Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Douglas Messerli | "Yes, Yes" (on Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier)
by Douglas Messerli
Hugo van Hofmannsthal (libretto), Richard Strauss (music), Robert Carsen (stage director), Gary Halvorson (director) Der Rosenkavalier / 2017 [The Metropolitan Opera HD-live broadcast]
For years when I’ve thought about Richard Strauss’ great opera, Der Rosenkavalier, I have always imagined it as primarily a slightly sad lyric testament to the passage of time, as an almost Proustian acceptance of the end of not only one’s own vitality, but of the era in which one, by birth, has come to represent. That is certainly true for the great Marschallin, in Strauss’s original a wealthy princess of the 18th-century, wife to the head of the Austrian military (a force always central to Austrian life), and lover to a young, only 17-years-of-age, count, a remarkably handsome cavalier, who regularly brings her roses.
The remarkable aspect of this opera, I have always imagined, is that the Marschallin’s love transcends even her own happiness, a recognition that there will inevitably come a time in her intense affair with her younger lover that he will perceive her for what she is, an older woman moving towards death at the very moment that he is just coming into a full recognition of his life. In the first act, when the Marschallin (epitomized in Renée Fleming’s performance of her over many a year) recognizes that she loves the young Octavian (performed by another consummate singer and actor, Elīna Garanča—having played the role, she admits for the 17 years and 2 months, precisely her character’s age) and that she must someday give him up to some younger woman with a fresher beauty with whom he falls in love, the opera seems to sum up the facts of all of life. Love, beauty, wealth, whatever one believes to be of value is impermanent, and those who live life best know when to release their grasp of maintaining those qualities.
The director of this new MET Opera production, Robert Carsen, has, I think quite correctly reset these events into Vienna’s fin de siècle period, a decade before Strauss’ own creations and those of similar-minded creators such as Arthur Schnitzler, the early writings of Robert Musil, and, of course, Sigmund Freud. Certainly, the rising militarism of that period resonates with the opera’s own focus on off-stage violence and the antics of Baron Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and his soldier friends.
What I always forget is that this opera is also, and perhaps at heart, a raucous social satire for most of the next two acts, and even within the first act when the lovers’ transcendent interludes are interrupted, first by the completely insensitive Ochs, and then by the numerous petitioners, peddlers, and simple “riff-raff” that the Marschallin must daily face after her coffee and chocolates. Great lady that she is, the Marschallin survives not only her daily petitioners, waving them off with gracious gestures of hand and neck, but even partially escaping the rude and blustering bleats of her obviously hated cousin, Ochs—who boasts of his upcoming marriage to a wealthy arms-manufacturers, Faninal’s (Markus Brück) daughter—by playing along with Octavian’s pretense of being his lover’s chambermaid (a noted incident in which an opera “pants” character—a soprano playing the young male lover—is forced to appear in “drag” of the sex she truly represents).
The Marschallin saves the day, while the crude Ochs attempts to seduce the newly-minted Mariandel, by suggesting that she cannot afford to give up her ill-conceived servant, but that she will provide her cousin instead with Mariandel’s handsome noble brother, Octavian, to serve as Ochs “Rosenkavalier,” to present the tradition silver roses of family custom for all wedding engagements.
It is after Och’s departure that the Marschallin, the utter opposite of her idiot cousin, suddenly perceives that she is quickly growing old, singing her major aria, “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” in which she attempts to tell Octavian that nothing lasts forever, and that there will come a time when, despite his protestations, he too will move on.
Of course, the ardent boy utterly denies it, and she is forced to console him, instead, and he consoling the distraught woman who sometimes gets up in the middle of the night to stop the clocks.
These are the scenes that I still believe to be the heart of Der Rosenkavalier, but, in fact, the Marschallin soon after disappears from sight for nearly two acts, as the comedy’s rude mechanicals (to steal Shakespeare’s term) come forward to battle it out. For the first few moments of Act II, as Octavian meets Sophie and immediately falls in love, the gentle irony of Strauss’ work is maintained. But moments later, as Ochs enters, to put it simply, all hell breaks loose, as the Baron proves himself as the brute he is to his would-be fiancée Sophie. As Morely described her in a inter-act interview, she is clearly an early feminist, who simply cannot abide the absolute self-centeredness and the misogynistic behavior of Ochs. Carsen clearly has made every attempt to underline the similarities between this self-inflated fool with a certain contemporary American president. If nothing else, we can now clearly recognize the type.
But the series of slap-stick actions that follow, including Fanlin’s presentation of home-bound gun-turrets, the Keystone Cop-like antics of Och’s personal soldiers, and general undefined chaos, as Sophie is groped, pulled, pummeled, and finally thrown to the ground in the ever-shifting emotions of Ochs, represent something I might describe as outside the tone of the opera. That Carsten’s Ochs is a healthy antidote to the usual operatic depiction of an old oafish man, I’ll agree; but there can be no doubt that this moves not only toward the campy but is definitely “over-the-top.”
And these qualities grow even more extreme in the beginning of the next act, played out in a brothel (the prudish MET-HD printout describes it as “a house of ill repute”), which, in this production seems closer to the Weimar Republic’s cabarets than to a Vienna fin de siècle establishment. The attempt to bring the dense Ochs to his senses involves Octavian, got up into a costume that reminds one of Marlene Dietrich, a male-drag orchestra right out of Some Like It Hot, numerous undressed and unwound floozies, a loud-mouthed Madame (Tony Stevenson), again in drag, and gangs of a child chorus, a pleading ex-wife, dancers, waiters, food-sellers, lackeys, and god knows who else to scare the Baron half-to-death, before, once more, the even more beautiful Marschallin enters the fray to save the day and send the Baron packing in utter embarrassment—although, we perceive, his comeuppance will probably not ever enter this man’s pea-sized brain.
Once again, the opera returns to its transcendent roots, as Fleming, Garanča, and Morley join together for an all-female trio that sings of love, acceptance, and forgiveness simultaneously. Strauss’ tinkling music, with its slightly discordant descending melodies says it all, even suggesting that the intense love now shared by the young Sophie and Octavian may also one day, too, come to an end. But, at least, as the Marschallin perceives, Sophie and Octavian will be good together, if even for a too little while.
The three major singers, Garanča (who is, after all, the lead in this opera), Fleming and Morley couldn’t have been better, and the audience—knowing that this was the very last time they would see the first two in these roles—applauded enthusiastically, tossing small paper placards down from the balconies, and tossing flowers upon the stage. Their performances were so remarkable that I am sure that the MET audience (all of whom seemed pasted to their seats, except for their standing cheers) were in tears, as was I. And everyone, I believe, perceived this was perhaps one of the great Der Rosenkavaliers of all time.
If only the director had been a bit more subtle in his comic inventiveness. For despite the manic energy of those interactions between Ochs and the others, there seemed to have been no genuine laughter. Surely a somewhat lighter touch might have redeemed the central characters’ trials and tribulations. This production seemed to suggest that Strauss’s and von Hofmannsthal’s 1911 opera was simply a farce surrounded by slightly sentimental lovers. But then young lovers always behave that way, observes Sophie’s father, to which the Marschallin responds: “Yes, yes”—the very last words of Fleming’s long habitation of her character.
Los Angeles, May 14, 2017
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (May 2017).