• Email
  • Print

Der Rosenkavalier: ‘Something Mozartian’?

I was tied down by the metre [of the final duet] which you prescribed for me, but in the end…I felt something Mozartian….”

—Hofmannsthal to Strauss,
June 6, 1910

The Metropolitan Opera’s current productions of Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos seem to reflect a new endeavor and spirit. The casts are superior, the sets and costumes better than the standard of recent years, and the stagings as good as those of any opera in this season’s repertory. Ariadne received the better performance of the two, both because its success is less dependent on the conductor, and because Tatiana Troyanos’s voice is more suited to the role of the Composer than to that of Octavian. (It must be said that having the same person in the travesti parts of two operas of the same period and place smacks of a television serial.) Montserrat Caballé’s Ariadne could hardly be improved upon and was perfectly complemented by Alberto Remedios’s Bacchus. Ruth Welting as Zerbinetta may have been at a disadvantage, however, in that her stage movements appeared to be almost as taxing as her vocal ones. Of the minor characters, the commedia dell’ arte quartet, the trio of nymphs, and the Hofmeister were irreproachable. But the dramatis personae of the Prologue inevitably obtrude in the opera, a stock complaint about all performances of the piece. On the question of the intermingling of styles in the two parts, the composer in—not of—the opera seems to have been right.

The Metropolitan’s Rosenkavalier was also well staged and furnished, though the appointments for the levée scene ranged from the too rich—Pavarotti as the Tenor looked like the best dressed and fed of noblemen—to the too poor—the animal seller’s merchandise consisted of a single spaniel, a reincarnated “Flush.” The weakness of the staging was due to the disparity in the histrionic performances. Walter Berry’s masterful realization of the difficult part of Baron Ochs mercilessly exposed the shortcomings of the Octavian, the Sophie, and the Marschallin, with their three or four stereotyped poses. Berry made Ochs believable by never overplaying his egregiousness, and even managed to win a measure of sympathy for him during the revelation scene, when, fitting the pieces together and discovering that the girl is a boy, the Baron finally sees what his refined cousin the Marschallin has been up to. But Berry’s acting skill was evident in every gesture, from frothblowing hand flourish to courtly bow, and this in addition to singing of an equally high caliber.

Of the three female leads, Teresa Zylis-Gara’s Marschallin was the most suitably cast and most pleasingly performed, Troyanos’s Octavian being somewhat too heavy for Judith Blegen’s Sophie, at least in their duets. The conductor, James Levine, must share the responsibility for allowing Miss Blegen to distend the music at “Wie himmlische, nicht irdische” and to ruin it a little later with a fermata on the high C-sharp.

Elsewhere, Mr. Levine charged through the score, failing to give the curves of the melodies their natural play, and to hesitate on upbeats in waltzes, or delay resolutions—in short, stripping the music of the stylistic traits that Strauss was so proud of having embodied in it. But Mr. Levine also neglected balances within the orchestra, as well as between it and the stage. And, astonishingly, he implemented Clemens Krauss’s mistaken “corrections,” which substitute E-natural for E-flat, for example, in the initial trumpet statement of the “Wo war ich schon einmal” motif during the presentation of the rose—a thorn in one of the opera’s most beautiful passages. Mr. Levine’s shortcomings have been overlooked in the past because of talents that merited encouragement and because of his inexperience, but such criticisms must now be made. After all, he holds one of the most important posts in the musical world, in which he will apparently be conducting more operas than anyone else.

Der Rosenkavalier recently received its 199th performance at the Metropolitan, a record number for any opera written after the first decade of this century, and so far out-distancing its nearest competitor as to seem like the last of a dying breed. This popularity can be partly attributed to some of the ingredients of a Broadway musical: hit tunes, mixtures of comedy and romance, a costume extravaganza, a setting in travel poster Never-Never-Land. Apart from its instant success, the opera represents the most significant and unexpected turn in direction in Strauss’s entire development, one, so some critics believe, that diverted him from the fullest realization of his genius. In their view he should have continued, in the vein of Salomé and Elektra, to explore new musical frontiers inspired by even more gory Biblical and classical atrocities.

