Online opera guide and synopsis to Strauss’ DER ROSENKAVALIER
The Rosenkavalier offers music lovers two of the most sublime scenes in the entire opera literature. The presentation of the silver rose and the closing scene are to be mentioned. Like Mozart, Strauss was a composer for female voices and with this opera he created with the Marschallin, Sophie and Octavian three immortal roles for sopranos. The three different female leading roles were often played by the same singers throughout their careers: Octavian and Sophie at a young and middle age, the Marschallin in more mature years.
Overview and quick access
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren (Presentation of the rose)
♪ Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein (Final duetto)
Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in collaboration with Harry Graf Kessler, inspired by various works..
The main roles
Marschallin, wife of the Marschall (soprano) - Octavian, youthful cousin of the Marschallin (mezzo-soprano) - Herr von Faninal, rich bourgeois businessman ((baritone) - Sophie, his daughter (soprano) - Ochs von Lerchenau, baron and fiancé of Sophie (bass).
EMI, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Otto Edelmann, Christa Ludwig and Teresa Stich-Randall conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra..
Roles and Synopsis
Der Rosenkavalier is the first work created jointly by Strauss and Hofmansthal from the the very beginning. When Hofmansthal had the plot ready, he dispensed with a prose text and designed the work from the beginning as a libretto.
Hofmansthal may be called the true creator of this the story, even though he borrowed from various oeuvres such as Moliere’s “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, Khevenhüller and many mor. The great personalities of the Marschallin, vom Ochs or Octavian were inspired by various models, but in the end they were Hofmannsthal’s own creations.
“In 1927, Hofmannsthal wrote a preface to the Rosenkavalier, which by this time had already become the most successful piece of the collaboration with Strauss. According to him, the scenario was created in March 1909 in Weimar in conversation with his friend Harry Graf Kessler, to whom the first edition is also dedicated. The friendship between Kessler and Hofmannsthal almost broke up at this dedication. Kessler, who (presumably rightly) estimated his share in the creation of the work to be higher than Hofmannsthal would admit, insisted on the term “collaborator”, whereas in the first version Hofmannsthal had apostrophized him only as “Assistant”. Hofmannsthal finally struggled to find a way to formulate it: “I dedicate this comedy to Count Harry Kessler, whose cooperation it owes so much. H. H.” (Wikipedia)
Richard Strauss’ compositional technique
Richard Strauss gave a detailed interview to the English newspaper “daily mail” and used the Rosenkavalier as an example to describe his approach to composing an opera: “Before I make even the smallest sketch of an opera, I allow the text to linger and mature in my mind for at least six months, so that I am completely familiar with the characters and situations. Then, and only then, does my brain begin to engage with the music. Then the brief sketches are worked out more broadly; they are written out and set for piano and reworked, often several times. This is the most difficult part of the work. The abbreviated score (the partticell) and the orchestral coloring that follows are recreation for me. I then write the full score in my studio without any excitement, working twelve hours a day on it. In this way my work becomes a homogeneous whole, and that is the main thing”. http://biganzoli.info/de/Der_Rosenkavalier_files/Rosenkavalier_Prog.pdf, program booklet Landestheater Eisenach.
Strauss and Hofmansthal sensed early on that a masterpiece was being created. While composing, the composer wrote to the librettists: “My work flows like the Loisach (a creek near his house), I compose everything with skin and hair. Tomorrow I will already begin with the Lever (the first act)”. In fact, only 18 months passed from Hofmansthal’s first sketches of the plot to the premiere on January 26, 1911, at the Dresden Court Opera.
The proximity to Mozart’s Figaro
After Elektra and Salome, Strauss was eager to create for once a cheerful work. Hofmansthal already had a subject (“Cristina’s Journey Home”), but soon they switched to the new subject and called it “Ochs von Lerchenau” at the beginning. It was set in Maria Theresia’s Vienna of the 1740s and was inspired by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the two called it “our Figaro”, because the parallels between the two works are obvious. Especially the parallels between the persons e.g. the Countess and the Marshaless, Cherubino and Octavian are striking.
The role of Octavian
Octavian has a tremendous stage presence. He is on stage almost non-stop and is the main partner and coveted object for all three other leading roles. It is the longest role and he sings the first and last word. If this is not demanding enough, he has to balance a double masquerade: a soprano who plays a young man pretending to be a young woman.
In spite of the historicizing nature of the piece, two things are pure inventions of the creative duo. Firstly, the Rose Ritual never existed and secondly, waltz music did not yet exist in the time of Maria-Theresa, the music was an invention of 19th century bourgeois Vienna.
