In 1983, the Metropolitan Opera took DER ROSENKAVALIER on their annual Spring tour. James Levine was the conductor and the stellar cast was led by Elisabeth Söderström (above) as the Marschallin, Frederica von Stade as Octavian, Kathleen Battle as Sophie and Aage Haugland as Baron Ochs. Interestingly, this particular alignment of stars never performed the Strauss opera at The Met. It was given in six cities on the tour, culminating with a performance...
...in Boston, which I was lucky enough to attend. Unfortunately one of my most vivid memories of the evening was the presence of some people sitting about six rows behind me who talked throughout the performance. Even though I had sprung for an orchestra seat - the better to concentrate on the array of vocal talent onstage - these people served notice that sitting in expensive seats doesn't make you classy. They were continuously being shushed by people around them (as annoying as their talking, actually) and the usher came to admonish them at one point. Apparently they had some sort of clout that kept them from being ejected; at any rate, they spoiled a great performance. I'm sure they are all dead now, and good riddance.
Despite this major distraction, the performance was extremely moving and superbly sung. Maestro Levine, whose 1976 ROSENKAVALIER broadcast had seemed sluggish and thick-textured orchestrally, was now fully in his element with the Strauss score. The towering Aage Haugland - a great favorite of mine during his Met career - was a grand Baron Ochs, and Miss Battle was a shimmering-voiced Sophie.
It was the vocal and theatrical chemistry between Elisabeth Söderström and Frederica von Stade that gave this ROSENKAVALIER its unique appeal. Their older women/younger man romance was brilliantly portrayed, while their distinctive vocal timbres served their respective characters to perfection. By this point in time, the Söderström voice was an expressive rather than opulent instrument, but she truly knew her way around this music and her singing was so meshed with the character's moods - it was simply all of a piece. In the monolog, she poked fun at herself as "die alte frau, die alte Marschallin", sung with a crackly old-lady sound. Telling Octavian that he will soon tire of their romance, she seized von Stade by the shoulders, trying to shake some sense into him. The Söderström Marschallin was an unforgettable mixture of dignity, bitterness and nostalgic romance, a woman who watches something cherishable slip thru her fingers and finds the courage to let it go.
Frederica von Stade, with her immaculately tailored sound, was boyish and impetuous in behavior but her vocalism was always elegant and wonderfully personal. Other Octavians - Ludwig (my first!), Baltsa, Troyanos - have sung this music in grander style but no other Octavian of my experience has quite captured the coltish confusion of a boy on the brink of manhood who has a loving heart and a tender, noble young spirit...which von Stade showed us so memorably.
While the Söderström/Battle/von Stade collaboration was never heard in a complete public performance of ROSENKAVALIER here in New York City, the three women did perform the opera's Act III trio at the Met's 100th anniversary gala. The day-long celebration was telecast live; I attended the matinee portion and can attest to the palpable atmosphere in the house as the three women sang this magical Strauss creation. You can listen to them here, with Levine on the podium.
For years I assumed this film clip was the only extant souvenir of this unforgettable convergence of voices - though I am sure someone recorded it someplace along the tour's path - but recently my friend Dmitry surprised me with recordings of the first and third acts in very good sound from a rehearsal at the Met just before the tour commenced. Someone there had the presence of mind to realize that this was a rarity in the making and that Ms. Söderström's Marschallin was a jewel worth preserving; and so this valuable sound document has come down to me, nearly thirty years after the event.
Frederica von Stade regrettably never sang a complete Octavian at The Met - though she did sing a gorgeous Rose Presentation duet with Judith Blegen on the same gala programme as the filmed clip above - and in 1987 Elisabeth Söderström made her 'first' Met farewell singing the Marschallin on a Saturday matinee which was broadcast. That was a very moving experience, yet it has always been the Boston performance that's stayed so clearly in my mind. On the rehearsal recording, the magic of the Söderström Marschallin is so perfectly distilled in the closing moments of Act I where her 'silberne rosen' takes on a ghostly patina of lyrical regret and resignation.