It has been said that opera is an acquired taste. Aficionados insist that the serious operagoer must spend years cultivating the fine art of listening in order to appreciate the stratospheric nuances of the music and the performances of the Divas and Divos. After years of attending operas, the true opera lover is encouraged to announce her preferred lineage — does she love Italian? German? French? Or Russian operas? Or does she dare to be an outlier and not conform to the rules of admission to that most elite of opera clubs: the seasonal subscription?
Indeed, I am such a non-conformist. For me, opera is less an acquired taste and more a journey to the land of not so thinly veiled passions. If asked to choose an opera in the category of “most satisfying,” I would choose Richard Strauss’s brilliant Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911). Considered to be a “comic” opera in three acts, Der Rosenkavalier has waltzes, glamour, a love story, fantastic arias, and humor, as well as a darker dimension of social commentary that simmers beneath all that Viennese charm.
With music by Richard Strauss and libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the story is a hodgepodge that mixes and adapts elements from various prior works: the long forgotten operetta, L’Ingenu Libertin, by Claude Terrasse and Louis Artus, as well as Moliere’s comedy, Monsieur de Pourceaugnac, and aesthetic inspiration from the painter William Hogarth. Count Harry Kessler, an art patron and a friend of von Hofmannsthal’s, was an uncredited collaborator in the opera. Max Reinhardt, the esteemed director, produced the original production.
The setting is 18th century Vienna. There are four main protagonists: The Marschallin; her lover, Count Octavian Rofrano; the lecherous cousin Baron Ochs (pronounced “ox” rather than “oaks” for obvious reasons); and the Baron’s prospective fiancée, Sophie von Faninal, daughter of a recently ennobled bourgeois arms dealer, Herr von Faninal. At the Marschallin”s suggestion, Octavion is chosen as the Rosenkavalier and asked to deliver to Sophie the ceremonial rose that announces her betrothal to the much older Baron Ochs. The moment Octavion and Sophie meet, they fall passionately in love. The remainder of the opera involves getting rid of Ochs while the Marschallin comes to accept the loss of her beloved Octavian to the younger Sophie.
While the plot might suggest a comic opera with beautiful music — an amusing matinee — underneath the 18th-century Viennese schlag (in German, to strike a blow and a shortened versions of schlagobers — whipped cream) is a much darker story encoded with early 20th-century themes of social change and the end of the Habsburg Empire: the relentless passage of time; the position of women in society; the construction of gender; the fall of the aristocracy and rise of the bourgeois; the meaning of love; the inevitability of change; and the masquerade of social rules and roles embedded in disguised desires.
Each character is confronted with one or more of these challenges during the course of the opera. The Marschallin, at 32, sees herself as a fading flower who will soon be old and alone. She tells her young lover, Octavian, “I arise at the dead of night and take the clocks and stop them, every one.” But time cannot be stopped and she knows that Octavian will one day leave her for a younger lover. Although she hides her fears behind the mask of her rank and position, the Marschallin represents a dying empire that will soon be replaced by a new order.
Octavian, the ardent 17-year-old chevalier, is one of the most interesting characters in opera. Known as a “trouser” or “breeches” role, it is played en travesti — the male character is played by a woman. Octavian additionally disguises himself as a woman to seduce and foil the plans of the Baron Ochs. The spectacle of Octavian transforming himself into a woman and then back into a man reflects the construction and deconstruction of gender in society. His romantic scenes with both the Marschallin and Sophie are filled with barely veiled eroticism, titillating us with forbidden passions, while his scene as a woman seducing and being seduced by the Baron Ochs makes a “travesty” of the heterosexual gender masquerade.
For his part, Baron Ochs (Ox) is an impoverished noble who is looking for a wealthy bride to keep his lifestyle afloat. He despises the up-and-coming bourgeois class that is replacing him in power, but by marrying Sophie he will gain a substantial dowry from von Faninal. Faninal is as greedy as Ochs and sees his daughter as a commodity for exchange in order to further his social status. There is no love here; just social hypocrisy. Although she wants to obey her father’s wishes for her to marry Ochs, 16-year-old Sophie is totally appalled by the Baron’s behavior. She meets Octavian and it is love at first sight.
Unlike the Marschallin who, as young girl, was forced by her family into an arranged marriage with an older man, Sophie refuses to marry Ochs. By doing so, she challenges the rules and roles of her society. She wants to choose her own husband, and refuses a loveless arranged marriage filled with sexual hypocrisy — a masquerade.
By the final act, when all the disguises have been removed, the Marschallin sums up the opera’s doings as, “a masquerade, as we in Vienna practice — nothing more.” Then, the Marschallin offers the central lesson of the opera when she releases Octavian from their relationship and encourages him to go to the one he loves, Sophie. In the end, all that matters is love without the need for masks.
A most endearing and timely opera, Der Rosenkavalier uses artifice to unmask the artifice of social norms. It is Viennese confection that uses schlag to hit us over the head with our own hypocrisies and masquerades.