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For Renée Fleming’s last Met stand — or is it? — a new production focuses on the past’s lost innocence

A monument to past traditions and lost innocence: Renée Fleming in her last Marschallin in the Metropolitan Opera’s new “Rosenkavalier.” (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The soprano Renée Fleming was in the spotlight last week when an article in the New York Times announced her imminent retirement from opera — only to be followed by an NPR piece in which she averred she had never said she was retiring from opera altogether. This isn’t quite the contradiction it seems. Fleming, 58, has long said that this season’s “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Met, a new production of Richard Strauss’s beloved opera that opened Thursday night, was going to be her farewell to that particular work; she’s been pulling away from staged opera in favor of recitals and other projects for some time. It seems quite possible that the “Rosenkavalier” marked her goodbye to several of her major roles, and possibly even to the Met, without necessarily meaning a withdrawal from opera altogether.

Every generation has iconic singers, and Fleming, for better or worse, has appeared to be one: the very model of a model American soprano. Physically lovely, with a lovely voice, she is flexible, a hard worker, a good colleague and interested in a cross-section of music. What she is not, and has never been, for all of the buzz and adulation that have accompanied her, is someone with a tremendous stage presence.

The care, precision, deliberation and ability to budget and manage time while keeping an eye on the big picture that go into maintaining a big singing career these days are excellent traits for an administrator and programmer, and I’ve been increasingly admiring of Fleming’s ventures like the American Voices festival at the Kennedy Center, or the ongoing “Voices” recitals that it spawned. But they are not necessarily great qualities in a diva; in Fleming’s case, they tend to make her singing come across as overly careful, calculated, and even mannered. Those mannerisms are least evident in Strauss, who is her touchstone composer, and she sang very prettily Thursday night, if lightly, and got a tremendous hand from the opening-night crowd — but Elina Garanca, who sang the title role of Octavian, got ovations that were at least equal if not bigger. They were very well deserved in Garanca’s case but not necessarily what you expect when a famous local girl is preparing to take her leave.

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“Rosenkavalier” is like a bowl of whipped cream for opera-lovers: a rich and sweet Viennese treat that can sometimes grow a little cloying but remains, for most, irresistible. It usually wallows in a bygone world of 18th-century Viennese aristocracy, but the director, Robert Carsen, set this production around the time the piece was written, in a declining Habsburg Empire shortly before the outbreak of World War I. This was a smart way to present an opera that is all about clinging to the past and its outdated traditions. Not only is it particularly anachronistic, in the early 20th century, to send a young man to present a silver rose to a young woman as a sign of her imminent engagement, but the audience knows the characters are about to lose their innocence, particularly since the young woman’s father, Faninal, has, in Carsen’s version, made his money through manufacturing weapons and is clearly about to become even richer.

Not all of the updating worked equally well. Act II fell flat: Faninal’s ugly house, decorated in arriviste style with a garish frieze of Greek warriors and occasionally occupied by huge weapons that were wheeled on and offstage, was hard to overcome, and the pivotal scene with the presentation of the rose to young Sophie didn’t have a real frisson in 20th-century dress. Acts I and III, though, were quite strong; indeed, the start of Act III, which is usually fairly tedious as Octavian lays a trap for the coarse would-be bridegroom Baron Ochs, was actually made dramatically effective and even gripping by being moved to a brothel. This was another way to touch on the theme of lost innocence while having the whole scene actually make sense, as the girls gleefully decked Octavian out in their own garb, and Ochs, who had spent the whole night boasting of his sexual prowess, was ultimately faced with a lot more sexuality than he was equipped to handle.

Not everyone in the audience agreed with my enthusiasm for this; at least, Carsen was booed fairly lustily on opening night. It might have been a reaction to the weapons at Faninal’s house, or the brothel, or the final image, in which the walls of the room open behind Octavian and Sophie’s embrace to reveal marching troops, led by the Marschallin’s husband (identified by the green plume on his hat), drawing their guns to fire on Mohammed, a character who is usually played as a page by a dark-skinned boy but here was one of the Marschallin’s uniformed lackeys, drunk and about to explode on some sort of destruction of his own. The scene, lasting only a few bars of music, evoked not only World War I but also a loaded framework of contemporary references and was certainly meant to be provocative.

The booing could also have been a reflection of a general idea among the more conservative sectors of the Met audience that in the Peter Gelb era, “new” has come to mean “bad,” despite the fact that Carsen has given the Met some of its best productions, including a beautiful “Eugene Onegin” that was replaced a couple of seasons ago by Deborah Warner’s more cluttered version.

I suspect, though, that part of the issue was simply that Carsen’s production didn’t give the audience quite the emotional wallop it wanted — and that is on Fleming as much as Carsen. It’s true that Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes for her were somewhat drab, with unfortunate wigs — including a peroxide blond number in the final scene that obscured her own beauty (although the moment in Act I when she complains to her hairdresser that he’s made an old woman out of her was touchingly, subtly borne out). But it’s also true that in a big house, in a big production, Fleming just doesn’t have the larger-than-life presence one might expect. Hers is a Marschallin of nuance — indeed, one of the most realistic Marschallins you’ll see, supremely understated. The character’s conflicts about having an affair with a teenage boy were given extra weight by the palpable age difference between her and the Garanca’s ardent, coltish, and radiantly sung Octavian. But the whole portrayal was a little paler, dramatically and vocally, than the concert version she offered with the National Symphony Orchestra a few years ago.

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The music was certainly on a solid level, supported by Sebastian Weigle, whose impassioned and slightly hysterical conducting of the overture settled down into a beautiful reading of the score as a whole. Garanca sang like warm gold as the 17-year-old, hormonal, lovestruck Octavian; and Erin Morley was impetuous and spunky as Sophie. As Baron Ochs, the Marschallin’s impossibly misogynistic and crude cousin, Günther Groissböck was as lovably ridiculous and off-putting as he needed to be — you can never quite hate Baron Ochs in spite of yourself, not least because he gets to sing the infectious “Rosenkavalier” waltz — though there was a certain amount of gravel in his low notes. A couple of the smaller roles had disproportionately strong voices: Markus Brück made his Met debut as Faninal, giving vocal weight to the characterization of a thin-skinned tycoon, and Susan Neves gave veritably Wagnerian heft to the part of Sophie’s duenna, Marianne Leitmetzerin.

One moment of Carsen’s updating was particularly felicitous: the scene in Act I when an Italian tenor appears among the servants and petitioners and salesmen who address the Marschallin in her museum-like bedroom, hung with portraits of generations of ancestors. The part, no more than a few minutes of virtuosic singing, is traditionally taken by a star — Luciano Pavarotti sang it more than a dozen times. In this production, Matthew Polenzani was dressed as an Enrico Caruso look-alike, and handed the Marschallin one of his records, in its paper sleeve, before singing his aria. Polenzani was fully up to the challenge of impersonating one of the greatest singers of all time in one of the most beautiful pieces in all of opera — and Carsen had everything else on stage stop so that everyone could listen while he sang in a spotlight, giving the moment the frame it deserves, and making it one more memorial to lost innocence and past grandeur. Kudos to Polenzani for pulling it off.

Der Rosenkavalier continues for eight more performances, through May 13; the final performance will be broadcast live in HD in selected movie theaters.