Do any of you readers share a surname with someone famous? Does it ever irk you if you're assumed to be related? I grew up with a girl with the last name of Hitler and let's just say that, kids being what they can be, things were not always easy for the lass. I have to think that that same irksome quality nettled Richard Strauss, no relation to either of the "Waltz Kings," Johann Strauss pere et fils. In fact ever since my first exposure to Richard Strauss' monumental Der Rosenkavalier I have imagined the legendary composer locked away in his studio, pounding out gorgeous 3/4 melody after melody whilst declaiming in German, "I'll show those other Strauss whippersnappers how to write a waltz! This is how you write a waltz!" Of course, no such thing (probably) ever happened, and yet Der Rosenkavalier stands as the one operatic achievement of R. Strauss that has inarguably caught the public's fancy. Much less strident than, say, Salome or Elektra, with an overflowing abundance of ravishing melody, Der Rosenkavalier may at times be a bloated extravaganza, but it's a bloat borne of a master's perfect melding of musical material to form and libretto. This 2007 production by the Dresden State Orchestra (the group which premiered the work in 1911), along with three principals who have sung the piece throughout their careers, was filmed during a concert tour of Japan, where it was greeted with rapturous response by both audiences and critics.
From the first stirring brass work of Rosenkavalier's Prelude, music which could have been lifted whole cloth from "Till Eulenspiegel," you know you're in for a supremely confident and brilliant production. Though Rosenkavalier's stage instructions describe promiscuous activity that supposedly should be played during the music, audiences in Dresden in 1911 weren't allowed to see the supposedly amoral behavior of its lead characters, Princess Marie Therese (the divine Anne Schwanewilms) and her young lover, Octavian (the equally impressive Anke Vondung). (It's instructive to note that Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal utilize the familiar operatic trope of having a woman play a man's role, in this case a mezzo essaying the part of Octavian. It lends a certain sexual ambiguity to the proceedings, which was certainly something they were aware of, something heightened by the fact that Octavian then pretends to be a woman during the course of the opera). At any rate, this production of Der Rosenkavalier doesn't shy away from this portrayal, and we get Marie and Octavian marauding through Marie's bedroom in the moonlight as the Prelude plays out.
What follows is a comedy of manners which actually cloaks some fairly deep examinations of class distinction, the role of women in society and the vagaries of love, especially as one gets older (and most especially if the older one is involved with a much younger one). While Der Rosenkavalier was originally written to mimic and simultaneously critique Rococo mores and social structures, director Uwe Eric Laufenberg transposes the proceedings to a post-World War II era without much degradation of the opera's intent. Marie Therese and Octavian are forced to go "undercover" when Marie's boorish cousin, Count Ochs (Ox in German, in case anyone misses the point), bursts in unexpectedly during the lovers' tryst. Octavian disguises himself as Marie's handmaid, with Ochs lusting after her. Ochs is betrothed to Sophie, but has not yet made a formal proposal, at which point Marie offers Octavian's services to deliver the query. That of course sets up a classic starcrossed lovers scenario, with Sophie and Octavian falling instantly in love.
What sets Der Rosenkavalier apart from mere farce is its melancholy, fin de siecle ethos (despite the opera's premiere in 1911), which fills the stage with a nostalgia and wistfulness that is palpable. Marie Therese is a character who has seen her youth fade and is now caught between the realities of aging, and all that entails, and the excitement of a very young lover, knowing that he's not long for her world. Marie Therese also personifies her Age (capital A) itself, with its resigned look back to a time when everything was clearer and caste roles were well-defined and relatively easy to understand.
What really sets Der Rosenkavalier apart, of course, is Strauss' elegiac music, some of the most lusciously melodic he ever composed. This production is uniformly brilliantly sung by Schwanewilms, Vondung, and bass Kurt Rydl as Ochs. Some productions of Der Rosenkavalier are hampered by the competing high ranges of the two female leads, but Schwanewilms and Vondung work unbelievably well together, delivering, for example, a first act Wie du warst! Wie du bist duet that is unbelievably mellifluous. There is absolutely none of the strident quality to either of these women that can grate at times with Strauss' soaring arias. If Rydl comes off as slightly less focused vocally, he's an appropriately comically befuddled Ochs. In fact all three of these performers, as well as the entire supporting cast, actually act in this production, something that can be quite rare in the grandiose world of opera.
Der Rosenkavalier is often seen as the last great gasp of Romanticism right before it was snuffed out by the twin horrors of World War I and dodecaphony (that's only partially a joke). While it can be approached and even enjoyed as a typical "light" comedy with music (as its authors described it), a peek beneath the surface reveals an unusually deep and tempestuous world of human emotions, all set to some of the most glorious music written for the stage. This admirable production does this great work proud.