Thursday, September 13, 2012

Der Rosenkavalier - magic at last!

courtesy of Wikipedia
Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier defies many clichés, but its operatic magic prevails against all logic. Such as, "Classical twentieth century music can never be really popular; opera is dead; how can something really be funny in another language” and most importantly, "Too many cooks spoil the broth”. Well, depends on who’s cooking.

courtesy of Wikipedia
The origin of what is still considered the most popular of all modern German operas began in a park in Weimar where the poet-librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Count Harry Kessler sat discussing a scenario for a comic opera. The librettist's partner, Strauss had suggested a Renaissance subject, Hoffmansthal demurred. Perhaps an eighteenth century piece tying together Vienna and the reign of Maria Theresa? Incredibly Kessler suggested a French farce that dealt with a marriage between two unlikely people and a third younger man. And there was a twist of classes, one poorer, one rich and the conflict of town versus country with a pinch of middle class aspirations the story got started. Add money and top off with aristocratic hypocrisy tinged with erotic vulgarity. So far so good, so the conversation continues in Berlin. Hoffmansthal transposes the location to eighteenth century Vienna and made two critical adjustments with Strauss insisting on some important social ritual that ties the cast together; this would be his “invented” creation of a Rose Bearer and the great scene of the Presentation of the Rose. For contrast mix in two opposing couples and visions of love, perhaps even three. The character of the Marschallin, marginal up to this point grew in stature; the original scenario centered on Baron Ochs' search for a lucrative marriage and that inspired the working title was Ochs von Lerchenau. Now, the librettist had drawn inspiration from all these people and many historical, literary, pictorial (satirical British artist William Hogarth’s engravings) and finally, the commedia della arte provided two secondary Italian figures who scheme and double deal throughout. The cast is complete, but how on earth to pull all these diverse elements together in one work? Enter director Max Rheinhardt. Then after all this and endless rewrites and terror at a failed third act, Strauss introduces waltz tempi and sequences of dancing in an eighteenth century setting and suddenly the verses of the final third act are among the greatest ever written for opera: 

Kannst du lachen ? Mir ist zur Stell
Bang wie an der himmelischen Schwell !
Halt mich , ein schwach Ding , wie ich bin ,
Sink’ dir dahin !
Can you smile? At this moment
I am in awe as if I were at the Gate of Heaven!
Hold me, for weak thing that I am,
I ‘m falling !
That we two are together,
For all time and for eternity!

It is at this moment and the transitional music to it in which Strauss' imagination takes wing. After a flood of lyricism with horn accompaniment like the sun rising after a cleansing rain, we are treated to an ethereal and virtuoso soprano trio that then rises even higher as closing duet. Some of the most beautiful ever written for the soprano voice.
What was the response after all this? Something like a cross between a modern movie premiere and a championship soccer match. Tickets sold out and sold out. There were not enough coaches to accommodate the audience (it is 1911 remember) and so special trains have to be diverted to Dresden for the run of the season, I think there were 73 repetitions. There followed orchestral suites, a movie (silent with Strauss soundtrack), chocolates, cigarettes and champagne were marketed bearing the operas title. So lucrative has the opera proved to be at the distance of now over one hundred years that only recently has a court case been settled in which the Hoffmansthal estate finally claimed it part of the century’s proceeds in a judicial ruling between the poet and the composer’s families .
Tune in for this Saturday Afternoon at the Opera for the work whose magic reaches across a century, Strauss’ Der  Rosenkavalier; featuring Te Kanawa, von Otter, Hendricks and true to it’s premiere orchestral ensemble Staatskapelle Dresden and Bernard Haitink. Here at noon on KPAC and KTXI.
by Ron Moore

No comments: