Der Rosenkavalier

Strauss, Richard

album cover

Trysts and Turns of Viennese Aristocracy

Much of the dialogue in Richard Strauss's final opera Capriccio centers on a parlor debate about what's most important in opera—words or music? Strauss wrestled with this question throughout his life, answering at times with grand instrumental flourishes (see Elektra, the work preceding Der Rosenkavalier, previous page) and at other times with chatty duets and trios (for example, see the sister/sister discussion in the first act of Arabella).

A chronicle of the trysts and turns of the Viennese aristocracy, Der Rosenkavalier doesn't put Strauss definitively on the side of words or music. Instead it offers spine-tingling displays of both. The text, by German playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal, has nicely developed characters contending with lust, duplicity, and, occasionally, big, literary ideas. Strauss surrounds them with sumptuously upholstered themes, many strong enough to grab the spot-light as instrumental motifs. (Parts of this have been "adapted" for the symphony orchestra; the key material translates well as a suite of symphonic "songs.")

Strauss was at a crossroads when he began Der Rosenkavalier. On his two previous large works, he'd pushed the envelope, with harmonies that dance on the line dividing tonality and atonality. This time he elected to step back a bit; it's a work of consolidation that aspires to the compactness of his tone poems and the knotty, slow-to-resolve tension of his chamber works. The music is mostly consonant, and there are moments of breathtaking melody—including the closing tableau of Act 1, in which the aristocratic Marschallin, sung lavishly by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, confronts the conflicted reality of her affair with a much younger boy toy.

Marschallin goes missing in the second act, but reappears in the third as a deus ex machina, untangling the relationships and cases of mistaken identity (it's a comic opera, so there's lots of cross-dressing and subterfuge). In the course of this, she participates in a sublime trio with her former beau Octavian (sung by Christa Ludwig) and another aristocratic girl, Sophie (Teresa Stich-Randall), that is among the great culminating moments in opera. As conducted by the great Herbert von Karajan, the section that begins with "Mein Gott" sounds like it was written for these three singers. They establish a precise yet intimate mood, and sustain it throughout their exchanges, while at the same time handling Strauss's technically daunting aerial melodies. Beware: After experiencing this performance of the famous trio, the big flag-waving finales of other operas may seem like empty bluster.

Genre: Opera
Released: 1957, EMI
Key Tracks: Act 1: "Die Zeit"; Act 2: "Herr Baron von Lerchenau!"; Act 3: "Mein Gott."
Another Interpretation: Felicity Lott, Anne Sofie von Otter, Vienna State Opera (Carlos Kleiber, cond.; DVD)
Catalog Choice: Arabella, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Lisa Della Casa, Bavarian State Opera Orchestra (Joseph Keilberth, cond.)
Next Stop: Leonard Bernstein: Candide, Christa Ludwig, Nicolai Gedda, London Symphony Orchestra (Leonard Bernstein, cond.)
Book Page: 749

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