9 January 2010: Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier

Metropolitan Opera HD Live performance. Conducted by Edo de Waart. Marschallin: Renée Fleming; Octavian: Susan Graham; Sophie: Christine Schäfer; A Singer: Eric Cutler; Faninal: Thomas Allen; Baron Ochs: Kristinn Sigmundsson. Production: Nathaniel Merrill; Sets and Costumes: Robert O’Hearn; Stage Director: Robin Guarino; TV director: Barbara Willis Sweete

I came out of this wonderful production asking myself a nagging question: What is this opera about? It appears to be about many things: the inevitability of aging; the marriage habits of Austrian nobility as viewed through the prism of Austria, circa 1910; the so-called, well-known double standard, by which a young marriageable woman is expected to remain a virgin, while the man who woos her is quite acceptably entitled to sow his wild oats, as the saying goes. Extend these ideas in certain directions and you come up with the gross inequalities that typify gender relationships in European society.

Extend them in other directions and you come up with interesting questions having to do with theatrical conventions and their social ramifications. The most interesting of these is the one exemplified by the fact that the young man, Octavian, age seventeen, who has been sowing his wild oats with a beautiful aristocratic woman well into middle-age (the Marschallin, delightfully and sensitively acted and beautifully sung by Renée Fleming) is being sung by a much-into-middle-age mezzo-soprano (Susan Graham, who, she said in a backstage interview at intermission, tried out for the Metropolitan Opera Young Artists competition the same year as Renée Fleming, who is pushing fifty). Much disbelief must be set aside in order to enjoy this frank bit of illusionism. This role, also called a “trouser” or travesty role (the idea is literally “cross-dressing”), is as old as Shakespeare and as recent as the most recent performance of … Der Rosenkavalier. And so, in this context, the opera is about … what? About the music? That is, from the Straussian musical perspective, the plot of this opera is what the plot of any opera is: a framework on which to hang and in fact royally dress out some truly spectacular music.

In particular, you could approach the opera from its opening scene or from its closing scene and get two quite interesting, complementary perspectives on it. From the beginning, it’s about the wild oats story. Octavian is in bed with the Marschallin, and they are having a marvelous, sensuous, yet quite chaste and respectable time of it. Go in from the end, and what you get is a musical trio, sung by the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie (the eligible virginal young woman that Octavian falls in love with in the second act). If we haven’t discovered it before, we realize that a very big reason, perhaps the only reason, that Strauss decided to make his seventeen-year-old oats-sower a travesty role was so that he could fashion a truly wonderful, subtle, and magical trio sung by three female singers, each with distinctive yet equally mellifluous voices, which would both blend and contrast in highly satisfying ways. If Strauss started from the end, so to speak, and plotted his way back to the beginning, there would be manifold opportunities to exploit the lovely, slightly dark mezzo voice of the singer inhabiting the role of Octavian. What Strauss would lose is the opportunity to introduce a tenor into his cast of characters. He can’t have it both ways.

But wait. Whatever wonderful musical opportunities would follow from having a first-rate tenor among his singers, the dramatic and rhetorical disadvantages would also be manifestly apparent. We are now entering the field of sexual mores. If you start the opera by putting Octavian in bed with the Marschallin, and Octavian is being sung by that wonderful tenor, right away you are stretching the limits of permissive­ness in 1910 Austrian society. The only way to do this and to make it tolerable, that is, safe, for a contemporary audience is to turn Octavian into an inoffensive woman, who can dress like a tenor, sing music like a tenor, and speak (that is, of course, sing) to the Marschallin like a tenor, vowing eternal love to her like a tenor, and thus be a stand-in for a man instead of being a man. This allows the audience a certain leeway to fantasize while preserving the illusion of a male lover for the Marschallin, who is locked in an unhappy marriage (we never see the husband who has made her so unhappy) and is very unwisely in love with the seventeen-year-old Octavian.

Of course, we can pursue this direction further, and more comfortably from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century than from a century earlier, in which case we bring to the fore the issue of lesbianism. I do not mean to suggest that lesbianism did not exist a century ago — of course it did — but rather to say that it is much easier to talk about it now than before. My companion reminds me that there will be people in Strauss’s original audience who would have found the dalliance of two females in bed, treating each other with loving fondness, quite a turn-on. And not all of those people would be female; it is well known that many men “get off” on the spectacle of two women being sexually active together. What is that about?

So what is the opera about? It is, to be sure, about all of these things. But, then, other operas with cross-dressing characters are about these things as well. What is this particular opera about, where is the center of dramatic substance that pulls all of these factors, musical, cultural, theatrical, and otherwise together and makes a coherent experience of it?

We should let ourselves be guided by our sense of the true center of interest. It was mentioned at intermission that Strauss wanted to entitle the opera “Baron Ochs,” that is, the name of the oafish aristocrat whose high social position appears to allow him to make a marriage with the young Sophie, the daughter of a wealthy bourgeois who is eager to gain that high social position for his daughter, though not quite as eager as the Baron is to get his hands on all that money. To give the opera that title is to leave the Marschallin out of the equation and, for that matter, to leave her young lover out of it too. Strauss’s wife evidently pointed out this fact. I might add that to give the opera that title is to make a comic opera, or even operetta, out of it, by implication. It’s true that Strauss is trading here, to an extent, on the materials of the kinds of comic operas and operettas made famous by other relatives of his who bear his name. But Strauss is more serious, more thoughtful, while being not in the least solemn about all of it, and he has other fish to fry, both dramatic and musical. Strauss’s wife appears to have suggested the title Der Rosenkavalier, elevating the matter to a kind of romantic, quasi-mythical status. It sounds vaguely Wagnerian, without ever ceasing to be Straussian. Similarly, calling the opera Die Marschallin von Vienna would be misleading in the same operetta-like way. And so Der Rosenkavalier it was.

