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OPERA REVIEW : 'Rosenkavalier' Restored, After a Fashion, in S.F.


SAN FRANCISCO — Most opera companies just hate to leave well enough alone. They don't tamper much with the music--not yet, anyway--but they just love to distort, decorate and sometimes even desecrate the drama.

The results, it must be admitted, can be stimulating, even illuminating, despite the threat of expressive perversion. Most often, however, the would-be improvements are merely fatuous.

No one is spared these days. No work is sacrosanct. Even the poetic musings, psychological verities and neo-Baroque conventions of Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" have been subjected to the rigors of modernization. Reports of a recent production in Berlin--which may find its way to the Music Center next season--suggest a dubious exercise in updating contrivance.

Under the circumstances, one wanted to applaud Lotfi Mansouri's brave decision to play it safe with the new "Rosenkavalier" he has mounted for the Strauss festival at the San Francisco Opera. Make that ultrasafe.

The original idea was to re-create the historic, often emulated decors designed by Alfred Roller for the German premiere in 1911. Something odd seems to have happened, however, between conception and realization of the plan. Perhaps the money ran out.

San Francisco has settled, in any case, for an obfuscating compromise. Thierry Bosquet has mustered cheap, often-two dimensional replicas of Roller's lavish, quaintly dated, three-dimensional sets. The clumsily painted flats look drab at one extreme, garish at the other, in the cruel light of 1993.

Although Bosquet has produced replicas of a few of Roller's original costumes (the official credits are vague as to how many), most of the singers are outfitted in all-purpose "Rosenkavalier" uniforms borrowed from Santa Fe. That's a long way from Dresden.

So much for authenticity.

Mansouri, a veteran of many Straussian wars, has worked with such illuminating authorities as Herbert Graf and Lotte Lehmann. This production no doubt represents a labor of nostalgic love for him. Unfortunately, the fruits of the labor are contradictory.

As company impresario, Mansouri has assembled a generally strong cast dominated by Felicity Lott and Frederica von Stade. As stage director, he has overseen telling, sensitive interaction among the principals.

At the same time, he has coarsened theatrical values with a lot of vulgar caricature bits for the minor characters. He has concocted cutesy sight gags beyond the norm for little Mohamed, funny walks for some of the levee intruders, music-hall charades for a scene-stealing Annina, cartoon double takes for Sophie's duenna, Tailhookesque pawing-maneuvers for the Baron Ochs' rustic retinue.

And so this "Rosenkavalier" waltzes onward and lumbers downward. Sometimes it moves gracefully, often it blunders clumsily.

Strauss and his inspired librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, are best served, perhaps, in the pit. Charles Mackerras conducts the sprawling score with marvelous propulsion, from the jaunty thrusts of the prelude to the whimsical benediction of the final cadence four hours later. In the process, he never slights the delicate sentiment, the heroic pathos, the insinuating lilt or the mischievous bustle.

The British maestro, who now serves lucky San Francisco as principal guest-conductor, gives the performance consistent, complementary degrees of elegance, pathos and flair. He knows his business and savors the style. He will be a comforting presence at the War Memorial Opera House.

Felicity Lott, the celebrated British soprano cast as the Marschallin, sings the great role with lighter tone than is ideal and sometimes suggests a peevish socialite from the world of Noel Coward rather than the melancholic Viennese aristocrat delineated in the score and text. Her portrayal, ennobled by the wisdom of maturity and responsive to the sadness of resignation, probably owes more to Valerie Hobson than to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Lott exudes constant dignity and telling sympathy, however, in her own cool and willowy manner.

She steadfastly avoids the temptation of bathos and savors the value of verbal nuance. Most important, she rises with tasteful restraint to the emotional climaxes of the first and last acts.

She is nicely matched by Frederica von Stade, whose soft-grained mezzo-soprano, muted ardor and canny wit bring the mock-macho dilemmas of Octavian into compelling focus. The central trio finds lovely completion, literally as well as figuratively, in the spunky-pretty Sophie of Christine Schafer, a very young and very promising lyric soprano from Frankfurt am Main.

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