“Louder, louder!” Richard Strauss is supposed to have exhorted his orchestra players according to the best-known anecdote about him, “I can still hear the singers.” If this famous story is not apocryphal, and not a joke the distinguished composer-conductor was perpetrating (he was actually a fine and elegant conductor), he would have been pleased with the New York City Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier: one did not hear the singers very much. And if one did hear them, their diction wasn’t much good. And if one could actually make out the words, the German—or Austrian— wasn’t any good. To be sure, there were the surtitles, but even they, perhaps taking their cue from the stage action, were pallid and hard to read.

Der Rosenkavalier (1911) is one of the summit achievements of twentieth-century opera, probably the happiest collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von...

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