Annette Betanski and Holly Zagaria are among the many stars of the 69th annual Lowell House Opera, “Der Rosenkavalier.” Produced by Sarah S. Eggleston ’07, the show runs through March 17 in the Lowell House Dining Hall.
Men in freshly pressed tuxedos and jewel-bedecked women packed Lowell Dining Hall on Wednesday evening, creating an atmosphere that was hardly a normal weeknight HUDS experience. They were gathered for a singular event: the premiere of the Lowell House Opera’s 69th annual performance, Richard Straus’ “Der Rosenkavalier.”
Produced by Sarah S. Eggleston ’07, the Lowell House Opera (LHO)—music-directed by Channing Yu ’93 and stage-directed by Edward Eaton—runs through March 17 in the Lowell Dining Hall. Considering its massive scope, “Der Rosenkavalier” is a success—primarily because of the outstanding voices of a few main characters, which make the production impressive instead of merely decent.
“Der Rosenkavalier,” the brainchild of Straus’ second collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Straus’ most popular opera, is rarely performed due to its demanding size and musical difficulty. Drawing upon over 150 performers frolkm across the Boston area as well as Harvard students to form a rotating cast whose members often alternate performance dates, “Der Rosenkavalier” has been an ambitious endeavor from the start.
As a soap opera among operas, the artistic aspirations of the Lowell House Opera are also high, and “Der Rosenkavalier” fills the stage with four hours of romance, intrigue, and deception. The performance—sung in German, with projected English subtitles—opens on the affair of the Marschallin, Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg (Annette Betanski), with her young lover, Octavian (Emily Marvosh).
Upon the unexpected arrival of the Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau (Erik Kroncke), Octavian assumes the disguise of a chambermaid, “Mariandel.” Ochs—who has come to discuss his engagement plans— mentions that he hopes to give his promised bride, Sophie von Faninal (Kate Woolf), a silver rose, and the Marschallin suggests he offer “Mariandel” as well.
From there, the plot thickens, as Ochs becomes smitten with the disguised Octavian, who falls in love with Sophie von Faninal, who is promised to Ochs. Each of the three acts is packed with deception and bittersweet moments between Octavian, the Marschallin and Sophie.
The massive orchestra—directed by Yu—gets off to a shaky start, but becomes more synchronized as the evening progresses. The sheer volume of the orchestra often overpowers the performers’ singing, especially when female voices drop into lower registers. The lack of balanced sound—one that could easily be solved by either giving the performers microphones or having a smaller orchestra—detracts from the overall enjoyment of the show. In addition to reading subtitles, watching the stage, listening to the music, and trying to follow the comedic complexities of the opera, having to labor to hear melodies feels like excessive effort.
However, there are several voices that rise above the orchestra’s often-overpowering volume. Woolf, as Sophie, nearly steals the show with her spectacular voice. Demonstrating outstanding vocal command as well as impeccable breath control, Woolf hits each note and expresses each phrase with purpose and ease, catering to the simplicity in Sophie’s character for which the score calls. Her vocal quality becomes increasingly stunning as she climbs the octaves. Woolf’s acting is also impressive, particularly in her interactions with the rest of the cast.
Similarly, Betanski, as the Marschallin, acts with poise and sings with effortless clarity. Betanski and Woolf complement each other extremely well; their harmonies during the aria “Marie Theres’!/Hab’ mir’s gelobt” are breathtaking on multiple occasions, and a true highlight of the production.
As Octavian, mezzo-soprano Marvosh has a solid voice, although not quite the caliber of Woolf’s or Betanski’s—made especially apparent when singing alongside either actor. Marvosh’s voice becomes a bit stiff and her vibrato asymmetrical when attempting to sustain higher pitches. Marvosh’s decisive character choices not only compensate for this minor offense, but also make her the best actor of the show.
Kroncke’s voice is clearly well-trained and quite colorful. But his acting is for the most part forgettable, rarely commanding attention on stage. Such a lack of expressiveness, coupled with Kroncke’s lethargic movements, often results in his being overshadowed by more dominant presences or sounds—such as Woolf’s enrapturing voice.
While most significant roles and arias are performed by semi-professionals, Harvard student Noah Van Niel ’08 gives an incredibly impressive performance in his role as the Italian Tenor. Van Niel sings the aria “Di rigori armato il seno” almost flawlessly, making it impossible to distinguish him from his more professional counterparts.
As stage director, Eaton makes excellent use of space and blocking throughout the opera, but his directing could also do much more to unify the ensemble—and cast—as a whole. Much of the size of “Der Rosenkavalier” lies in the ensemble; while they should add to each scene, they are more often clutter than anything else. They do not aid in directing attention to a certain character or dialogue, but rather serve as a source of confusion. It often seems as though even the members of the ensemble themselves are uncertain as to why they are on stage.
Woolf and Betanski’s outstanding serenades and Marvosh’s strong theatrical performance do the most to make the production memorable. Some will enjoy the deceptions and plot twists of “Der Rosenkavalier” and others will find them a bit over-the-top, but if nothing else, the compelling melodies and heart-wrenching harmonies of a few vocalists make the four hours worth it.