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richard strauss: der rosenkavalier

19 december 2019

You can see nearly the whole history of my fascination with opera, here in the pages of lection. I came to opera late in life, a decade or so ago. Not utterly ignorant, but as good as. In my teens I had been a techie on some school productions, and even performed in one operetta (Victor Herbert's Fortune Teller). And I had a desultory acquaintance with opera via this or that recording, or a stray production or two. But I started to attend regularly (Ft. Worth first, then New York, then Dallas, by fits and starts) about ten years ago. I really began to consume a huge amount of opera, via DVD, just earlier this year. Now I'm rather obsessed, though I have to remember that I am still in that probationary period between 20 minutes of interest and 20 years, where you realize, above all, how little you yet know.

Last summer, I watched a DVD of a 1985 Covent Garden production of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, directed by John Schlesinger, conducted by Georg Solti. I came to Der Rosenkavalier knowing almost nothing about it. Approached that way, the opera starts off in great silliness. A great noblewoman (the Marschallin) is having an affair with a much younger, much lesser, nobleman; the nobleman (Graf Octavian) is played, puzzlingly at first, by a woman. When the Marschallin's unbearable cousin Ochs barges in, though, the convenience of the casting becomes clear: to escape detection, Octavian can dress as a housemaid, whereupon Baron Ochs starts to hit on her. Him.

Ochs is in Vienna to ask the Marschallin for a favor: can she supply a Rosenkavalier, a young man to bring a silver rose to the girl he intends to marry? Because that's how they do things in Vienna. Or that's how they did them in the imagination of librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who constructed dramatic situations in the best creative fashion simply by making stuff up. The Marschallin suggests a young man she knows, named Graf Octavian. Then, inexplicably, a stream of people interrupts, apparently an every-morning feature of the Marschallin's bedroom, including an Italian tenor who sings the loveliest aria imaginable and (at least in this production) is roundly ignored by everybody else in the room.

Everybody files out again, and the Marschallin, alone, reflects that she's getting old, and by this point I was drumming my fingers because her complaints are such off-the-shelf clichés, part of a growing sexist discourse that was starting to annoy me. Then Octavian re-enters. And the next fifteen minutes, as played by Anne Howells (Octavian) and Kiri Te Kanawa (the Marschallin) in this version, are so insanely beautiful that I kept playing and replaying them, and it's a wonder I ever finished watching the rest of the opera.

In short, Der Rosenkavalier is like that, a mix of the sublime and the ridiculous, the earnest and the parodic, the trite and the dazzlingly original. Alan Jefferson's Cambridge Opera Handbook (also from 1985) is refreshingly upfront about the opera's eclecticism. You wouldn't write a whole book about Der Rosenkavalier if you didn't love it, but on the other hand you could hardly love it if you weren't aware of its flaws: its mixed modes, moods and messages, its preposterousness, its clashes of taste and style.

Jefferson discusses the composition of the opera. It's an original story by Hofmannsthal, but it's a pastiche of 18th-century plots and devices. Hofmannsthal, improbably, wrote it act by act without really outlining it, and Strauss composed the music as Hofmannsthal sent him the libretto – to the point of having the score of the first two acts printed before he'd even seen the text of the third. But though the concept was Hofmannsthal's, Strauss was a powerful guiding force, insisting that the poet rewrite the end of the second act to make it punchier. (Hofmannsthal contemplated an understated conflict; Strauss guided him to end the act with a farcical duel.)

After some attention to sources, Jefferson carefully summarizes the opera, the score as much as the story. Jefferson's musical analysis is very accessible, stressing the elements that a listener will recognize from earlier in the show – and I can attest that it's a really good preparation for hearing the whole opera. Stage history, interpretation, reception, and some notes on language flesh out a really insightful treatment of Der Rosenkavalier.

As you can gather, I didn't stop with viewing the 1985 Solti/Te Kanawa Rosenkavalier over and over. I devoured every highlight of the opera I could find on YouTube; I bought a second full DVD (Salzburg 1984, Herbert Karajan conducting, Agnes Baltsa as Octavian). I read the libretto and I listened to Strauss' instrumental waltz suites in my car till I got slightly punchdrunk.

And then, needing a reason to skip town for a few days, I noticed that the season premiere of the Metropolitan's 2019 Rosenkavalier coincided with the night I wanted to be away for. A full-scale production of Der Rosenkavalier is not to be embarked on lightly. The show runs four and a half hours; you have to manage your food and drink intake to stay optimally alert, and an afternoon nap is advisable. Far from 100% of those who arrived at 7pm were still there at 11:30.

But everyone seemed to love it. The orchestra, led by Simon Rattle, was brisk and energetic, and sitting through the entire thing at one go is a revelation of the complexity and intricacy of Strauss' score. Günther Groissböck as Baron Ochs was the audience favorite, but all the singers were in excellent form.

The production, which opened in 2017 with Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, is directed by Robert Carsen, and has its issues. Evidently unsatisfied with Hofmannsthal's frothy story, Carsen decided to treat Der Rosenkavalier as a period piece, not of the 18th century but of Joseph Roth's Vienna, the era of The Radetzky March, with Roth's military trappings. This treatment is far from absurd; the opera premiered in 1911, in exactly the era Roth would describe a couple of decades later. Hofmannsthal and Strauss wrote it in the foreboding days before the first world war, and one might make sense of the opera's anxieties in that context.

