Der Rosenkavalier at 100

Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden on January 26, 1911. That makes it 100 years old this year, and it's been 100 years of unmitigated success on recording, on video, and of course, in theaters around the world. It's still one of Strauss's most popular operas. The opera is much-praised for its witty libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthahl, it beautiful vocal writing for the female voice, and some justly famous set-pieces -- the Marscallin's monologue on aging, the Presentation of the Rose, the waltz melody, and of course the trio near the end of the opera. I know opera fans who cry every time they hear "Marie Therese."

I find however that my appreciation of Der Rosenkavalier has lessened over the years, and the opera feels falser, more artificial, less moving, than when I was a newbie and swooned at the Trio and Presentation of the Rose. And some things about the opera I cannot tolerate at all anymore -- namely, the long scenes of Ochs being a boor in various scenes -- all three acts feature him being a total pig, and the fact that I think audiences are supposed to find it funny lessens my appreciation of the opera, because I never find any of the Ochs scenes funny. The middle part of Act One is bogged down with "scenes from the Marschallin's life" that I no longer find interesting either. I think I've fallen out of love with Der Rosenkavalier, even though I find parts of it still very beautiful and charming. What's happened to me?


Maybe one problem is that while I've heard plenty of lovely recordings of Der Rosenkavalier, my experiences in the house with this opera have been very disappointing. I've heard some good performances in Der Rosenkavalier (Susan Graham as Oktavian, for instance), but never a good overall performance. The first time I heard the opera in 2005 the Marscallin was a dry-voiced, dull Angela Denoke. The second time I heard the trio of Renee Fleming, Miah Persson, and Susan Graham, with Kristinn Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs. It was a terminally dull evening. The Ochs scenes seemed to go on even longer than I remembered, and by the time the Trio rolled around I no longer cared about Quinquin, the Marschallin, or Sophie.

A great live performance can make you hear accents and details that eluded you in a recording -- I don't think I ever "got" Salome until I saw Karita Mattila stand before a curtain, drained and pale, after an absolutely demented performance in 2004. I don't think I ever understood Giselle until Diana Vishneva made me realize that Giselle was not just a pretty Romantic ballet, but with the right dancers could be hair-raising theater. I'll never forget Vishneva's stern wraith of Act Two, her eyes darkened with black eyeshadow, her skirts flying every direction, as she stared down Myrtha and really sent a chill down my spine. Maybe one day I'll experience a great performance of Der Rosenkavalier and it will help me love the opera again.

But although I've never had a great live Rosenkavalier, I've heard plenty of greatness on recordings and videos. Der Rosenkavalier is the perfect opera for recording or video. First of all, the trio of female characters tend to be cast with the kind of voices who are extremely phonogenic -- bright, silvery, lyric. For Ochs, hearty basses (maybe the most phonogenic fach of all). Large voices, thick, trumpety voices, voices with heavy vibratos or unusual timbres, often translate poorly to the recording medium. In contrast, performance history has favored very pretty, straight-toned lyric sopranos and mezzos for Rosenkavalier. There are exceptions of course. Elisbaeth Schwarzkopf was often chided for not having a very beautiful voice, and she was a famous Marschallin, Lotte Lehmann had a wonderfully throbbing, warm voice that I suspect sounded even warmer and more enveloping in the theater.

Another aspect of Der Rosnenkavalier casting tradition tends to make it the perfect video opera -- "lookism" in casting is ingrained for Rosenkavalier. Not a surprise that many of the most famous exponents of this opera (especially Marschallin and Sophie) were also just as noted for their physical beauty -- Eleanor Steber, Jarmila Novotna, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa della Casa, Kiri te Kanawa, Hilde Gueden, Anneliese Rothenberger, Lucia Popp, Barbara Bonney, Sena Jurinac, and today, Elina Garanca, Miah Persson, Anne Schwanewilms were/are all beautiful singers with beautiful faces and handsome figures. I recently watched Kultur's rerelease of the 1961 film with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Sena Jurinac, and Anneliese Rothenberger and was amazed at how beautiful the women looked. Not just "opera beautiful," but flat out beautiful. Close-ups of many opera singers are fatal -- people see the sweat, the strain, the plain faces. But Der Rosenkavalier usually has such attractive singers, and calls for such "subtle" acting, that the camera loves this opera.