Many of Strauss’ artist colleagues could not believe it. How could Strauss write such a backward-looking work. Otto Klemperer simply called it “sugar water”. After the avant-garde works “Elektra” and “Salome”, the world of avant-garde artists saw it as a relapse into a world they had believed to be behind them. It was Strauss’ return to the musical realm of the tonal and from then on Strauss was branded by the avant-garde as a “conservative”. Strauss had made up his mind: he did not want to go the way of Webern, Schönberg or Stravinsky.
The audience did not care much about this criticism and the opera was enthusiastically received from the very beginning. In the end, even Klemperer could not escape the charm of the work and years later conducted the masterpiece himself in the opera house.
The total work of art of the premiere
The outstanding stage designer Alfred Roller (whose collaboration with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera from 1903 on can be called congenial) was engaged early on to design the sets and figures. His stage designs and the stage direction book he developped (and in some cases threw replaced Strauss’ and Hofmannsthals directions) were expressly accepted by the creators and are still setting standards today and influence all productions of this opera. Worthy of mention are his style-defining rococo motifs of Vienna of the 1740s, the time of Maria Theresa, who for the audience of the premiere stood for the heyday of the Habsburg monarchy, whose scenery Roller recreated in meticulous detail.
The stage rehearsals for the premiere were supervised by none other than Max Reinhardt, who was hired at Strauss’ request, whose name was possibly not mentioned at the premiere for anti-Semitic reasons.
The premiere itself was conducted by Ernst von Juch, who was highly esteemed by Strauss. Strauss gave many instructions by letter and also conducted several rehearsals personally in the weeks before the premiere.
Although the work was praised by critics , the libretto was sometimes described as impure and humorless. The audience, however, was enraptured and the echo was so enormous that Rosenkavalier special trains were used from Berlin to Dresden.
DER ROSENKAVALIER ACT I
The night of love
Synopsis: It is morning, the Marschallin is in her bed chamber with her young lover Octavian. The field marshal is absent and she enjoys the time with her young cousin, whom she affectionately calls Quinquin.
Moving music describes their stormy night of love. Two motives are heard in the orchestra, a masculine (dotted, wind) and a feminine (lyrical, string) motive. This scene caused controversy from the beginning. The constellation was seen as delicate and the scene was changed from the very first performance. Strauss was annoyed by this and repeatedly presented the opera houses with Opportunimus.
Introduktion – Solti
Synopsis: Octavian lies with the Marshaless and is torn between love and jealousy.
This scene heated the minds for many years. While Mozart’s Cherubino only fantasized about sex. Octavian actually had it. Adultery, same-sex love and eroticism on stage were taboos. Especially the bed, as a symbol of the night of love, became the apple of discord. Strauss had to resignedly realize that even at the premiere and still 20 years later, the bed was left out in most performances in favor of a sofa.
Wie Du warst, wie Du bist – Schwarzkopf/Ludwig
Synopsis: When a ringing bell announces the arrival of a servant, Octavian quickly hides behind a screen. When he is gone, the two have breakfast.
Marie Theres, Octavian – Jones / Ludwig
Synopsis: The Marschallin tells of her dream that the Feldmarschall had returned from his inspection tour in Croatia. There she hears noise from outside, panic-stricken she suspects the arrival of her husband. She quickly hides Octavian behind the curtain.
Der Feldmarschall sitzt im krowatischen Wald – Schwarzkopf / Ludwig
Octavian disguises as Mariandl
Synopsis: But false alarm, it is only a visit. Octavian comes out of hiding, he has disguised himself as servant Mariandl in order to leave the room unrecognized.
Quinquin, es ist ein Besuch – Schwarzkopf / Ludwig
Synopsis: The arriving persons turns out to be the corpulent Baron Ochs. When he enters, he clashes with the leaving “Mariandl” and immediately begins to flirt with the supposed servant. The Marschallin offers him a chair. Ochs tells of his marriage plans, which he pursues not least for financial reasons. The chosen one is Sophie von Faninal, a 15-year-old girl, daughter of a rich bourgeois army supplier who owns the estates formerly belonging to the Ochs family. The Baron asks the Marschallin to name a Rosenkavalier, who, according to tradition, will deliver the traditional silver engagement rose to Sophie. While Och is telling this story, he flirts incessantly with the supposed servant and wants to win her for a rendezvous right away. The Marschallin listens to the Baron’s wish and is amused by the Baron’s clumsy advances.
