Angels invade Curran Theatre! Cast #2: Their Eyes Adore You!
TAKE ME OUT – At The New Conservatory Theater

San Francisco Sentinel’s Fine Arts Critic Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Ask him a question on . If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at:

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