Renée Fleming owns the stage in superb BSO ‘Rosenkavalier’

By Zoë Madonna, The Boston Globe

“Der Rosenkavalier” is the third Richard Strauss opera the Boston Symphony has mounted in concert in as many years, past endeavors being “Salome” in 2014 and last autumn’s tour de force “Elektra.”

Despite the fact that the operas share a composer, “Rosenkavalier” could not be more different from the previous two. While “Salome” and “Elektra” tell dark, ancient tales of madness and death in spiky proto-Modernist chromaticism, the score of “Rosenkavalier” is spun from sweet, pillowy tonality beginning to end, replete with triple-time homages to the other famous Strauss. “Salome” and “Elektra” are also notably compact in duration and ensemble, while Thursday’s “Rosenkavalier” at Symphony Hall lasted four hours and 20 minutes, with three acts and two intermissions. The cast featured no fewer than 25 singers, plus the perpetually excellent Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Andris Nelsons on the podium.

Could the opera work in concert, on a stage seemingly as crowded as the Red Line at rush hour? The answer: An unequivocal “ja, ja.”

Stripped of sets and costumes, concert versions of operas sometimes dispense with attention to theatricals, but this cast more than fulfilled Strauss’s 1910 comment: “I’ll need very good actors . . . ordinary operatic singers won’t do.”

Renée Fleming’s sublime, confident Marschallin owned the stage from the moment she stepped on it. She draped herself on a chaise longue for the saucy Prelude, coquettishly adjusting her fuschia-edged wrap over her strapless gown and tossing an edge at Susan Graham’s Octavian. Her gentle, graceful phrases in the nostalgic soliloquy near the end of Act 1 curled and curved like conch shells, and her final farewell to Octavian was subtly devastating.

Fleming owned the stage, but she seemed happy to let Franz Hawlata’s Baron Ochs borrow the scenery to chew. Played crude and lewd, the bloviating womanizer crowed in a rich plum-brandy bass about his financially fortuitous engagement to Sophie while chasing after every other woman who caught his eye. Singing and pelvic-thrusting along to a lush, galumphing waltz at the end of Act 2, he descended to a comically flatulent low note and collapsed into drunken slumber in a chair.

Graham was in top form as both the Marschallin’s dashing young paramour, Octavian (a trouser role), and in disguise as the chambermaid “Mariandel,” whom she played as a splashy Shakespearean rustic, an intentional mewling note in her countrified German. Vocally, her Octavian channeled a young adult woman more than a teenage boy, a mellow, full-bodied maturity in her timbre. This is likely Graham and Fleming’s final “Rosenkavalier” together, according to a BSO spokeswoman, and one could not have asked for a better note to leave on. Erin Morley’s Sophie was a streetwise soubrette, her glimmering coloratura melding euphorically with Graham’s in the young lovers’ many duets. She delivered the libretto’s most dated lines — “I must have a husband before I can be anything” — with a knowing wink in her voice.

Irmgard Vilsmaier, a veteran Brunnhilde, declaimed every one of the nurse Marianne’s dramatic pronouncements with the awesome weight of a Wagnerian “Hojotoho,” and Alan Opie was a pleasingly high-flown Faninal. Stephen Costello’s buttery Italian Singer will likely be in demand for future productions. Local bass David Cushing is a name to watch out for; his stentorian Police Commissary had few lines, but his sonorous voice, snappy diction, and versatile facial expressions left this listener wishing he had more to do.

Supporting the singers at the helm of the orchestra, Nelsons mostly held down the brake on the volume, but by no means on the passion. (In the most chaotic scenes, such as the inn in Act 3, some soloists were hard to hear.) Principal oboist John Ferrillo and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe served fine, expressive solos, and the round, fluttering triads representing Octavian and Sophie landed light as drops of dew.

For the meeting of the young lovers, an exquisite silver rose was on loan from the Metropolitan Opera’s retired assistant general manager Sarah Billinghurst, putting it back in the spotlight after over 40 years of Octavians delivering it onstage in New York. Truly though, the show-stealing prop was Maestro Nelsons’s spare baton, which Graham snatched off the podium in place of Octavian’s usual rapier to lightly poke the lecherous Baron’s arm. The “sword” may have been smaller, but Hawlata’s wounded bellowing was no less melodramatic, and the audience reaction was even more uproarious for it. Such is the way that this excellent cast took what could have been a limitation and transformed it into comic genius.