A beautiful short trio with waltzes shows the baron as a wanna-be lady-killer.
Hat sie schon einmal mit einem Kavalier im tête-a-tête zu Abend gegessen
Synopsis: The Marschallin wants to play a trick on Octavian and has him fetch a medallion with his face. She shows it to Ochs and suggests him Count Rofrano, as the Rosenkavalier. Ochs recognizes the stupendous resemblance to Mariandl and is delighted with the noble gentleman.
Wollen Euer Gnaden leicht den jungen Herrn – Fleming / Rydl / von Otter
The Italian Aria
Synopsis: Now a woman with orphans, a hairdresser, the notary and various petitioners enter. The Marschallin has her hair done while listening to the petitioners. A singer, who was sent to her by an admirer appears, and performs an aria for her.
A flutist opens the musical performance on stage in front of the Marschallin. Soon a beautifully languishing solo cello takes the leading role in the accompanying orchestra, whose mood is dark and low, so that the tenor’s voice stands out brilliantly in the high register. This aria is a cabinet piece, but also dreaded. The line of the aria is demanding and the short piece does not allow him a second chance, so it is enormously exposed.
The most famous interpretation is probably by Luciano Pavarotti.
Di rigori armato il seno – Pavarotti
You will hear a second recording with the beautiful silver of Wunderlich’s voice.
Synopsis: The audience ends abruptly when Ochs quarrels with the notary, who refuses to stipulate dishonest demands of the baron in the wedding contract. The baron angrily hands over the silver rose to the Marschallin and leaves the castle. The Marschallin remains alone in the room, angry at the old baron’s presumption to grab a young girl. She looks at herself in a mirror and falls into melancholy memories of her own youth.
It is the melancholy scene of a woman who never had the chance to experience the happiness of love in her marriage.
Listen to this scene with the greatest Marschallin of the interwar period, Lotte Lehmann. Her legato and her articulation of the text were stupendous. In 1932 they wanted to make a complete recording with her under the direction of Strauss. For financial reasons (Strauss’ business sense was legend) this did not come off and Heger conducted a partial recording with Lotte Lehmann.
Da geht er hin, der aufgeblasene schlechte Kerl – Lehmann
Die Zeit ist ein sonderbares Ding (Time is a strange thing)
Synopsis: Octavian has returned and meets her in this sad mood. She asks him not to be like all men. Octavian is irritated and swears his love for her. But the Marschallin knows that sooner or later Quinquin will leave her for a younger one.
This famous piece is set in a slow dance music that appears in the gloomy dress of the minor key. This contrast between the cheerful rhythm and the gloomy mood is what makes this piece so charming. It is the depth of the role of the Marschallin that gives the Rosenkavalier the profundity that it raises above the aristocratic farce. The Marschallin is an “alter ego” of the Countess from Mozart’s marriage to Figaro, one almost thinks the Countess has awakened again.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf is often referred to as the Marschallin (and not by chance also as the Countess). No other singer has embodied this role like her. Her interpretation of the Marschallin is introverted but sensual. Each of her notes seems to be deliberately set (which earned her the accusation of “artificiality”). The music producer and Schwarzkopf’s husband Walter Legge urged her to perfect a handful of operas rather than always having a better competitor for dozens of them. “Schwarzkopf had prepared the role for years with Walter Legge and rehearsed it for the Scala premiere with Herbert von Karajan for a month, “often ten or twelve hours a day”. (Kesting, Great Singers).
When she left the stage in 1971, it was no coincidence that she sang this nostalgic monologue in her last program. We hear this passage from the “legendary” 1959 recording by Herbert von Karajan, which became a reference recording for many.
Die Zeit ist ein sonderbares Ding – Schwarzkopf
Christa Ludwig was another great Marschallin. She sang the role in a recording by Leonard Bernstein, which was completely different from Karajan’s recording (in which Ludwig sang Octavian). Ludwig has a more opulent voice than her colleague, especially in the low and middle registers.
Die Zeit ist ein sonderbares Ding – Ludwig
We hear this key aria of the Marschallin in a third recording with Renee Fleming. The Marschallin is/was perhaps the most important role of her career. Her dark, almost smoky voice gives the role a special melancholy character.
Die Zeit ist ein sonderbares Ding – Fleming
Synopsis: Octavian urges her to tell him if she wants him gone. The Marschallin now asks him to leave. When he is gone, she immediately regrets it and sends the footmen to fetch him back, but Octavian is already gone.