We are still wrestling with the question of what the opera is about. We have the vague yet reliable sense that it is about an important transition. Even as we see Octavian and the Marschallin cavorting playfully with one another, we hear the elder of the duo give way to feelings of sadness over what she believes is the sure prospect that Octavian will leave her and find a younger woman. That is, from the very beginning we are presented with a woman who is feeling her age and is wise enough to know that the pleasures she so wants to be permanent will surely not last. Octavian is upset and angry over what he feels is an accusation of infidelity, but we the audience know as surely as we are sitting there that the truth of the accusation is the wave of the future.

During this same first act Strauss introduces the Baron, somewhat improbably choosing the Marschallin’s large, luxurious bedroom as the place where the Baron will finalize the marriage arrangement with Herr Faninal’s lovely young daughter. The strain on credibility is what it is: a necessary liability so that the two main strands of the plot can be initiated in this first act without a change of scene and implicating strongly that the two strands are linked. The comic opera element (Strauss does have his relatives, after all, and a more distant one in Paris named Offenbach) is introduced when Octavian, in order to avoid discovery, masquerades as his nonexistent sister, a chambermaid in the Marschallin’s house. Of course, the Baron, even while involved with the marriage lawyers, immediately develops lecherous feelings for “her,” and thus begins the plot that will eventually overthrow the Baron’s claims to Sophie’s hand. We will see this plot worked out in the third act.

Meanwhile, in the second act, we find that the Rosenkavalier is no other than Octavian (at the end of Act I the Marschallin has had a servant take the rose to him). Octavian has been deputed by the Marschallin to deliver the rose to the gnadige Fraülein. It is a lovely, long stemmed silver rose, imbued with the scent of atar: essence of rose. It is in fact the essence that imbues the entire opera with roseate fantasy, a lovely thing entirely, even in its broadest comic moments. Octavian presents the rose to Sophie, who is immediately intoxicated with its aroma, and when Octavian himself (I stand by the dramatic fiction) inhales it, he too is stricken and falls in love with Sophie at first sight. (It’s a little like the magic pill W. S. Gilbert dreamed of as the perfect initiating plot device.) We now see the truth of the Marschallin’s prediction. The Baron and Octavian come to blows, or rather sword points, the Baron sustains a tiny wound in the upper right forearm, there is an aborted duel, and the scene ends with Sophie swearing she will not marry this ox and the Baron equally confident that she will. At the end, the Baron receives a message from the fictitious sister soliciting a meeting, an assignation, which will prove to be the Baron’s downfall. A country inn is the place, and the meeting occurs in Act III.

The Marschallin, who has been resting quietly in her dressing room for all of Act II, appears toward the end of this third act, once all the comic opera stuff (food scenes are always a little messy) has been gotten out of the way and the Baron (played with consummate comic oafishness and bravado by a gigantic rotund Icelandic basso, Kristinn Sigmundsson, who lacks a full-voice low E but in all other respects is ideal for the role) has been hastened off, returning once again to aristocratic penury, for what is now the true point of the transition. We come to realize here that, of necessity, life moves on, and the best way to acknowledge that ineluctable fact is to accept it with grace and good manners, if not without more than a hint of nostalgia. That is what the Marschallin is doing here in Act III, as Octavian embraces his newly found love Sophie. Sophie’s father, after rigidly rejecting Octavian’s advances in Act II, is here some­how mollified and ready to take him on as a son-in-law. Wait,he’s only seventeen! Yes, but this is comic opera, or this part of it is, anyway. In real life, Octavian would have to wait at least another ten years before he would be eligible to marry the young eligible woman of seventeen; that was the way aristocratic society worked in those days of the 1760’s, the fictional time of Strauss’s opera, and in Strauss’s own time as well. But this is, as we are acknowledging, comic opera, not life.

The “life” part of it, in this generic melange of sorts, is the sure truth that the Marschallin knows whereof she speaks. The opera, finally, is about mortality, and about the gracious acceptance of what cannot be avoided. That, finally, is what this trio, this wonderful, subtle, deeply engaging trio is about also. For that matter, it is what the sumptuous waltz music is doing in the opera also: it presents an irresistible invitation to the dance, even while the singers don’t sing along fully with the melodic line but instead follow an intermittent obligato-like line that puts them lyrically a little out of sync and shows them to be a mite preoccupied with their own affairs, and so disinclined to burst out into song, and dance, not taking full advantage of the joy of the moment in their haste to get on with the business at hand. Too bad for them; too bad for us, too. But this is not truly Viennese waltz territory. As mentioned, this particular Strauss has other fish to fry.

I have seen it mentioned that Richard Strauss was one of the most intelligent people of his time. I would believe it on the strength of this opera alone. It is a brilliant, utterly brilliant piece of work on all counts, and it has the surprising depth and, may I say, resilience that comes from his penetrating understanding of how life and the wide, eclectic pleasures of art can be folded into one experience lasting, by my estimate, a mere four hours and forty minutes, inclusive of intermissions. What a feat!


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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