The fiftieth-anniversary observances of Richard Strauss's death are still in progress, and the latest hot ticket at the Metropolitan Opera is a sumptuously cast revival of the composer's most popular stage work, Der Rosenkavalier. The Marschallin is the opera's dominant presence, and the Met's new interpreter of the part is Renée Fleming. The soprano never makes a false move, looks ravishing as a court beauty approaching middle age (32 in the Vienna of Maria Theresa), and revels in a creamy-rich voice now in its ripest maturity. That said, the overall effect of her Marschallin tends to be rather generalized, but better modest restraint than fussily italicizing every note and gesture. The languid postcoital banter with her teenage lover Octavian, her understated put-downs of the boorish Baron Ochs, the visible disintegration of mood during the hectic levee scene, her quiet dismissal of the uncomprehending Octavian -- Fleming develops the character consistently without sacrificing vocal or musical integrity.
Susan Graham's ardent Octavian and Heidi Grant Murphy's marzipan-sweet Sophie would perhaps be still more engaging if prodded by a Marschallin with sharper definition, but these, too, are handsomely sung performances. Best of all is Franz Hawlata's generously voiced Baron Ochs, comically coarse but not without a touch of nobility, a sly sexy allure. The Met's 1969 production, conventionally but comfortably set in period, has been refurbished and looks good enough to survive another 30 years. Once again indicating that Strauss has never been a composer who engages his full interest, James Levine presides over a neatly organized orchestral performance but a curiously abstract one that seldom touches the heart.
From Der Rosenkavalier to Die Liebe der Danae, completed in 1940 and Strauss's most obscure opera, is a long trip, although nowhere near as depressing a downhill journey as was once thought. Nearly all of the post-Rosenkavalier operas have by now been reassessed and upgraded except for Danae, which still turns up infrequently and remains the only one of the composer's fifteen operas without an official complete recording. Several live performances have circulated, however, mainly the delayed world-premiere production in Salzburg in 1952, three years after the composer's death. Another version should be available soon, since the recent American Symphony Orchestra concert performance at Avery Fisher Hall conducted by Leon Botstein was recorded for future release.
An indefatigable revisionist, Botstein tends to overestimate the quality of all the neglected works he believes in so strongly, but at least his enthusiasm for these flawed but interesting scores is never less than infectious. Had Die Liebe der Danae been composed when the idea for this "cheerful mythology" first arose, the opera might well have turned out to be the masterpiece Botstein supposes it to be. The concept originated with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss's favorite librettist, who died in 1929 before he could work out the details that intriguingly blend two unrelated gold legends: King Midas and his cursed touch and Jupiter's seduction of Danae through a visitation of golden rain. Very little of Hofmannsthal's typical flair for fantasy and bittersweet humanism shine through Josef Gregor's flat-footed and often confusing text. Strauss eagerly grasped at all the good moments, though, especially the final scene where Danae and the disguised Jupiter both make the right heroic choices and renounce worldly illusions. Elsewhere the composer too often falls back on vacant note spinning, but the deliriously lyrical finale is inspired and worth the wait.
The three throat-tearing lead roles may also be a reason why this opera is so seldom performed. The intrepid Lauren Flanigan tackled the title role, giving an expressive and dramatically alive performance even when her soprano was sorely pressed up top. Peter Coleman-Wright may lack sufficient vocal weight and majesty for Jupiter, but he successfully projected the god's wry humor and frustrations while fearlessly refusing to duck any of the punishing high notes. Like most of Strauss's heroic tenor roles, Midas is a killer part with only passing musical interest, but Hugh Smith made a good stab at it with his attractive if rather slender resources. A man with a mission, Botstein kept the complex apparatus together with fierce determination and even flashes of eloquence.