Major Operas | Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century
For the follow-up to Elektra, Strauss declared he wanted to write a Mozart opera. Despite Hofmannsthal’s protests about a light, Renaissance subject set in the past, the librettist soon came up with a scenario that delighted Strauss.
The correspondence between librettist and composer was good-natured and respectful. Each made suggestions to the other and the work gradually took shape between 1908 and 1910. The result was a bitter-sweet comedy of social observation. Hofmannsthal’s detailed text enabled Strauss to create a ravishingly detailed musical world, remarkable for its detail as much as for its symphonic sweep.
Even this work was not without its problems in rehearsal. Showing Octavian and the Marschallin in bed was thought to be obscene and Hofmannsthal was forced come up with alternatives. What seemed to cause no problems was the now-famous musical orgasm that opens the work before revealing Octavian and the Marschallin luxuriating in each other’s company. The premiere in Dresden in 1911 was an astonishing success. Fifty more performances took place in Dresden alone and the opera had flashed across Germany in weeks. It remains Strauss’s best-loved opera; its vitality, wit and beauty never fail to entice the listener into its seductive world.
After an active night, the Marschallin is relaxing in bed with her young lover, Count Octavian Rofrano. She has been dreaming that she heard her husband coming home. Now there are noises outside. It is her cousin Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau. Octavian emerges from hiding dressed as a maid. Ochs greets the Marschallin as graciously as his manners allow, but is distracted by the pretty maid. He is to marry Sophie, the daughter of Faninal, a wealthy merchant newly ennobled, and wants the Marschallin to recommend a nobleman to act as the ‘Knight of the Rose’ and deliver the ceremonial silver rose to his betrothed. She suggests Octavian and shows him a miniature that looks remarkably like ‘Mariandel’, the maid he has been trying to proposition. He naturally supposes that she is an illegitimate Rofrano, much like his own bastard servant, Leopold. Petitioners and trades-people enter for the Marschallin’s levee. Ochs interrupts a tenor’s singing and the Marschallin dismisses everyone. Valzacchi and Annina, two scheming Italians, offer to discover more about ‘Mariandel’ for Ochs. His boorish behaviour has upset the Marschallin, who recalls how she was forced into an arranged marriage. Octavian reappears in his own clothes. She is feeling the passage of time and describes how she sometimes stops all the clocks. She gently tries to tell him that one day he will leave her for a girl of his own age. Too late she realizes she has not kissed him goodbye and sends her page Mohammed to deliver the rose to him.
Sophie is excitedly waiting for the Knight of the Rose to arrive. Octavian appears, richly dressed, and makes the presentation. They are immediately attracted....
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