But did he have a choice? The dimensions of the two earlier music dramas could hardly bear enlargement, while to achieve a greater degree of intensification would have required a compression that was not in Strauss’s nature. In any case, a radical change was inevitable after Elektra, partly because the same road could not be pursued any further but also because of the composer’s long-gestating ambition to write a comic opera à la Figaro: “Das nächste Mal schreibe ich eine Mozartoper,” as he said at the time. Therefore it would seem that Strauss’s “backsliding” from his obligations as a leader of the modern movement was not a defection but a step in sequence.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal has been blamed for the “turncoat” musical position that Strauss adopted in Der Rosenkavalier and was to maintain thereafter. But is it reasonable to suppose that the librettist, whose musical knowledge was unremarkable, could have had such an influence on this powerfully self-willed composer? To be sure, Hofmannsthal had quickly recognized the “mixture of the burlesque with the lyrical” as a feature of Strauss’s personality and had even offered one suggestion for the Rosenkavalier music: “An old-fashioned Viennese waltz, sweet and yet saucy, which must pervade the whole of the last act.” But the librettist could scarcely have been aware of Strauss’s potentialities as an opera composer, nor would anybody but a skilled musician have perceived the tendency in Elektra toward the restoration of traditional structures. One wonders what species of music Hofmannsthal did actually anticipate when, on April 19, 1909, he sent the first scene of his eighteenth-century situation comedy to Strauss. And it is even hard to understand the librettist’s belief that Strauss could compose suitable music for a play set in Maria Theresa’s old Vienna and using some of the period’s conventions of social hierarchy, character types, and plot.

Whatever the answers, luck must have played a large part in the creation of the Rosenkavalier, for the libretto made its appearance at precisely the right moment and was the catalyst for Strauss’s dormant wish vis-à-vis comic opera. At an earlier date, he might have felt the need to write one more work in a similar mode, and have asked himself whether his musical language had been so conditioned for tragedy that a change might be premature. Successive creations by any artist contain links to one another, of course, and many such are easily discernible between the first act of Der Rosenkavalier and the latter part of Elektra. Thus Elektra’s aria, “Von jetzt an will ich deine Schwester sein,” and her waltz before the murder of Aegisthus resemble the Marschallin’s music. Nor are portents of a general kind lacking in Strauss’s early music. He had composed burlesques before, to be sure, and the “humor” in his tone poems is as conspicuous as the sentiment. Yet even the closest observer of Strauss’s development before Elektra could not have foreseen the transformation of its composer into the one of Der Rosenkavalier.

The libretto has the reputation of being among the most nearly perfect of any opera; what is more, it has been praised for a psychological subtlety and wisdom seldom found in the comic genre that it imitates. But is this accepted opinion justified? To begin with, having introduced perspectives anachronous to the ethical codes of eighteenth-century comedy, the plot wavers in sustaining a moral basis. Not only is adultery condoned, but when an impoverished nobleman, Baron Ochs, uses his title to contract a marriage for money—an accepted practice of the age—he is rebuked for what modern democratic thinking considers a venal action. Contrariwise, Faninal, the father of the unwilling bride and Ochs’s partner in the transaction, is rewarded, despite social climbing motives as despicable as the financial ones of the Baron. What Hofmannsthal seems to say—without making a particular point of it—is that morality equals expediency, and even then follows no certain course. With Strauss it has to be said, regrettably, that the moral question never arises at all.

Even when compared with other operas demanding a large tolerance toward the illogical, Der Rosenkavalier is full of inconsistencies, loose ends, obscurely motivated behavior. But apart from unexplained details, the plot is mystifying in two important particulars: the reasons for Valzacchi’s and Annina’s shift of allegiance from Ochs to Octavian, and for the Marschallin’s appearance in the inn, in Act Three. The first is not clear to the audience in dramatic terms, though the explanation—money—is given; hence the plot function of these two intriguers from Italy seems to be arbitrary. So too, the nocturnal visit to a lowly tavern by one of the great ladies of the realm is both implausible and dramatically unaccountable, although Ochs’s natural son and body servant, Leopold, has ostensibly fetched her in order to save his father. But this is unconvincing, the Marschallin having up to this time shown no interest in the welfare of her cousin, and now treating him unfairly when she does arrive. One commentator on this dea ex machina conclusion has written that “it does not really matter why…she is there…but come she must to resolve the situation.”1 But though no one would disagree with the second part of the statement, who could agree with the first?

