And then, she was gone. Renée Fleming had taken her final curtain call at the Met, a career of thirty years was at an end and there wasn’t a dry eye in seat 4, Box 33, Grand Tier (restricted view). How the hell does the Metropolitan Opera, New York, get away with charging a full price whacking $260 for a vantage point where opera glasses are pointless and a rubber neck essential? So, I couldn’t see the rest of the house, but my bet is there was blubbing all round. There were probably more people crying at the Met on Saturday afternoon than at the Jacob K. Javits Centre down the road, scene of the Clinton victory celebrations last November, when Donald beat Hillary.
You couldn’t make it up. Rosenkavalier, in which Ms Fleming’s character, the Marschallin, is an ageing beauty whose self awareness extends to understanding that “her time is up” and there will come a day of reckoning. Her beauty no longer commands the loyalty of her much younger lover Octavian (mezzo, Elina Garanca – trouser role alert to remind same sex toilet terrorists that transgender issues have been with us for centuries). She generously cedes to the beautiful young Sophie (Erin Morley) with whom Octavian has fallen in love at first sight when fulfilling the custom of a Rosenkavalier, presenting a rose on behalf of her fiancé, bad Baron Ochs (boo, hiss). I understand this older woman, younger man thing is catching on in France.
The Marschallin’s eventual bestowal of her seal of approval on the young lovers during one of the most poignant trios in the repertoire (dignified exit stage left) is at the apex of romantic opera. Strong men have jumped from boxes tiers higher than mine, having fallen hopelessly for Strauss’ unconventional tragic heroine. They are egged on by the shimmering Strauss motifs that scatter music as light from the silver rose presented by Octavian in his role of emissary to Sophie in Act 1, which flicker throughout the work. One of my closest university chums who introduced me to opera in the 70’s used to actually roll on the carpet in ecstasy at the “Rose” aria every time he heard it and there was a carpet handy. It grabs people that way.
And it was lost on no one that on a rain sodden Manhattan afternoon they were witnessing metaphor on a heroic scale. Diva Fleming was walking selflessly from her career, sharing her rare self knowledge that the time was right with her beloved Marschallin – and for once the usually over eager Met audience was struck dumb until the lights had dimmed and the last tones faded. Then, eruption! Why not?
I won’t recap Ms Fleming’s stellar career, experts will do that. Safe to say, that when the worst detractors have to throw at you is that your voice is too creamy, but judge your disposition non-hysterical, generosity legendary and over the years dedication to the promotion of your chosen calling admirable – a ten day workshop at the Barbican last year is but one example – and you gather audiences to opera who would normally shun it as elitist, it is hardly surprising Ms Fleming commands such worldwide loyalty and affection.
She also looks, well, “great”. I’d have paid 260 bucks to stick my head round the corner of a door of the Upper Circle to witness her last hurrah. I’m not in the Bernard Levin league of adulation which he poured into reams of Times newsprint in the 70’s for Kiri Te Kanawa (his Kiri-Bird), but let the word go forth from this time and place – “I wuz there.”
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
It’s rare for opera stars, or politicians for that matter, to know when the time has come to quit. Some soldier on into old age, changing their register as the voice crumbles, infuriating fellow cast members and maestros by insisting that scores are clipped down a few semitones to convenience them, but are still “Huzzahed” by audiences. I suspect that’s because of amazement at the feat of survival, or common courtesy, tipping the hat to past glory rather than bravoing current performance. Not even George Best could have scored many goals at the age of 76.
This was a new production by Robert Carsen, who has travelled a long journey from being an intern at Spoleto, South Carolina (I’m heading there next month), through Canadian opera, most of Europe including Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, then the Met. He set this Rosenkavalier in 1911 Vienna, Strauss’ actual era rather than the idealised Vienna of the mid-18th Century. Some knowledgeable Manhattan opera pals were outraged with “unnecessary fiddling” and especially the final Act, set in a brothel – er… sorry, bawdy café. Mr Carsen was roundly booed on opening night and the criticism was he deserved it for the loucheness of the brothel which distracted from the poignant moments before the curtain falls.
So, I was prepared to be scandalised. For once I disagree with traditionalist friends. I’m as ready to complain about Don Giovanni being set in a public convenience as the next boring old fart, but this shift to a period when Vienna was on the point of collapse added a sharper “fin de siecle” edge to the “fin d’amour”. The details of the “brothel” set were down to designer Paul Steinberg anyway and all the “rumpy pumpy” added to the farce at the beginning of Act III when the horrid Baron Ochs – the sort of guy whose 21st century equivalent gooses women in elevators – scheduled to marry Sophie in Act I, is driven to distraction by an elaborate practical joke involving a strumpet claiming to be his wife and a gaggle of orphans hailing him as “dad”. It’s opera buffa anyway, so the brothel trick worked well. Anyway, it all calmed down after Ochs was hounded out and the really, really important bit – the final trio – was not disturbed. That’s me banned from the Met Opera Guild.
I was left puzzling over one detail – an acknowledgement in the playbill: “Animals supervised by All-Tame Animals, with heartfelt thanks to Paul Novograd (1943-2017)”. The horses were indeed well behaved and seemed, from my restricted viewpoint, manure free, but who was Mr Novograd? Turns out he ran the last livery stable in New York to which he dedicated his life and fortune and died in March this year. Claremont, the stable, shuttered in 2007, but Mr Novograd carried on providing horses for special events – like stage productions. He seems by all accounts to have been one hell of a character. A sign above his desk bore the legend – “Culpa equestribus non equis”, loosely meaning, “It’s the rider’s fault not the horse’s”. Perhaps Mr Carsen might like to snaffle the idea and hang “Culpa audientibus non effectori” (“It’s the audience’s fault not the director’s”) above his.