Opera Guide: Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier

Saccharine it may be, but it’s not without its touches of bitterness. This week’s guide is on Der Rosenkavalier, consistently admired and beloved since its first performance. Did Strauss give up the avant-garde struggle after Salome and Elektra? Perhaps not entirely, for Rosenkavalier is innovative in its own ways.


Let’s talk about Der Rosenkavalier! I first got to know this opera through Haitink’s recording with Staatskapelle Dresden (What a magnificent Straussian band). For someone like me with a sweet tooth (I eat too many doughnuts), Rosenkavalier is your favourite pudding, a Mozartian confection with deliciously crafted waltzes. I saw a production at ENO in 2012, a revival of David McVicar’s beautifully detailed period staging with Sarah Connolly as Octavian. I remember my mentor at school, Dara de Cogan being jealous of my half term visit down to London. He told me that listening to the music wasn’t enough, that one needed to see Rosenkavalier staged. Here is the trailer of that production. AHHH it’s such gorgeous music, I love it so much! (I have a knack for picking long operas to write on. I really ought to make it less work for myself, now that university has started again…)

Conventional wisdom has it that after the revolutionary, avant-garde scores of Salome and Elektra, Richard Strauss gave up the innovatory struggle and took an easier road to success with Der Rosenkavalier. Do I believe this? While certainly not as aggressive or dissonant as its two predecessors, Rosenkavalier was equally ground-breaking in its own, more immediately appealing way. The libretto that Hofmannsthal achieved for Strauss in Rosenkavalier is remarkable. Sophisticated, it’s almost a stage play in its own right. This pastiche of rococo intrigue combines influences drawn from Beaumarchais, Molière, Hogarth, Verdi’s Falstaff and the commedia dell’arte, as well as the authentic social history of Maria Theresa’s Vienna in the 1740s. Set in the eighteenth century, this opera is difficult to lift out of the 1740s Viennese setting, although updating it to turn-of-the-century era of its composition (fin de siècle) is an exception (a period that also suits the nostalgia at the passing of time within the opera). Modernists were eager to dismiss this romantic Viennese comedy due to its popularity, constant since its premiere in 1911. With an undercurrent of bittersweet melancholy at the passing of time, it had a particular resonance for the post-war generation after World War I. And perhaps, we can relate it to Strauss’ complex relationship with the Third Reich later in his life, and how that comes through in pieces like Capriccio or Metamorphosen. Alas, that is a topic within itself for another time.

This opera is dominated by female voices, and contains three of the most gratifying and beautiful roles for a full lyric soprano (the Marschallin), a lighter high lyric soprano (Sophie), and a high mezzo-soprano or low soprano (Octavian). Ochs is a great favourite of bass-baritones, but fiding the balance between the country gentleman and the lecherous boor is not easy; however coarse he may be, Ochs is still some sort of an aristocrat. Octavian is a trouser role, a role that is sang by a woman, playing a man on stage. Cherubino in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is another example. In Rosenkavalier, words matter, and much of the Marschallin’s role is written in a kind of parlando style, where the vocal line approximates the rhythms of ordinary speech. Someone like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is great, bringing her skills as a lieder singer to this role.

At this year’s Glyndebourne production, critics commented over Tara Erraught’s size and shape, leading to a storm of protests erupting. It was mainly because of her credibility as an attractive young man. See for yourself. Incidentally, did anyone catch this at the Proms?

The prelude (Carlos Kleiber with Bavarian State Opera) offers a graphic description of sexual climax – note the whooping horns depicting orgasm. That sumptuous string sound of late Romanticism. I just can’t get enough of it!  The curtain rises to reveal the post-coital scene in the Marschallin’s bedroom, where she is with her much younger lover, Count Octavian. In this great 70 minute first act, we witness the Marschallin’s journey from love to a sense of imminent loss, triggered by recognition of the passing of time. Yes yes, in the libretto, she’s thirty-three. That was then thought of as middle-aged.) It’s this change in her character, from an eager teasing lover into a dignified woman in her great monologue that a great singer can make convincing, and touching. It’s my twenty-first birthday today. Maybe I should have a go at being the Marschallin.

Hearing voices outside, the Marschallin thinks that her husband has returned unexpectedly. They are frantic. Then, at the merest musical flick, panic turns to relief and outraged amusement, as the intruder turns out to be her boorish and lecherous country cousin Baron Ochs. The spirit of Der Fledermaus suddenly invades the opera (waltzing along). Ochs is in town to finalise arrangements for what he hopes will be a lucrative marriage (eugh…) to the daughter of the nouveau-riche Herr von Faninal. Octavian, having hidden in a closet (smooth), emerges disguised as a chambermaid (Don’t even ask). Ochs is rather smitten by ‘Mariandel’ (They’re all fair game) and attempts to flirt with ‘her’, which would have led to an interesting surprise for Ochs in the bedroom. (Surely here, Strauss is amused by the prospect of a woman playing a man playing a woman). Raising a questioning eyebrow at Ochs, Marschallin rescues Octavian out of the situation. telling Octavian to leave in this disguise, but return as soon as possible in his own clothes.

He claims that a mere engagement with a young maid is harmless, and launches into a lengthy description of his amateur techniques. Strauss set this long, somewhat wordy interlude as kind of self contained scherzetto. Some singers relish this as a virtuoso showpiece, but it quickly became customary to shorten the aria or cut it altogether. If you are a completist, the recording options available are Erich Kleiber, Karl Böhm in Dresden 1958, Solti, de Waart, or Haitink. Note the quiet sustained top F on the word hay.