Here's a march through the beauty contest over the years:
Gueden, della Casa, Jurinac

Jarmila Novotna
Elisabeth Scwarzkopf
Anneliese Rothenberger and Jurinac
Miah Persson and Kristinn Sigmundsson


Lucia Popp
Elina Garanca

The music and libretto of Der Rosenkavalier also lend themselves well to recording. Often, operas with larger-than-life emotions and music seem heavy-handed under the scrutiny of the microphone or video camera. There is practically no way, for instance, for the video camera to capture the larger-than-life spectacle of Aida. But in Der Rosenkavalier, a premium is placed on subtlety, wit, charm, graciousness. The opera despite the famous moments has an intimate, conversational feel. There are lines in the libretto that resonate with a kind of Chekhovian truth, as when the Marschallin remarks, "Es sind die mehreren Dinge auf der Welt, so dass sie ein's nicht glauben tät', wenn man sie möcht' erzählen hör'n. Alleinig wer's erlebt, der glaubt daran und weiss nicht wie." Which translates roughly to, "Most things in life we don't believe until it happens to us, and then we believe it." On video and recording, one can also skip through the parts that are often tiresome in a theater -- I often skip through much of Baron Ochs' music, and most of Act Three up until the Marschallin's entrance in the tavern. Der Rosenkavalier is definitely an opera that many even so-called "diehards" fast-forward.

I have a lot of recordings I appreciate -- the Erich Kleiber recording, and on video, I have five of them and I like them all. I have to single out Eleanor Steber, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Hilde Gueden, Maria Reining, Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, Lucia Popp, Sena Jurinac, Anneliese Rothenberger, Lisa della Casa, and in recent years, Susan Graham for being particularly outstanding exponents of this opera. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's film is a marvel -- I often cringe at her husky, throaty voice, but her understanding of this role is miraculous. The way she makes Marie Therese a slightly cold and bitter woman, increased my understanding of this opera. Marschallin is often played for sentimentality, and that's something Schwarzkopf eschews stubbornly. When she drops her mirror at the end of Act One she really depicts a woman contemplating not only age, but loneliness. Der Rosenkavalier tends to bring out the best in its female singers. The list of memorable singers in Der Rosenkavalier is long and illustrious.

Yet none of this is enough to make me love the opera as a whole. I actually do not dislike the character of Ochs -- I feel as if his famous waltz tune gives him a kind of rascally charm and joie de vivre that I wish more Ochs would portray. I also find his repeated refrain of the waltz tune oddly poignant -- it's a deliberately sentimental tune, and it suggests depths to the character that Hofmannsthal himself perhaps was unwilling to explore. The issue with Ochs is that the stage business with him goes on for too long. He really is a character who wears out his welcome. Another issue is that when I think about the opera , it's really just a drawing room comedy. The fact that even with the traditional stage cuts it goes on for over 3 hours without intermissions I feel is overindulgence on the part of both Strauss and von Hofmannsthal -- both of them patting themselves on the back, one with "oh look how heavenly and charming is my music," and the other with "oh look how witty and wonderful is my libretto."

None of these reservations detracts from the famously beautiful parts of Der Rosenkavalier, but I also feel as if perhaps the "good parts" are so sublime that many opera lovers have a blind spot to this opera. They cry loudly during the trio, they swoon at how wonderful and gracious the Marschallin is, and so on and so forth. But ... let's face it? When was the last time someone really enjoyed the long stretches of Act Three? When was the last time Act Two didn't feel like it went on for way too long? And isn't the "moral" of the story just a little too precious and pat?

Still, there's no denying the beauty of certain moments of Der Rosenkavalier. So, a happy 100, and maybe sometime in the next 100 years I'll be able to recapture my initial love of the opera.

These are justly the most famous parts of the opera. Enjoy!

Marschallin's Monologue (Schwarzkopf):


Monologue (Lotte Lehmann master class):

Presentation of the Rose (with Lucia Popp and Brigitte Fassbaender):

Presentation of the Rose (Rothenberger and Jurinac):

Baron Ochs' Waltz Song (with Otto Edelmann):


Final trio (with Schwarzkopf, Jurinac and Rothenberger):

Final trio (della Casa, Jurinac, Gueden):

Comments

  1. I think there is more of a tradition in Europe of finding humor in boorishness and/or people afflicted with some developmental disabilities. The stuttering notaries in Italian opera, Vašek in The Bartered Bride and some others are meant to be laughable characters.

    Also, Ochs is presented in very sharp detail, his pawing of Sophie, his coarse "humor" and other vulgarities are uncomfortably close to realism, not like the more stylized Commedia dell'Arte-descended old men who lust after young women for their inheritances in so many Italian operas of the 18th and 19th centuries. He's hard to watch, and he's hard to watch for a considerable period of time.

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  2. Will, you are right, that the specific kind of humor is probably more "European," but I think what is meant to happen is that Ochs is supposed to be a foil to the Marschallin. One ages gracefully, while having a discreet romance with a teen boy, the other makes unwanted advances on teenaged girls. But Strauss and von Hofmannsthal tip the balance too far in Marschallin's favor, so the parallel storyline IMO doesn't work. Also you're right it goes on for way too long.