DER ROSENKAVALIER ACT II
Synopsis: In the salon of the Lord of Faninal, who ceremonially bids farewell to his daughter Sophie, who excitedly awaits the arrival of the Rosenkavalier. When he is gone, Sophie looks out of the window at the proud six-man carriage from which the Cavalier of the Rose in silver dress emerges and enters her house.
In dieser feierlichen Stunde – Donath
The presentation of the rose – the enraptured love duet
Synopsis: He solemnly announces the Baron’s wish to marry and hands over the silver-plated rose. When Sophie smells the perfumed rose, their eyes meet and they feel as if electrified by the sudden love at first sight.
The music reaches a climax when the Rose Cavalier enters. Accompanied by heavenly strings and a beautiful clarinet melody, the Rosenkavalier announces his message. The music raptures as Sophie smells the rose, which Octavian has perfumed with Persian rose oil, and the eyes of the two meet. A magnificent love duet unfolds as bliss grips the two of them.
This scene belongs to the greatest that opera literature has to offer. Strauss makes harps, celesta and first violins sound ecstatic. He is at the height of his mastery of tone painting; one can literally feel the feelings of love and almost smell the scent of rose oil.
We hear this passage in two recordings. We begin with a legendary Carlos Kleiber recording. No opera had the peculiar Kleiber conducted more than the Rosenkavalier, (whose first valid recording was by Kleiber’s father Erich). But Carlos refused to enter the recording studio, so the recordings were taken from a later released television recording (1972) or from a video production. We hear the production from 1979 with the Octavian by Brigitte Fassbaender, one of the great Octavians which became perhaps her signature role, whose voice has a rich, velvety soft sound. Her partner in this scene was Lucia Popp. Fantastic how she climbs the high D (2:30) and lets Fassbaender melt next to her (look at her look).
Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren Fassbaender / Popp
The second recording is from the aforementioned Kleiber-Seniors production. Sena Jurinac was another of the great Octavians of history and her recording in this production is one of the greatest. Kesting called it “pure sensory magic”. (Kesting, Great voices)
Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren Jurinac / Güden
DER ROSENKAVALIER ACT II
Synopsis: The servants withdraw and the two sit down on the sofa and start a conversation. While Sophie chats and tells what she knows about the him, Octavian only has eyes for her.
Ich kenn ihn doch recht wohl – Stich-Randall / Ludwig
Sophie is apalled when she meets her future husband
Synopsis: Faninal leads Baron von Ochs into the salon, where the Baron arrogantly wants to explore the conversational arts of his future wife. Sophie sees her future wife for the first time and is shocked by his appearance and behavior. Octavian is overwhelmed with disgust and shame and only wants to leave, while Faninal almost bursts with pride over the noble son-in-law. Sophie is disgusted by his clumsiness and resists his advances.
Strauss lets the Baron enter with a swank march, and a sextet develops.
Jetzt kommt aber mein Herr Zukünftiger
Ochs’ insinuating song
Synopsis: The baron does not let himself be put off and confidently prophesies that she will calm down after the wedding night.
Accompanied by a pleasant Viennese waltz, Ochs’ sings his favorite music to which he sings a clumsy, suggestive text::
„Mit mir, mit mir keine Kammer Dir zu klein,
ohne mich, ohne mich jeder Tag Dir so bang,
mit mir, mit mir keine Nacht dir zu lang».
With me, with me, no room too smalll for you,
without me, without me, every day a misery
with me, with me no night too long for you.
Wird kommen über Nacht – Edelmann
Synopsis: The Baron and Faninal go to the neighboring room to discuss the contract. Octavian approaches Sophie and asks her if she really wants to marry the oaf. Sophie asks him for help, while in the background Ochs’ drunken lackeys are hasing the maids. Octavian wants to help her, but she has to make the first step. What that is, Sophie asks. She must first confess her love for him, says Octavian, and the two fall into each other’s arms.
Mit ihren Augen voll Tränen – Kirchschläger / Persson
Synopsis: The two were observed by Valzacchi and Annina and summon the baron. The Baron confronts Sophie, who is speechless, so Octavian speaks it out: she does not like him. The Baron wipes the argument away and wants to take Sophie to the adjacent room to sign the marriage contract. Octavian and the Baron get into an argument that ends in a sword duel, in which the Baron is slightly injured in the arm and theatrically calls he has been murdered. Faninal enters and recognizes the embarrassment of Sophie’s refusal. He sends the Rosenkavalier away and threatens to put Sophie forever in the convent, by force if necessary. Faninal lets the doctored baron rest, who recovering with the help of wine. He happily takes note of a letter that Anna has handed over to him, which is said to have come from Mariandl. It is an invitation to a rendezvous in a hotel. Annina demands a reward, which the baron denies her. But she has already made common cause with Octavian and announces with a gesture behind his back that she will soon take revenge for his stinginess.