Ochs solicits the Marschallin’s help, as he needs someone to present Sophie with the silver rose which customarily accompanies a marriage proposal. She mischievously suggests her ‘cousin’ Octavian for the task. (Has she already realised that Octavian will inevitably leave her sometime in the future?) Ochs also needs to engage the services of a lawyer, preferably a bent one.

The lawyer arrives at the beginning of the Marschallin’s morning levee, a scene based on Hogarth’s Marriage à-la-mode, the fourth picture in particular.

The aria of the Italian tenor is one of the opera’s many small gems, with Strauss proving that anything the Italians can do, he can do just as well. Strauss notoriously disliked tenors, once calling them a disease, but what gorgeous music this is. (I will sing this on stage some day!) Strauss and the tenor voice. That’s a topic for another article sometime. Concurrently, Hofmannsthal engineers the perfect setting for the acrimonious debate going on between Ochs and the lawyer. This row reaches fever pitch, after which the Marschallin rebukes the hairdresser, saying ‘This morning, you’ve made an old woman of me.’

The last third of this great first act belongs to the Marschallin. Left alone at last, she ponders on Ochs’ behaviour, who was complaining about sacrificing himself to a young wife and a large fortune. But why upset myself, she says. It’s the way of the world. She recalls being forced into marriage as a young girl, just like Ochs’ bride to be. Towards the end of her meditation, she ponders on the meaning of life itself. Maria Reining with Erich Kleiber makes this passage no more than a passing whim with a lighter feel, whereas Karajan’s recording is often said to be unduly slow. The perception of slowness lies in the pauses, making those scenes where we are alone with the Marschallin more affecting. One of the difficulties of the role for non native singers is that it’s written in variety of accents, from High German with a touch of aristocratic Viennese in the great soliloquies, to racier, more down to earth accents elsewhere.

Octavian returns, but unfortunately the Marschallin remains in a cloudy mood. Musing on the passage of time (A clock is heard chiming thirteen times), she tells Octavian that he will leave her sooner or later. Unsurprisingly the young pup is distraught. Having dismissed him, she realises that he’s left without the box containing the silver rose. She hands it to her young page to deliver it, to tell him that here is the silver rose, adding wistfully at the end that the count knows it anyway. This is the last thing she says in this remarkable act, and arguably the most poignant. That soft high G on the word rose sang by Kiri te Kanawa in the 1985 Covent Garden production is just incredible.

We begin the second act in Faninal’s brand new town house, where he awaits the arrival of his daughter’s rose bearer. Act II centres on the dazzling scene of the Presentation of the Rose. This is just a classic example of Strauss’ obsession with the shimmering silvery glamour of the soprano voice. Sophie is intoxicated by both the rose and the bearer, saying that it’s like a greeting from heaven. On the word heaven, there is an octave leap to a high B-flat, marked crescendo, before dropping back down on the final syllable. Barbara Bonney shows us how it’s done, with an exquisite portamento.

The young lovers grapple with an increasingly unravelling situation, and Sophie is horrified at the sight of Ochs (who wouldn’t be?). Octavian also struggles to contain his slow burning fury at Ochs’ boorishness towards her. In the end, Octavian runs Ochs through with his sword, or gives him a small knick on the arm, depending on whose version of the events you hear. It’s interesting to note that this crisis laden ending to the second act was largely conceived by Strauss himself, as the musical language takes on a much more modernist feel. Recognising this whilst retaining the work’s comic register is no problem for the best Strauss theatre conductors, although with Leonard Bernstein, you’d think that World War III had broken out.

Faninal appears to be angry with his daughter, threatening to pack her off to a convent, but it’s clearly that it’s the social shame that he can’t bear. Such terrible happenings in his new town house, what are the gossipers going to say about this?

Act III begins with Ochs’ ill fated assignation with Mariandel in an inn (Mariandel is of course Octavian in disguise). As ‘she’ starts crying, the trap is sprung, and a mob starts making demands on the hapless baron. Annina noisily accuses Ochs of fathering several of her children, and further farcial complications follow. Ochs is totally humiliated, the whole thing carefully stage-managed by Octavian. The sudden arrival of the Marschallin moves the action forward. Quelling the crowd, she firmly dismisses the disgraced Ochs. (Nah mate, she’s not interested.) She tells the commissioner that it’s all been a farce, nothing more. Showing a gracious understanding of Octavian’s new passion for Sophie, the two young lovers are left happily alone together. The final Trio and Duet, even on its own, justify Rosenkavalier’s huge popularity, and it’s all the more ecstatic and bittersweet, coming at the end. Wien bleibt Wien. (The ending of Das Land des Lächelns by Lehár is another example.) Rapturous, and with an almost childlike innocence in the rocking duet, it’s a perfect ending. Because it’s so good, you can have all three versions of it. Here are Solti, Karajan (Elisabeth Schwarzkopf PHWOOOAARRR), and Kleiber’s 1979 and 1994 versions (Look at him go, with his lanky arms. I love that man). OH GO ON. JUST LISTEN TO IT!

Lastly, there is an orchestral suite. I’d just listen to the whole opera though, if I were you.


Régine Crespin, Vienna Philharmonic, Georg Solti. Decca 475 9988

Kiri te Kanawa, Staatskapelle Dresden, Bernard Haitink. EMI 358618-2


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