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  3. Boooooooo!!!. Wrong!! Wrong!! Wrong!!

    Actually, that may be the best thing I've read about Rosenkavalier and agree with it in almost every detail. It can be magical in places, it as almost never so in its entirety and it is intensely performer dependent (in look, demeanor and voice). I do think the role of the conductor is also extremely important.

    While the Trio and Presentation can be magical, of course, I don't know about the "scenes from the Marschallin's life". Indeed, from "Da geht Er hin" to "Wie Sie befiehlt Bischette" can be among the most amzaing 20 minutes in opera.

    Yes, of course, Ochs can be a bore but I would have liked to see Furlanetto give it a shot.

    I agree about the individual Met performances. In 2000 I simply luxuriated in the sound of Fleming's voice and in the moment thought her just about the equal of just about any great historical
    In retrospect I probably give her too much great but it was an amazing look and listen. By contrast I certainly appreciated Graham's beautifully sung and exciting Octavian but did not rate it as highly as I should have.

    Agree about 2005 completely and 2009 to an extent. Fleming's voice, though still beautiful, had certainly deteriorated and more importantly her singing and presentation was somewhat smallish and she failed to impose herself on the performance with the effortless and light yet vigorous command that a good Marschallin need to display. This time, I did really appreciate Graham's superb performance but no, it did not come close to saving the evening.

    Generally, the greatest Octavians have a hard time redeeming an otherwise poor or middling Rosenkavalier and this inability of the title character with the longest role to do seems a fairly serious flaw in the opera. Live, Graham failed to do it in 2009. I've seen Garanca's in every way stunning Octavian on 3 separate (easily her best role - and I'm generally a fan) occasions and even though I was amazed by her performance in each instance it never lifted the entire evening beyond the mediocre (despite the presence of fairly good Marschallin's on 2 occasions).

    By contrast, the presence of a special Marschallin, accompanied by special conducting can make up for almost any other defect. The greatest Rosenkavalier I've experienced live (and while I appreciate and agree with your points about recording, the obviously cannot compete with the real thing) was owned by the most special Marschallin I've seen and heard and superb conducting but had easily the worst Quinquin and Sophie, in the context of the most problematic production and in the lowest profile house in which I've seen the opera.

    I do have to dissent about Schwanewilms, though, and find her rather overrated in the role (and generally). I'm am apparently in a small minority on this.

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  4. Wow marcillac you've written such a good post it should almost be a blog post! I think the issue with Oktavian is that he's essentially a shallow character (as is Sophie). Very few Oktavians can make the opera seem like a real coming-of-age story. He's onstage in almost every scene, so the audience must not only like the voice, they also have to like the performer. Oktavian has to be a mix of randy, good-hearted, naive, sweet, attractive, plucky, etc. It's a lot to demand of a character.

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  5. Leonora di VargasApril 5, 2011 at 7:08 PM

    Dear Ivy
    I really enjoyed your discussion of this opera. This is the first time I've seen your site, and like it VERY much. I too am an opera-loving teacher.

    Thanks for the pictures of Rossini's Count, too, on your site more recently. I'm glad to read a review which focusses on what you liked about it, though it seems odd that people criticize Juan Diego Florez for being accurate.

    I agree with you about Rosenkavalier. I like it much less than I used to, and I really dislike most of the Ochs scenes. I have always told myself that I don't like "German humour" though I don't know if this is fair or not to Germans. However I do like the scene of Ochs after Oktavian wounds him, where he revives after a little drink. This Strauss copied from Verdi (Falstaff), and though it's not as great as Falstaff, the humour is livelier and less plodding than the rest.

    This is one of the few operas to which I mainly listen only to the "highlights": normally I listen to complete operas.

    I also agree that both Hofsmanthal and Strauss could have used an editor, and not only in this opera, though you can't complain that Elektra or Salome are overly long. But I do think in general they took themselves overly seriously and wrote overly long operas.

    I'll be back to read more of your great blog.

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  6. Thanks Leonora! I think that Florez gets "criticism" if it can be called that because year in year out he does his thing, and he's so consistent. So people take him for granted. There's no worry that he won't reach that high C -- he'll hit it dead on. part of opera is excitement and uncertainty. Like the collective clutching of the hands that used to go on whenever Renata Tebaldi tried for a high C.

    As for Rosenkavalier, maybe knowledge of his later operas also dims my appreciation. Particularly Arabella. I think eventually the Strauss music became somewhat formulaic. I enjoy some of his later works, like Ariadne auf Naxos or Daphne. But the "floating" melodies for the soprano, the waltz tunes, the heavy-handed humor, I can see its germination in Der Rosenkavalier.

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