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Der Rosenkavalier is one of the most layered operas ever written. With Richard Strauss’s indulgently Viennese celebration of the extravagant lifestyle of a bygone age, it deserves a selective glossary. Strauss biographer and Opera/Classical Music Editor of The Arts Desk David Nice takes a deep dive into the opera.
Austria, as it’s called today, was part of a bigger empire before 1918. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, poet and playwright, sets his story in the 1740s, when the whole empire was the dominion of the Habsburgs. By 1911, the year of the opera’s premiere, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with a Kaiser in Vienna and a King (the same person) in Budapest. References in the text include news that the Marschallin’s husband is far away in the Croatian woods and the rosebearer’s entourage featuring’ Hayduks’ (south-east European soldiery) with ‘curved Hungarian swords’.
Bass, Baron Ochs The Baron from the Austrian sticks has to hit a number of low notes. The most famous of them – a low E – comes at the end of his waltz song in Act Two, but he sings even lower still – to C – when he takes leave of the Marschallin in Act One.
Castanets You can hear these very selective clicks in Strauss’s score; many wonder why he uses them. One suggestion is that Ochs is munching on biscuits in Act One, and he may also be eating when the castanets reappear in Act 2.
Duenna A governess. One the many comically-enriched secondary characters in the opera, Sophie’s duenna, Marianne Leitmetzerin, has a motif of her own in the orchestra, like a clucking chicken. She also has plenty of opportunities for comic acting when her charge oversteps the mark in supervised badinage with Octavian.
Elektra Another of Strauss’s operas (presented by INO in 2021). The contrast between this ferocious tragedy, and the ‘comedy for music’ of Der Rosenkavalier is evident. Strauss echoes this ferocity, often with satiric intent, as the Lerchenau servants wreak havoc in the Faninal household in Act Two, and when Ochs feels as if he’s suffering from ‘congestion’ (brain fever). When Annina, disguised as a discarded wife, asks Ochs to listen to ‘the voices of your blood’ the music quotes Elektra’s ‘family happiness’ theme.
Falstaff In seeking the right text for Ochs’s monologue in Act 2, transitioning from gloom to alcohol-fuelled cheeriness, Strauss asked Hofmannsthal to look at the solo of Verdi’s Falstaff after his dunking in the Thames, where a glass of port restores his spirits – and a female messenger brings apparent good news (Mistress Quickly in Falstaff, Annina in Der Rosenkavalier).
Gallicisms The Viennese aristocracy affected French airs and graces, with their own take on Gallic phrases. ‘Deliziös’, for instance, when Ochs looks Sophie over like a horse he’s just bought, is ‘delicieuse’ and in Act Three the Marschallin advises Ochs to ‘put a good face on a bad game’ (‘Mach Er bonne mine a mauvais jeu’).
Hogarth A prompt for a scene in the original scenario of early 1909 came from the British satirical artist’s Marriage A-la-Mode, the levee of the girl who’s married into money. Many of the features are carried over to the opera – she’s having her hair done, an Italian castrato sings an aria (see above) and a black child servant is playing with symbolically important knick-knacks.
Italy In many productions. the snide scandalmonger Valzacchi and his niece Annina are seen to be rapt at the song of the Italian tenor, a melodic highlight of the first act. The text comes from a scene for Italians in the ‘Ballet des Nations’ of the Molière-Lully comedy-ballet ‘Le bourgeois gentilhomme’.
Jokes Nobody tries to be funny in Der Rosenkavalier, but we can't help but laugh out loud at the comic situations that evolve.
Kessler, Count Harry Artistocrat, officer and diplomat, this true European, fluent in English, French and German, felt Hofmannsthal didn’t give him enough credit for the ideas which would become the story of Der Rosenkavalier. One of the sources for his inspiration was an operetta he'd seen in Paris, L'ingénu libertin.
Love and lust Der Rosenkavalier begins with an orchestral sex scene, the lovemaking of 17-year-old Octavian and the 32-year-old Marschallin, complete with climactic whooping horn. Strauss asks the action to heat up in a ‘parodistic’ way. A love triangle develops when the Marschallin recommends Octavian as the rose bearer to the even younger Sophie Faninal. The Marschallin probably knows that they’ll fall for each other, but also that it’s Sophie’s only chance of escaping an appalling marriage to Ochs.
