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Der Rosenkavalier

About the Work

Richard Strauss
Quick Look Composer: Richard Strauss
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Der Rosenkavalier in concert with Renée Fleming / Christoph Eschenbach, conductor Sat., Mar. 8, 2014, 6:00 PM
© Peter Laki

SYNOPSIS

ACT I

The scene is the bedroom of the Marschallin (Field Marshal's wife), who has just made passionate love to the 17-year-old Count Octavian. The latter must hide behind a curtain while the servants bring breakfast, but he comes out again to share her meal after the servants have left.

The sweet idyll is interrupted by a loud voice from outside. The lovers are afraid that the Marschallin's husband may have returned, but it is actually the Baron Ochs, the Marschallin's boorish cousin from the countryside. Octavian quickly disguises himself as a maid. No sooner does Ochs enter than he notices the "pretty girl" who is introduced as "Mariandl." The reason for his visit is to announce his marriage plans to Sophie, daughter of the nouveau riche Faninal. Ochs himself has no money but he thinks that his noble title will suffice to make him a suitable match for the young heiress. In order formally to ask for Sophie's hand in marriage, he needs a young messenger to present her with a silver rose in his name; at the same time he wants to see the Marschallin's notary to draw up the marriage contract. As it happens, the Marschallin's notary is already waiting in the antechamber, along with a whole slew of other visitors. Ochs flirts outrageously with "Mariandl" and expounds his philosophy of shameless skirt-chasing, speaking in a strong country dialect. The Marschallin recommends Octavian as the bearer of the silver rose. When she shows Ochs the young man's picture, the Baron notices the resemblance to "Mariandl," but convinces himself that "Mariandl" must be an illegitimate child of Octavian's father-a scenario that he can certainly identify with.

Enter the crowd that has been waiting in the antechamber: the notary, three noble orphans, a woman selling hats, a man selling animals, a pair of conspirators named Annina and Valzacchi, a hairdresser, a flutist who plays a solo, and an Italian tenor who sings a beautiful aria in mock 18th-century style while Ochs is arguing with the notary over the marriage contract.

Finally alone, the Marschallin reflects on the passage of time (she feels like an old woman at 35). When Octavian re-enters-now in his own clothes-she foretells that some day he will abandon her for a girl his own age. Octavian vehemently protests. She dismisses him but immediately dispatches her servants to call him back; however, he is already far gone. The Marschallin remains alone again, deep in thought.

ACT II

It is a big day at Faninal's palatial residence in the city, where the entire household-father, daughter, the governess and an army of servants-are eagerly awaiting Octavian, the Baron's messenger, with the silver rose. When he arrives and looks Sophie in the eye for the first time, both know that their lives have changed forever. Their conversation, shy and inhibited at first, begins to intensify as they become aware of their nascent love. Ochs, the suitor, arrives. Sophie is immediately turned off by his coarse and condescending manner; despite all the ministrations of her father and her governess, she resolutely rejects the boor. (At the same time, Ochs's servants whom he has brought with him, mirroring their master's behavior, wreak havoc in Faninal's house.) Octavian and Sophie manage to catch another private moment; their brief embrace is interrupted by the conspirators Annina and Valzacchi, who have been spying on the young girl. The scandal forces Ochs and Faninal, who have been working on the marriage contract backstage, to return and confront the young people. Octavian challenges Ochs to a duel and injures the latter's arm with his dagger. Faninal is bursting with anger, but Sophie tells her father that she will never marry the Baron.

In the meantime, the enraged Ochs suddenly calms down, finding the whole affair utterly ridiculous. His mood improves even more when Annina enters with a letter from "Mariandl" (the chambermaid from Act I who was none other than Octavian in disguise) offering a tryst. Falling for the ruse hook, line and sinker, Ochs rejoices at his "good luck" and dreams of the joys that seem to lie ahead.

ACT III

A special room, with a large bed, has been reserved for Baron Ochs at a Viennese inn. Octavian enters, disguised as "Mariandl." Annina and Valzacchi, who have switched their alliances, enter with five "suspect gentlemen" (as the score calls them) who go into hiding to watch the action that is about to unfold. Waiters light candles for a festive meal, an orchestra begins to play a waltz. Ochs and "Mariandl" appear, but the "young girl" behaves coyly and the "date" doesn't get off to a very good start. Ochs's mood is spoiled by "her" resemblance to the young whippersnapper who has injured him with his dagger. The musicians start playing again, but even that cannot save the evening: "Mariandl" bursts out in tears, and when Ochs tries to kiss "her," he sees the face of one and then another of the hidden "gentlemen. Suddenly frightened, he rings for the innkeeper. Annina runs into the room, screaming that Ochs is her unfaithful husband. She has four little children in tow, who all call Ochs "Papa." Scandal!

Hearing all the commotion, the chief of police appears, demanding to know what is going on. He presses Ochs on the identity of the young woman in his company, and Ochs is forced to claim that it is his bride Sophie von Faninal. Of course, Annina and Valzacchi have already tipped Faninal off, and the prospective father-in-law rushes to the scene, just in time to call Ochs's bluff. Sophie soon follows, relieved that marriage to Ochs is now definitely out of the question. Faninal is so upset about his ruined reputation that he nearly faints and has to be carried out of the room. Octavian secretly reveals his true identity to the police chief, and leaves to change back into man's clothes. In the meantime, Sophie informs Ochs that he may never show his face anywhere near the Faninal palace again.

