April 24th Monday | Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera | New York, NY
Against my very weak self control over shopping in general, I bought a last-minute full-price ticket to the Met on Monday evening. What can I say to account for my impulsive purchase (that would force myself to downgrade my diet to dirt for god knows how many weeks to come)—I still would do the same without blinking my eyes.
I’ve long been wanting to see Der Rosenkavalier live. In fact, BSO opened this season with a stellar lineup of this Strauss’s opera unstaged (Fleming along with Susan Graham and Erin Morley), but I missed it—stupid me! Well, I could still somehow justify my decision, because Der Rosenkavalier is an opera that must be staged. The music itself just wouldn’t do the opera justice. Der Rosenkavalier is all about theatricality. Perhaps that is also why I’m very excited about this new production at the Met by Robert Carsen. It’s set in 1911—an era that bewilders and, above all, bewitches me. Instead of Maria Theresa’s Vienna, the drama takes place in Hofmannsthal’s time. Plus, two incredibly attractive and gifted divas, Renée Fleming and Elīna Garanča, are harmonizing/romancing on stage—what is not to love?
So I “happened” to be in New York on the day of a performance of Der Rosenkavalier—how convenient, except that I didn’t manage to get a rush ticket on the day of. Precisely at noon I was sitting in the long corridor of European sculptures at the Met Museum, sighing to myself. But my moment of misery did not persist. Well what the heck, I’m gonna do it anyway. It would be my “academic research,” as noble-sounding as it ought to be.
Actually I’m not kidding about the research part. Der Rosenkavalier is on my Orals list for a good reason—so I’ve got to see it, right? Good, that’s settled! I bought a ticket in the orchestra right, not too bad for a last-minute splurge. I spent a few hours in the afternoon wandering around the village, trying to do my left-over reading but really just soaking in the gloomy air of New York that is probably more eclectic than that in Boston.
The performance started at 7 pm, and not surprisingly, it was a full house. I arrived just in time to pick up my ticket and familiarize myself with the new surroundings. Anxiously, I could barely wait for the curtain to rise. It would be awesome, and I knew it already.
Unlike what I would call a second-rate libretto for Verdi’s Rigoletto, Hofmannsthal proves to be a true literary genius in his libretto for Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is a lucky guy indeed—imagine how much worse he could have done! I’m almost equally interested in the staging and the text itself, well in addition to the music of course.
Already in the very beginning Hofmannsthal adroitly switches between formal and informal addresses to insinuate the swift change of mindset of the characters on stage. The opera opens with an intimate conversation in the bedroom with Octavian singing: “Wie du warst! Wie du bist!” to which Marschallin only responds with the third-person pronoun: “Beklagt Er sich über das, Quin-quin?” Marschallin’s deliberate withdrawal is reverted only upon her lover’s insistence: “Du, du – was heißt das »du«? Was »du und ich«? Hat denn das einen Sinn? Das sind Wörter, bloße Wörter, nicht? Du sag’!” This obsession with personal pronouns (darn it Europeans!) brings to mind Wagner’s Tristan, when Tristan and Isolde blend into one person, without the distinction between ich and du—”ohne Nennen, / ohne Trennen.” But Der Rosenkavalier is not another Tristan. At the end of Marschallin’s lament for the passing of time in Act I, she sings her farewell “Oh, sei Er gut, Quinquin,” switching again back to the formal address and establishing almost a high wall between herself and Octavian. This immediate change coincides with Marschallin’s decision to send her lover away. Situating Der Rosenkavalier in the social historical context, particularly acute in this production, it can also be read as Hofmannsthal’s farewell to the aristocratic Vienna in which he grew up. At the end of Act I, Strauss’s music scored in the lightest of strings dies away, lamenting the passing of Vienna’s golden age. Almost paradoxically, Hofmannsthal soaks this comic opera in a tragic ambience, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbles on the threshold of the twentieth century. In this production, the tragic aura is perceptible throughout.
In Der Rosenkavalier, the clownish Baron Ochs is much ridiculed, but through him Hofmannsthal also manages to insert some of his own social commentaries which do not befit the noble characters. For instance in the middle of Act I the Baron exclaims: “Was es alles gibt in diesem Wien!” This ironic statement might as well come from Hofmannsthal himself, alluding not to Maria Theresa’s but to his own city—in this Vienna, a city mired in crises. In Act III, in Baron Ochs’s obscene dreams Vienna is pathologized in an almost Schnitzlerian way. And I must say, this new production captures it just right by revealing sexual intercourse behind the high-cultured wall art. It is what Dr. Schnitzler would have done if he were to write Baron Ochs into his own dream stories.
Different from many of his contemporary Viennese writers, in the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier Hofmannsthal does not shy away from eulogizing his upbringing in the temple of art—not ironically but quite sincerely. The oversaturated aesthetic-aristocratic tradition is deep in Hofmannsthal’s literary imagination, including Ein Brief—the language crisis of a fictional aristocrat who impersonates Hofmannsthal himself. If in Lord Chandos’s letter Hofmannsthal brings out the malady of Viennese society obliquely in the form of the Sprachkrise, what he reveals in the comic opera Der Rosenkavalier set in another time is the slipping away of his own Vienna. Carsen’s new production fully sets Hofmannsthal’s sense of crisis in motion.
