Thanks to veterans Renee Fleming and Susan Graham and newcomer Miah Persson, the Metropolitan Opera achieved that elusive combination on Tuesday night when it revived one of the oldest productions in its repertory, the beloved 1969 staging by Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O'Hearn.
Fleming's plush soprano is a natural fit for the role of the Marschallin, the 18th-century Austrian princess who confronts the inevitability of growing old and gives up her younger lover to a woman his own age. Even more than when she first undertook the role in the house nine years ago, Fleming imbued her singing with a simple nobility that made her Act 1 monologue deeply affecting.
Strauss wrote the part of the Marschallin's lover, Octavian, for a mezzo-soprano, following an operatic tradition of "trousers roles." Graham, who also partnered Fleming back in 2000, surpassed herself, singing with compelling urgency and aching beauty of tone, and creating an endearing portrait of an impetuous youth.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night came from Swedish soprano Miah Persson, making her Met debut as Sophie, the young heiress who wins Octavian's heart. Rather than the fragile coloratura sound often heard in this role, Persson's voice has a sturdy lyric quality that easily fills the house. But it also has the delicacy needed for those silvery high notes in the Act 2 "Presentation of the Rose" duet with Graham. Her portrayal made Sophie a more interesting character than usual, emerging a determined, even feisty young woman rather than a naive pawn of the other characters.
Filling out the cast, Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson brought gusto but insufficient vocal power in the lower depths to the role of Baron Ochs, the Marschallin's boorish cousin who hopes to marry Sophie for her money. German baritone Hans-Joachim Ketelsen etched a memorable cameo as Sophie's father, Faninal, and Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas provided a few moments of enchanting vocalism as the Italian Singer, who never gets to finish the aria he tries to perform for the Marschallin.
Though the production undeniably is showing its age and some of the humorous by-play has lapsed into tired slapstick, the sets remain among the Met's most appealing, especially the Act 2 design for Faninal's extravagant palace reception room, with glass doors at the rear giving way to an ornate staircase. It still brings gasps of appreciation from the audience.
Of course, all productions of "Rosenkavalier" move inexorably toward the great trio that comes near the end of the night, when the three principals blend their voices in harmony to reflect on their lots in life. Rarely have the individual vocal lines sounded so crisp and distinct and yet melded together so beautifully as they did in this performance.
Much of the credit for that success goes to conductor Edo de Waart, who emphasized the intricate textures of Strauss' orchestration with an expansive and leisurely reading of the score. So leisurely, in fact, that this "Rosenkavalier" approached Wagnerian proportions, clocking in at 4 hours and 45 minutes, including two lengthy intermissions. While one might have wished for a brisker tempo during some of the less-inspired pages, his approach paid off at moments such as the trio, when time seemed to stop _ and rapt listeners wished it would.