The most crucial and immediately evident weakness in the libretto is its failure to reach a decision about who is the central character; and this, in turn, is responsible for inchoate mixtures of moods and emotions. The original title, “Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau,” indicates that the “villain’s” role was considered to be the leading one, as indeed it is so far as Ochs’s time onstage and share of action are concerned. In the exposition, however—in the first act, which is the only satisfyingly constructed one of the three—Ochs’s part is merely incidental to the love affair of the Marschallin and Octavian, the principal subject of the opera both before and after Ochs’s escapades. Yet the Marschallin does not reappear until the denouement, which Ochs dominates. Meanwhile the audience’s sympathy, which should be on the side of Ochs’s adversaries, Sophie and her new protector Octavian, does not follow in this direction, for the reason that Ochs, in spite of his vanity, grotesque manners, and general obnoxiousness, is incomparably more engaging than are the two young lovers.

The opera’s greatest puzzle, in fact, is in the contradictory responses provoked by Baron Ochs. Hofmannsthal and Strauss clearly thought of him as exceedingly droll, both in himself and in the adventures in which he is involved. It seems obvious that he was intended to be another Falstaff, with similarly ingratiating vices, but, if so, the attempt to make him one was a failure, and the authors were badly misled. Ochs has little of the appeal of Sir John, and without it the role is too long. The Falstaff hypothesis gains support on other grounds, too, for the scene in the inn, with figures emerging from the dark to frighten Ochs, must have been suggested by the midnight episode in Windsor Park. Furthermore, the ruse of the letter inviting Ochs to an assignation may well have been borrowed from the older play, since two examples of conceit and gullibility on this same scale are too much of a coincidence. Finally, whether consciously or otherwise, stage directors appear to recognize the parallel, wrongly making Ochs, who is thirty-five years old, both elderly and obese.

Apart from the music associated with him, Ochs is nearly devoid of endearing qualities. Even as a seducer he lacks skill, which is surprising in one who is as lecherous as he is greedy, and his dullness of mind in failing to suspect the traps that are set for him strains the audience’s credulity. Yet most of his crimes prove to be peccadilloes, which would be forgotten if, like Falstaff, his powers of intelligence were greater—and this, of course, is the vital difference between the two men.

Still another reservation about the characterization of the Baron is the pratfall humor of which he is the target. Doubtless some of the audience is amused when, slightly wounded by Octavian’s sword, Ochs agonizes out of all proportion to his injury. Nevertheless, he does shed blood. So, too, in the scene of his humiliation in the inn, he must suffer real mental torture. That Strauss found Ochs truly farcical is evident from the music as well as from the composer’s correspondence with Hofmannsthal.2 But, paradoxically, Strauss’s genius was greater than his intellect, and some of the musical laughter in the trap-door “fun house” scene contains a note of genuine terror, even of Evil.

Hofmannsthal has characterized the Baron through a special language (“Ochs-ese”) as well as through his deeds. (The same is true for Faninal and Sophie, in their comparatively minor roles.) But surely opera is not a medium in which linguistic nuances can, or should, count for very much. To preserve in comparatively dense music effects of rustic locutions, such as are found in Wycherley or Goldsmith, is a great deal to expect of any composer, though Strauss, who slavishly follows the words, achieves an extraordinary degree of success in this. But by the same token, the opera goer must be familiar with the most esoteric allusions of the text and the music. At the same time the musical characterizations are not always reliable, being belied by stage behavior. In the case of the Baron, for example, while the pomposity of his first theme and the fractured gracefulness of the second could hardly be more fitting, the soft echoes of his dinner music waltz, which is the opera’s most pervasive melody, are unbecomingly sweet.

But the most important question is still that of who is the opera’s central character. And if Baron Ochs lacks the necessary qualities, Octavian, who replaces him in the title, is also unsuitable. As a young cavalier, the Marschallin’s lover, and someone who behaves both reasonably and naturally, he is the obvious candidate to be the hero of the piece. Yet he is insufficiently developed to carry a pivotal role, and his fate is decided for him by the Marschallin. (It is one of the conventions of Der Rosenkavalier that Octavian, the bearer of the silver rose signifying Ochs’s betrothal, steps into the shoes of the man for whom he speaks; marriage ambassadors from Tristan to John Alden—the latter by way of acknowledging the Bicentenary—have done the same.)

Of all the characters, only the Marschallin is sympathetic, complex and reflective, and highly developed, and she alone qualifies for that centripetal position which the authors have failed to define. But her role is very imperfectly conceived, and, as aforesaid, she is abandoned after the drama has been focused on her and her feelings, until called upon to resolve the action. And though she is the only protagonist with the intelligence and independence to do this, an inconsistency results, since she is required to condemn Ochs’s “debauchery,” while at the same time asking him to be discreet about her own liaison. Not that this taints her, for uniquely in her case we have been given the background that explains her actions. At fifteen, she was married against her will to a man she still does not love, a fact that enables her to rationalize her affair with Octavian as well as to identify with Sophie, who, at the same age, is threatened by a similar fate.