Der Rosenkavalier, in some way, is an opera about time. It is not a coincidence that the leading soprano role of the opera, Marschallin, is called Marie Therese, a mother figure bearing the shadow of the real mother of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1740s when the story is supposed to take place. Despite its comic vein, Hofmannsthal’s libretto is saturated with melancholy and nostalgia. Marschallin with her aging beauty is preoccupied with the passing of time, especially in front of her seventeen-year-old lover Octavian. At the end of Act I, she sings most touchingly to her Bub about time: “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbares Ding. […] In den Gesichtern rieselt sie, im Spiegel da rieselt sie, in meinen Schläfen fließt sie. […] Manchmal hör’ ich sie fließen unaufhaltsam. Manchmal steh’ ich auf, mitten in der Nacht und lass’ die Uhren alle stehen.” It is so moving, and in my head I was picturing Marschallin stepping into the empty living room of her palace alone in the middle of the night, barefoot, counting the tick tock and feeling completely lost. Wow! That is how you could travel from the extreme comic to the extreme melancholic—just need an opera like this one.
It’s hard to believe that the exceptionally feminine detail of Marschallin’s aria came from the hand of a male writer in his late 30s. Hofmansthal at that time was witnessing the debilitation of Vienna’s aristocratic society, bidding farewell to an entire generation. The female protagonist Marschallin feels time slipping away from her fingers, and it would be impossible for the audience of Hofmannsthal’s time not to feel the same while hearing Marschallin sing “wie alles zerlauft zwischen den Fingern, alles sich auflöst, wonach wir greifen, alles zergeht, wie Dunst und Traum.”—like a misty dream, their world is also slipping away. It is even more heartbreaking to hear Fleming’s full-bodied voice in this scene, because she’s so embedded in Marschallin, a signature role she’s going to retire at the end of this season. For the audience, it is also saying farewell to a musical epoch. And rightfully, Mr. Weigle allowed the upper strings to tremble as if uttering a cry at the end of Act I. Such a beautiful gesture, and very elegantly executed indeed.
But this opera is not meant to be a heavy show for the audience. Hofmannsthal’s use of Austrian dialect in Octavian’s maid speech is ironic and funny, because it sounds absurd. The moment he switches back to High German you know that he is snapping out of that Schnitzlerian “süßes Mädel” character and revealing his true identity as a nobleman. The mind game in this opera is fascinating, because Octavian is portrayed by a mezzo-soprano, and “he” in turn is disguised as a woman in front of Baron Ochs. The theatricality of this scene is comic and—trust me—simply incredible. In Act II, Strauss in his most German self mocked the Viennese tradition by twisting a waltz (anachronistically though) into Baron Ochs’s ludicrous Liederl. Straussian irony, check!
In the story itself, Hofmannsthal weaves his irony into a fairytale and a non-existent tradition involving the silver rose. In Act II, after receiving the silver rose from Octavian, Sophie is entranced by both the rose and the beautiful Rosenkavalier in front of her. “Wie himmlische, nicht irdische, wie Rosen vom hochheiligen Paradies. Ist Ihm nicht auch?” For a moment, Sophie’s words almost bring back Mahler’s “Das himmlische Leben,” a view of heaven from the eyes of a boy. Interestingly, just as in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, Strauss uses a mezzo-soprano for the role of Octavian, also a Bub in the eyes of his older lover. When the engagement between Sophie and Baron Ochs is about to fall through in Act III, Marschallin still hopes to conceal the Baron’s scandalous debauchery in front of his distressed fiancée: “War eine wienerische Maskerad’ und weiter nichts.” In addition to ridiculing the decadent aristocrats’ in Habsburg Vienna, the Viennese masquerade may also point at an effort of masking Vienna’s reality with history itself, like the fake façade of the Ringstraße that Adolf Loos once attacked. Decadence and decay are unavoidable in the full ripeness depicted in Der Rosenkavalier. In the end, the older Marschallin and Faninal leave the stage to Octavian and Sophie. The young lovers’ duet end with the following words: “Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein, daß wir zwei beieinander sein, beieinand für alle Zeit und Ewigkeit!” The overly optimistic tone strikes a dark echo, because the fairytale of the Rosenkavalier is not one that lasts, rather, it is simply an illusion, like time that slips through Marschallin’s fingers, this world is coming to an end.
I was sitting there, being left completely dazed by the powerful and tear-inducing final trio. This is opera at its finest, which only comes out in a live performance like this one. The ending of Der Rosenkavalier, when almost everything vanishes on the sage, brought my thoughts back to Hofmannsthal’s das Gleitende again. How different it is to see this story taking place in Hofmannsthal’s time, at the looming of crisis, in a society of value vacuum, when the comic turns out to be more tragic than ever? Then at that moment it dawned on me, how poignant the message of art could be, for now and for always.