No gimmicks, just a vivid 'Rosenkavalier' from Sarah Caldwell

How odd that the more difficult the project, the better Sarah Caldwell meets the challenge. Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" is an opera that gives even the best opera houses trouble now and then, and should even make a solid provincial company (as the Opera Company of Boston has become of late) tremble when tackling it.

But the results under Miss Caldwell were respectable indeed. She took the work at face value -- no "ideas," no gimmicks; and despite a miscalculation or two of slender consequence, the production was full of humanity, of naturalness and vivid mood.

Herbert Senn and Helen Pond worked their usual magic with sets that, with a minimum of materials, suggested the Baroque splendor of 17th-century Vienna, the gaudy yellow-green-and-silver pretensions of Faninal's nouveau-riche palace, and an inn.

Tatiana Troyanos is one of the finest --some would say them finest -- Octavian in the world today. She has the part down cold, yet it remains as fresh and volatile and wonderful as ever it was. She dominated the show, as any good Octavian must if the opera is to remain "Der Rosenkavalier" ("Cavalier of the Rose").

The other star of the Opera Company of Boston production is conductor William Fred Scott. His work to date has been mostly very good, though occasionally off mark, but nothing prepared one for his utter command of this complex Strauss score, his facility (just teaching the score to the fine pickup orchestra must have been a fierce task), and the fidelity to Strauss' idiom. He has shown talent before, but nowhere as masterfully.

Arlene Saunders's Marschallin was played as a reticent, matronly woman near the end of her amorous career. The results were somewhat mawkish, only occasionally affecting, but at least consistent with her own concept of the role. Miss Saunders was vocally out of sorts opening night, singing crucial lines under pitch, and generally unable to cut through the Strauss orchestration , despite careful balancing from Mr. Scott.

The Sophie, Jeanne Ommerle, has too slender a voice for the part, though she acted it well. Donald Gramm brought his Baron Ochs from Glyndebourne and gave it a patrician edge which proved, as few singers do, that this Baron was merely out of his depth in overbred Vienna, not merely a lout. One could point to a lack of dialect in his German, but one could also point to his subtlety, dignity , and warmth. They worked together for something engrossing and rare in this role. 'Faust'

It was the sort of show that Caldwell rarely serves anymore. Had her "Faust" been remotely near this in quality, it could have been a good show.

Miss Caldwell is noted for rummaging through attics and the Paris National Library. This time she unearthed the original version of Gounod's opera, written for the Opera Comique. The revisions for the larger, grander Opera improved the work and took out the cumbersome dialogue and much trivial music, supplanting it with richer, more expressive stuff.

In days of yore, Miss Caldwell would have found a way to make it at least worth the effort to witness, but here she appeared to have done little as a stage director and virtually none as conductor to make it work.

It was also poorly cast. There was a time when Caldwell searched for fresh talent and inventive casting. Now she seems to rely on tried and true favorites such as John Alexander and Donald Gramm, whether suitable or not. Mr. Alexander is no longer convincing in dashing young romantic roles, vocally or histrionically. Mr. Gramm has never been at his best in this sort of dominating , grand basso role. Haken Hagagard seemed at odds with Valetin. Diana Soviero was the only singer to breathe any sort of life into her role, and her Marguerite dominated with solid singing and a firm grasp of how to make the role vibrant.

David Sharir's expensive-looking sets were not always ideal for the opera -- a puny garden scene, an ugly painted black-and-white drop for a church, a fixed staircase which Miss Caldwell used hardly at all. Caldwell, in fact, missed just about every point there was to miss about this work, including the basic very 19th-century conflict between evil and good. 'Tartuffe'

Kirk Mechem said that when he once saw a production of Moliere's "Tartuffe" he saw a work that cried out to be an opera. His work of the same title had its premiere in San Francisco last spring and its East Coast premiere in March by the Boston University Opera in the wonderful Boston University Theater.

Mechem's approach is full of quotations from this and that to illuminate his text. It is, intellectually, often quite engaging to play name-that-tune. Now and then, his ideas fuse into bright characterizations. But overall, it lacks originality, melodic appeal, and a real sense of identity.

Mechem has given Dorine a good share of the opera and played down the role of the wife, Elmire, which is not true to Moliere. Overall, Mechem's musical pace betrays Moliere, and some scenes are so deliberate as to become tedious.

That said, it is a good vehicle for a college production, because almost all the parts offer chances to shine. The production moved well. Conductor Warren George Wilson kept things chugging along, and with great attention to his singers. Michael Anania's set was attractive and functional. And Wendy McClure's direction was intricately timed and gauged to the music -- something all too rare in this theater-dominated age of opera staging.

With the exception of Lawrence Evans's Orgon, the singing was below conservatory standards. BU lacks voices, at least if this cast is any indication, and it also appears to lack the wherewithal to give its students coaching in the basics of how to move on and take to a stage.

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