In the unreal world of Der Rosenkavalier, the Marschallin is both realistic and farsighted—at least in what she says, for despite her philosophical attitude toward aging (she is in her early thirties), her chronophobia is so severe that she sometimes turns back the clocks at night. This explains her precipitate termination of the relationship with Octavian and hasty manipulation of his marriage to Sophie. The conflict of the Marschallin’s emotions when the loss of Octavian becomes a reality inspires the opera’s most human moment, in which the audience feels the truth of Octavian’s “Marie Theres’ wie gut Sie ist.” The Marschallin’s future matters far more than that of the fairy-tale ending of the Octavian-Sophie story. The libretto invites the suggestion that since others have preceded Octavian in the Marschallin’s affections, he will also have successors, but the music persuades us that Octavian means more to her than she will admit to herself, and that she is genuinely in love with the boy. The audience also cannot help believing that Octavian will soon miss her, and that life with Sophie will be much less interesting than it was with the older woman.

The main theme of Der Rosenkavalier is the contrast between innocent and experienced love, and the music of both is equally seductive. For the former, Sophie’s and Octavian’s love at first sight, time itself is held back, the musical elements standing still in a congelation of simple melody, triadic and static harmony, and a glitter of sound evoking the silver rose. The Marschallin’s music, at the other extreme and by benefit of contrast, may be interpreted as reflecting her obsession with temporality and the evanescence of earthly passion, partly through the device of a falling major seventh. Of the two musical portraits, that of the Marschallin is capable of greater development, of course, though to choose between her “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar’ Ding” and Sophie’s “wie Rosen vom hochheiligen Paradies” would be difficult indeed.

For all of Strauss’s and Hofmannsthal’s professed intention of composing “a Mozart opera,” it seems that only one human being could do that. The “Mozart” in Der Rosenkavalier—in Octavian’s A-major aria in the first scene, in the chamber music interlude when the Marschallin is alone—is either superficial, or, like the final Sophie-Octavian duet, sugar-coated. If any other great composer’s influence should be acknowledged, it is not Mozart’s but Verdi’s. This is most obvious in the fugato tarantella of the prelude and pantomime in the third act, but is found elsewhere in the opera as well, in, for example, a characteristically Verdian octave figuration. Whatever the Rosenkavalier‘s extraneous musical sources—and besides Mozart and Verdi they include Johann Strauss and Lehár (the “Kein Wein” waltz, which is on the verge of bursting into operetta)—Strauss’s comment, on finishing Act One, is incontestable:

I believe that I have succeeded in capturing the true Viennese spirit and melodic line.

Der Rosenkavalier, that suspension bridge of seventh and ninth chords, and of enharmonic modulations, is a composite of earlier, plushly upholstered melodic, harmonic, and orchestral idioms that, nevertheless, and in every measure, bear the stamp of Richard Strauss.

(This is the second of three articles on Richard Strauss.)

  1. 1

    See The Characters in “Der Rosenkavalier” by Rodney Blumer, London Records. This is not a helpful guide, for Mr. Blumer not only mixes his metaphors (“Those who look no further than the end of their nose where Hofmannsthal is concerned miss a great many interesting scents”) but also describes impossible phenomena (“You can tell without hearing who is speaking”). Moreover, Mr. Blumer’s character analyses are unreliable. Thus he finds Faninal “engaging and sympathetic…a wonderfully rounded study,” though by other criteria this parvenu who pushes his daughter into Ochs’s arms instead of protecting her from him would be considered the very personification of a cad. Nor is Faninal consistently drawn, being presented in his final line, totally without dramatic justification, as suddenly “understanding” his daughter’s feelings.

  2. 2

    Only a fraction of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal letters, and those in fragmentary form, is available in English. In 1927 Knopf issued a translation of the volume selected, expurgated, and unabashedly published by the authors themselves. Since Strauss’s death, three successive “complete” editions have appeared in German, and in 1961 Random House published a translation of the first of these. But it is evident from the contents of the last that all lacunae have not yet been filled. None of the volumes of Strauss’s other letters, which date back to his exchanges with Hans von Bülow, has been translated.

  • Email
  • Print