Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Premiere: Royal Opera House, Dresden, 1911
Strauss’s most popular opera was an instant success at its premiere, earning a secure spot in the repertory that has not wavered in the 100 years since. Set in an idealized Vienna of the mid-18th century, it concerns a wise woman of the world who is involved with a much younger lover. Over the course of the opera, she is forced to confront and ultimately accept the laws of time, giving him up to a pretty young heiress. Octavian, the “Knight of the Rose” of the title, is sung by a woman—partly as an homage to Mozart’s Cherubino, and partly as a nod to the power of illusion, which emerges as an important theme in the opera. Strauss’s frequent collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, created a fascinating libretto that deftly combines comedy (of both the sophisticated and the slapstick varieties), dreamy nostalgic fantasy, genuine human drama, and light but striking touches of philosophy and social commentary. Strauss’s magnificent score, likewise, works on several levels, combining the refinement of Mozart with the epic grandeur of Wagner. The result is a unique achievement: a grand opera that is as vast and complex as it is humane and charming.
Richard Strauss (1864–1949) composed an impressive body of orchestral works and songs before turning to opera. After two early failures, Salome (1905) caused a theatrical sensation, and the balance of his long career was largely dedicated to the stage. His next opera, Elektra (1909), was his first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1929), a partnership that became one of the most remarkable in theater history. Hofmannsthal emerged as an author and poet within the fervent intellectual atmosphere of Vienna at the turn of the last century. Their personalities were very different—Hofmannsthal enjoyed the world of abstract ideas, while Strauss was famously simple in his tastes—which makes their collaboration all the more extraordinary.
The opera takes place in Vienna in the 1740s. Genuine historical references (to the Empress Maria Theresa, the wars in the Low Countries, and the Imperial “Morals Police”) are merged with fictitious inventions (like the “noble custom” of the presentation of the silver rose to a fiancée, which never actually existed) and anachronisms (like the Viennese Waltz, which did not yet exist at that time). It’s a mixture that creates a seductive mythical landscape, a ceremonious and impossibly beautiful Vienna-that-never-was.
The score of Der Rosenkavalier is lush, rich, and romantic to an extraordinary degree—perhaps surprisingly so, considering that the composer had written the disturbingly edgy and modern Elektra only two years earlier. The presentation of the rose, with its soaring vocal lines sprinkled with flute chords reflecting the shimmering of the silver rose (a motif that reappears with renewed poignancy at the very end) is ravishingly beautiful. Waltzes are heard frequently, sometimes bumptious, sometimes elegant: the Baron’s musings at the end of Act II are both. In fact, the relationship between the banal and the sublime is part of the story being told through the music as well as the libretto: the clunky tune of the tavern music in the earlier part of Act III later on assumes a different texture and becomes the famous final trio, a gorgeous blend of female voices that is among the supreme accomplishments of lyric theater. The score also contains comic depictions of chaos and confusion, like the various characters competing for the Marschallin’s attention in Act I, the skirt-chasing lackeys of Act II, and, most of all, the screaming children and ghostly apparitions of Act III. The seemingly effortless musical craft of these passages masks the fact that the score is devilishly difficult to perform, ranked by instrumentalists among the most demanding in the repertory.
Der Rosenkavalier at the Met
Alfred Hertz conducted the 1913 U.S. premiere of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, starring Frieda Hempel as the Marschallin. Maria Jeritza, a favorite soprano of both Strauss and Puccini, was a dazzling Octavian in the 1920s, and Lotte Lehmann, who had worked extensively with Strauss in Europe, was the reigning Marschallin from 1935 to 1945. The 1949 Opening Night broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier in the then-new medium of television featured Risë Stevens as Octavian, Eleanor Steber as the Marschallin, and the debut of Erna Berger as Sophie. Régine Crespin made her Met debut as the Marschallin in 1962 in a revival directed by Lotte Lehmann, and in 1964 Elisabeth Schwarzkopf made her only Met appearances as the Marschallin. The current production had its premiere in 1969 with Karl Böhm conducting Leonie Rysanek, Walter Berry, Reri Grist, and Christa Ludwig. Its 1976 run marked the Met debut of Tatiana Troyanos on the same night that Luciano Pavarotti made his first of 15 appearances as the Italian Singer and James Levine conducted the opera for the first time at the Met. Carlos Kleiber led seven performances during the 1990–91 season. The current run celebrates the 100th anniversary of the U.S. premiere.