In spite of everything, Ochs still thinks that he can somehow save the situation. It takes the Marschallin, who has also been called to the scene, to convince him that the game is over, and his only option is to disappear as quickly as possible (although the waiters, musicians, servants etc. won't let him go before he pays what he owes them). Sophie repeats the Marschallin's words "it's over" with great sadness, thinking that her part in the Marschallin-Octavian-Ochs story was only a marginal one. But the Marschallin encourages Octavian to confirm his true feelings to Sophie. She wisely steps aside as the young lovers fall into each other's arms. As they kiss, Sophie drops her handkerchief on the floor. Octavian and Sophie leave the scene. A moment later, a little servant boy runs in to pick up the handkerchief.

 

NOTES

At the age of 47, Richard Strauss was as formidable a modernist as any composer on the Western music scene. His revolutionary tone poems, from Don Juan to Heldenleben, had made him world-famous, and his two operas Salomé (1905) and Elektra (1909) had both shocked and delighted the musical world. While wildly successful, Der Rosenkavalier, which opened in Dresden on January 24, 1911, was considered by many critics to be a "step back," as though Strauss, who had reached the verge of atonality in his previous stage works, had shied back from taking the next step and retreated into the past instead.

One still occasionally hears this hundred-year-old cliché of Strauss reception, but it is important to emphasize that it rests on a fundamental misconception. Even though Strauss may have made copious allusions to the music of the 18th century-the century in which the action takes place-there is nothing conservative about the opera, in its harmonic idiom or in any other respect. One cannot imagine it being written even ten years earlier. It is just that after composing two tragedies that presented radically new interpretations of ancient stories, Strauss wanted to tackle a subject closer to his own time, one where no one dies for a change. He and his collaborator, the great Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal who had also written the libretto of Elektra, conjured up the Vienna of Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780), using that world as a backdrop to a story about timeless topics such as aging, or the differences between nobility of birth and nobility of spirit.

On February 11, 1909, Hofmannsthal, who was Strauss's junior by a decade, announced to the composer that he had drafted a scenario for a comedy, "with colorful action, and opportunities for lyricism, wit, humor and even a brief ballet. Two great roles, one for a baryton and the other for a graceful young girl dressed as a boy..." (The latter eventually turned into a girl cast as a boy who is dressed up as a girl...) The poet wanted to discuss matters further with the composer at his house, but he added: "it won't work if Mrs. Strauss is there because she would surely be bored and we have nothing to offer outside but melting snow..." By April, he had delivered the words to the first scene, and Strauss was delighted: "Composition will flow like oil..." On April 23, Hofmannsthal advised: "Come up with an old-fashioned, partly sweet, partly cheeky Viennese waltz for the last act, which will pervade the entire act..." (This waltz now begins, famously, in Act II.) "You are a fantastic guy [ein Prachtkerl]," enthused the composer. Poet and composer worked steadily through the spring, with Strauss occasionally asking his collaborator for more words where he needed them, and Hofmannsthal requesting that a certain word be sung softly rather than in full voice to take its full dramatic effect. In July Strauss demanded, and obtained, a thorough revision of Act II; the plot of that act as we know it today was devised entirely by Strauss. The composer was often unsparing in his criticism, firm and outspoken but always respectful. At one point, he wrote: "Don't forget that the audience needs to laugh! Laugh, not just smile and chuckle!" Wagner's Meistersinger kept coming up as a constant reference in the correspondence between the co-authors-and in fact, both the Marschallin and Hans Sachs willingly step aside in favor of a young pair of lovers. In both operas, the young male lover also has a ridiculous rival in Beckmesser and Ochs, respectively.

By the end of October the first two acts were completed; Strauss orchestrated them during the winter and sent them to print even as he was working on Act III in the summer of 1910. The death of the composer's mother in May caused an interruption, but the entire score was finished by September 26, not without many further letters and telegrams between the two men, discussing many additional details, large and small.

The role of Octavian was conceived from the start as a trouser role, following the example of Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, another work that obviously served as a model. (Cherubino is also dressed up as a girl at one point.) Yet Cherubino is only a secondary character, while Octavian is the title role; his "manliness" is established even before the curtain goes up in Act I and remains a key factor throughout the opera. Strauss may have wanted to emphasize Octavian's youthfulness by giving his part to a female singer, but the musical reason for his choice is equally important: he needed equal, intertwining voices when Octavian sang with the Marschallin or with Sophie, and most crucially in the glorious moment involving all three characters at the end of the opera. Using a tenor would have been unthinkable-it would have ruined everything.

The world premiere of this "comedy for music" became, as Norman Del Mar put it in his classic three-volume Strauss biography, "beyond question the most riotous success that even Strauss had ever had." It immediately entered the regular repertoire of large opera houses around the world. Its popularity has endured without interruption for over a century now and many great singers have built their careers on the roles of the Marschallin, Octavian or Baron Ochs.

Trying to seduce "Mariandl" with the help of a hired band of musicians in Act III, the Baron says in his characteristic dialect: Die Musi geht ins Blut ("The music gets in your blood.") Does it ever.