Well, except that Carsen has a pair of gratuitous howitzers towed onstage, has his male chorus wriggle along on their bellies as if crawling through no-man's land, and ends the opera not with a servant puckishly picking up a handkerchief, but with the Austro-Hungarian army collapsing to their deaths as if under machine-gun fire. I am all for updates and relevance, but I could not see what the hell any of this had to do with the music or words of Der Rosenkavalier. It's almost as if it didn't try to have anything to do with it.

Not that the conceptual discordances mattered much to the music. Strauss drew inspiration from Mozart and from Johann Strauss (the younger, the waltz guy, no relation). But he was also writing in the immense shadow of Wagner, and under the influence of Brahms, and was a contemporary of Mahler. The result, in his first three long, complicated collaborations with Hofmannsthal (including Ariadne auf Naxos and Die Frau ohne Schatten), is a dynamic, layered wave of music: modernist, but with all sorts of echoes of Romanticism contrasting with classical prettiness and unashamed schmaltz. One might even say postmodern, in the timeless way of postmodernism.

In Act III, as Baron Ochs is making his move on Octavian (who's dressed as the servant Mariandl), they hear the Baron's "Leiblied," his favorite song, the earwormy waltz "Ohne mich." Despite his/her protest that s/he drinks no wine, Mariandl has been tippling and starts tearing up. "Da muss ma weinen," s/he says, "Weil's gar so schön is." I have to cry; it's just so pretty. It's silly; the music is silly. But s/he's right. And who, in the triple-disguised character in front of is, is having those right feelings?

John Mauceri argues that "there is no opera in the canon that is there for any other reason than its musical score." This is as true of Der Rosenkavalier as of any other great opera, but it's also true that its libretto is uniquely important as well, the work of a great poet and dramatist. Jefferson makes the point that Hofmannsthal's libretto would run far longer than 4½ hours if every line were sung separately; Strauss makes liberal use of duets, trios and simultaneous dialogue to cram everything into the opera as it is. As a result, Der Rosenkavalier is full of vitally important dialogue that it's often impossible to hear. But for both poet and composer, that dialogue was essential, and the texture of the work would not be the same without it.

For all its multiply-piled effects, Der Rosenkavalier is most affecting when a single character gets the floor. At that ravishing conclusion to the first act, the Marschallin, influenced by an alignment of many small details in the seemingly random action that precedes, decides to give Octavian his walking papers. "Heut' oder Morgen oder den übernächsten Tag," after all, he will leave her for someone younger and prettier: today or tomorrow or the day after that. Why not get it over with?

Against what even the unsentimental Jefferson calls "a passage of such idyllic yet nostalgic beauty that it ranks among those rare operatic moments which bring the smart of tears to the eyes" (43-44), the Marschallin explains to Octavian ("Quinquin") how this is going to work:

Quinquin, Er soll jetzt gehn, Er soll mich lassen. Ich werd' jetzt in die Kirchen gehn, und später fahr' ich zum Onkel Greifenklau, der alt und gelähmt ist, und ess' mit ihm: das freut den alten Mann. Und Nachmittag werd' ich Ihm einen Lauffer schicken, Quinquin, und sagen lassen, ob ich in den Prater fahr'. Und wenn ich fahr' und Er hat Lust, so wird Er auch in den Prater kommen und neben meinem Wagen reiten. Jetzt sei Er gut und folg' Er mir.

Quinquin, you will go now, you will leave me. I am going to go to church now. And later I will drive to Uncle Greifenklau's – he's old and disabled – and have lunch with him. The old man will really enjoy it. And in the afternoon, Quinquin, maybe I'll send you a messenger, to say that I'm driving in the Prater. And if I'm driving there, and you feel like it, then you can come to the Prater too and ride beside my carriage. Now be good and do what I say.
So much of the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier is both in prose, and frankly prosaic, that it seems impossible for the composer to get the effects he does from it. But the words are deceptively simple. Uncle Greifenklau does not appear in the opera; Hofmannsthal summons him up in this sentence alone. Old and disabled, his pleasures in life have narrowed to having lunch with someone "jünger und schöner": the Marschallin herself. She must get ready for the time in her life when having somebody young and beautiful to ride beside her carriage in the park is the sum of her expectations.

Maybe she doesn't strictly have to get ready that afternoon, but all drama works by compressing time and action. And in a single paragraph, Hofmannsthal captures the course of all relationships, asymmetric ones like the Marschallin's with Octavian, but maybe symmetrical ones too, like the one he will shortly enter with Sophie, the Baron's fiancée.

Der Rosenkavalier is one of the few original librettos that can stand on its own as a straight play, and is occasionally performed as such. (By contrast, who would even show up for a non-musical Aida?)

And Strauss set that libretto to incomparable music. Der Rosenkavalier is one of the moments in western art where a team of collaborators (for better and worse) outdid themselves.

Jefferson, Alan. Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985. [Cambridge Opera Handbooks]