Going to the opera – Der Rosenkavalier

I used to hate operas.

I only loved lieder and songs.

Recital was always my favourite genre.  It distils the essence of the music.  With just one instrument, or just the voice and the piano.  I love it for its purity.

Opera had these silly stories and had too many things happening.  It was not pure.

But, slowly and slowly, I started to feel a little better about operas.  I realise that opera as a genre is a wonderful combination of story and music.  I realise also that silly stories notwithstanding, some of the music is wonderfully constructed and some of the lyrics are wonderfully crafted.

One of the earlier operas that started to change my mind was Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. 

Of course, it helped that I already loved Strauss’ lieder.  I cannot imagine anyone not falling in love with the song Morgen (morning), or Strauss’s Four Last Songs, considered by many to be the pinnacle of Strauss’ output as a composer of lieder (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s rendition here, Jessye Norman’s here).  Perfection is the one word I would use to summarise these!

Why is Der Rosenkavalier such a mesmerising piece of music?

For me, it is, first and foremost, the characters that bring out the theme of the opera.  The deep humanity of Der Rosenkavalier (the New York Met’s synopsis of the opera is here) derives from the universality of its commentary on the passage of time, which none of us can control.  Amongst the characters, Marschallin is most aware of this, and the changes it involves for herself and for others.  She knows not only that she must ultimately accept the fact of time marching on and Octavian leaving her, but she actually helps prepare him for this change.  In contrast, it is only through the embarrassments of Act 3 that Baron Ochs, who has always been a womaniser, finally begins to see how far he has outgrown the role of lover to become a buffoon.

The second is the music.  The final trio, Hab’ mir’s gelobt (I made a vow), is the definition of sublime music, with each of the three characters in the “love triangle” singing about his or her own different thoughts, but all in Straussian harmony.  As Marschallin is thankful that she has chosen to love Octavian in the right way, Octavian realises that he will be as happy with Sophie as a man can be, and Sophie marvels at the Marschallin‘s goodness and cannot understand anything apart from her overwhelming love for Octavian.  The trio flows into the Duet between the 2 young lovers, Ist ein Traum.

It’s a rich and sumptuous piece of music (and quite different from the shocking and tragic character of Strauss’ Salome and Elektra, 2 earlier operas).  And alive with humour and twists a la Mozart too: in Act 1, the Marschallin‘s young lover disguised as a country girl “Mariandel” (his real name is Octavian) is sent to fetch a portrait of her cousin Octavian suggesting that “she” might be used as his rose-bearer.  Marschallin is also a very well-sketched character, in one instance at the end of Act 1 when she tells of getting up in the middle of the night to stop the clocks, revealing her feelings about the ageing process.

Hearing the American mezzo-soprano Barbara Bonney live singing Sophie (which she professes is her favourite role) is of course the “fringe benefit” of having Covent Garden as one’s neighbourhood opera house.  (I love Bonney’s recitals too.)  London is, after all, an imposing cultural capital.

Der Rosenkavalier‘s premiere in London in 1913 under Thomas Beecham was very well received.  When I think about the premiere in Dresden in 1911, I think not just of its becoming an instant success but also about how such a decadent opera turned up just as Europe was about to go through one of the worst wars in its recent history, and exactly the same year that Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales was written.

Maybe I love this opera because it was not composed as an opera!  Curiously and apparently, Strauss talked of Der Rosenkavalier as music set to text.  Perhaps I could read his mind

I certainly do not think I can read Wagner’s, even though I also enjoy his operatic music, though I would argue that they are almost more musical experiences than operas.  And experienced it I did – I heard the Ring live for the first time in my life, standing at the back of the stalls in Covent Garden.  They used to do it that way, and I used to traipse to the ticket office to get those 5 pounds or 10 pound “standing” tickets.  Great value and one really doesn’t want to socialise when watching the Ring … though one has to have good health to be able to get through the performances standing!