Mozart Strauss’s two main musical passions throughout his life were the sublime genius of Wolfgang Amadeus and the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. Der Rosenkavalier holds a miraculous balance between the two, using Wagner’s psychological developments through the transformation of ‘leading motifs’ to trace the Marschallin’s varying moods, and enjoying a Mozartian pastiche that takes on a life of its own, starting with the Minuet for breakfast, comparable to the trio in the third movement of Mozart’s 39th Symphony, which Strauss recorded as conductor.
Nouveau-riche Ochs treats his future father-in-law Faninal with the utmost condescension; the man is a filthy rich arms dealer who’s bought his way into the nobility and will further his status with this marriage. Their interaction is laden with a sometimes painful comedy.
Orchestration Strauss writes richly for his 93-piece orchestra, and it takes a skilled conductor to keep the constantly shifting textures in order, from full orchestral splendours to the chamber music of the Marschallin’s soliloquy in Act One. Among the woodwind is a role for a basset horn (a mid-range clarinet much used by Mozart); perhaps the most celebrated effect is the giddyingly-harmonised chord-sequences for the heady scent of the rose (celesta, two harps, flutes).
Poetry In musical terms, alternates with prose in perfect post-Wagnerian style. Anyone who’s come to Rosenkavalier through the hyper-poetic highlights – the Presentation of the Rose and the Trio – may be surprised at the down-to-earth creation of a half-fantastical Viennese milieu.
Quinquin Sophie shockingly oversteps the mark in her first proper conversation with the rose bearer. She know his baptismal names but also the one which his close friends and ‘beautiful women’ call him, Quinquin. In reality, it was a nickname for Count Franz Estherhazy von Galantha.
Rose, silver It’s usually assumed that a prospective groom having a silver rose presented to his bride-to-be is rooted in custom. In fact Hofmannsthal made it up, possibly inspired by the golden rose-trees in the Imperial Treasurehouse of Vienna’s Hofburg, given by the Pope to daughters of the nobility.
Soprano Though the role of Octavian is often taken by a mezzo, it was written for a soprano. It’s a ‘trouser’ role, mirroring Mozart’s Cherubino. Strauss believed it more convincing when played by a woman because he thought the tenors were terrible actors. Young Sophie, another soprano, has the highest-lying demands, floating some stratospherically beautiful lines in the Presentation of the Rose. The highlight of these high voices is the Trio in Act Three.
Time Hofmannsthal, a precocious and world-weary poet, sensed the instability of all things. His thoughts on the strange nature of time are expressed through the wonderfully human figure of the Marschallin in her two Act One monologues to Octavian.
Underbelly, underworld The first two acts of Der Rosenkavalier are set in two very different palaces. But the gulling of Ochs in Act Three takes place in a seedy inn, with a private room including a concealed bed. Some productions have highlighted the sleaze – Robert Carsen’s Salzburg production changed the setting to a brothel, in which Ochs thinks he’s hallucinating when he sees a naked older man wandering across the stage.
Vienna Hofmannsthal was well aware that the city he detailed so meticulously in his libretto hadn’t changed that much since the 1740s – that the Ochses of this world were still around. The time-travelling nature of the piece cued the many…
Waltzes with which Strauss flavoured his masterpiece; cannily, it’s Ochs’s favourite song which is the most famous, providing the woozy ending to Act Two, and later appearing in the offstage orchestra to soothe the perplexed Baron’s troubled soul. Its source is Dynamiden by Josef Strauss (no relation to Richard).
X Cheating here (because there’s no xylophone in Der Rosenkavalier, though it plays a crucial role in Salome): ‘extrazimmer’ is the concealed room in the inn, allowing for trapdoors and false windows through which the ‘phantoms’ appear to terrorise Baron Ochs.
Yesteryear ‘Seek the snows of yesteryear’, sings the Marschallin, recalling the past in her Act One soliloquy. The original phrase, ‘ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ comes from the ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis’ (‘Ballad of the Ladies of Yesteryear’) by the 15th century poet François Villon.
Zauber, as in ‘magic’. It isn’t literal, but of course there is pure enchantment in the Presentation of the Rose and the opera’s final scene.