The music is playing again a pleasant waltz, which means Ochs is feeling better again. Accompanied by languishing upbeats, the Ochs sings his credo. In the ¾ bar the second act merrily ends.
DER ROSENKAVALIER ACT III
The Masquerade scene in the inn
Synopsis: Mariandl alias Octavian is in the inn where she has ordered the baron. He and Valzacchi have faked the meeting to teach the baron a proper lesson. When Ochs appears, he and Mariandl are taken to an adjoining room where the two of them will dine. With wine he tries to make the girl submissive. When Ochs wants to kiss Mariandl, he thinks for a moment he recognizes Octavian and is startled, but quickly recovers. At the second attempt, a trapdoor suddenly opens and the head of an extra appears, making Ochs think he sees ghosts. When faces peek out of the oven and mirrors, he gets terror-stricken. When he rings the bell and calls for the staff, Annina appears as a disguised widow with four children and claims that he is her husband. Now the scene gets out of control and the commotion can even be heard on the street whereupon the police appears. In this compromising situation the baron tries to save himself by pretending to be with his wife Sophie. Meanwhile, the summoned Faninal has arrived, who indignantly goes to fetch Sophie, who is waiting in the carriage. Ochs tries to leave secretly and is arrested when Mariandl alias Octavian whispers something to the police commissioner. Mariandl goes behind a curtain and hands over his women’s clothes to the amused commissioner. At this moment the Marschallin enters. Octavian reveals himself to her and explains the masquerade. She sends everyone away, only Octavian, Sophie, the baron and the marschallin remain in the room. The Baron is glad about the appearance of the Marschallin and hopes to be rescued by her. Now the masquerade ends and the baron recognizes the game. The Marschallin asks the Baron to forgo Sophie. The Baron has realized that Octavian is the Marschallin’s lover, who was in her room disguised as a maid. Once again, the baron tries to save himself with the threat of revelation, but then everyone storms in and presses the baron. He realizes that he has lost the game and flees the restaurant. Sophie, Octavian and the Marshal remain behind. The marshal realizes that she must let Octavian go. Ashamed of the scandal, Sophie wants to leave to help her father.
Inn scene (00.00 – 44.00)
The ecstatic final Terzetto
Synopsis: Embarassed, Octavian stands between the two women. The marschallin asks Sophie to stay, the moment has come to say goodbye to Octavian.
In this terzetto the comedy turns into the drama of the Marshallin, whose pain of parting from her youth and her love to Octavian grips the listener and contrasts with the vibrating love of Octavian and Sophie. Soon after, the Marschallin falls silent and the trio becomes a duet.
This scene is one of the most magnificent trios in opera literature. Heavenly music, farewell and pain, combined with the trembling love of Octavian and Sophie create great emotions.
For many, Carlos Kleiber’s interpretations were the “Gospel of the Rosenkavalier”. Listen to this piece taken from the 1979 production.
Final Terzetto – Jones / Fassbaender / Popp
A second version from a 1984 Salzburg production with a melancholy Marschallin (Tomowa-Sintow).
Marie Theres’, hab’ mir’s gelobt – Tomowa-Sintow / Baltsa / Perry
A poignant concert version with Claudio Abbado at the podium.
Fleming / von Stade / Battle
The dreamlike “dream-duet”
Synopsis: The two realize that they are made for each other. The Marschallin fetches Faninal, who approves of the union of the two as joining the lovers. Blissfully the two fall into each other’s arms and leave the house together.
Hofmansthal feared that his long textes of the final scene would annoy the listeners, but Strauss used the length to write unforgettable music. The opera ends with a magnificent duet, which Strauss did not set to music in Wagnerian intoxicating tones, but in Mozartian harmony and regularity, accompanied by a restrained orchestra.
Once more time, the orchestra blossoms before the beginning of the repetition of “Ist ein Traum” with a magnificent climax that makes one forget the melancholy of the Marschallin.
We hear the final duet from the Erich Kleiber recording with the dream duo Hilde Güden and Sena Jurinac.
Ist ein Traum, kann nicht wirklich sein – Güden / Jurinac
EMI, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Otto Edelmann, Christa Ludwig, Teresa Stich-Randall conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Philharmonia Chorus & Orchestra
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on DER ROSENKAVALIER by Richard Strauss.