Der Rosenkavalier


There are some operas that have a meaning for us far beyond their plot, the music, the composer, his librettist, the times, the place, the history. “Der Rosenkavalier” is one that has resonance for all of us. More than anything it is about time. As the Marschallin says in Act 1, “Time, what a strange concept indeed. As sand running through our fingers. It cannot be stopped. And it we could stop it, would we be able to feel truly alive?” The Marschallin sits at her dressing table in front of the mirror and she ruminates after a night of passion with her young lover Octavian, “Time is a strange thing. You live your life and you don’t notice it. Then suddenly it is all you can feel. It is flowing between you and me silently like sand in the hour glass.”

This new Royal Opera House production of “Der Rosenkavalier,” with libretto by Hugo Von Hoftmannstahl, is set in that precarious time just before what Europeans call the Great War and Americans the First World War. The sets are magnificent and aristocratic. The story is time old. After a night of great passion with her young lover, Octavian, the ageing Marschallin, who is no older than 32(!) is aware that sooner or later Octavian will leave her, “today, tomorrow, or the day after,” and though he vows love eternally, she knows in her heart that it is a matter of time. Her looks will fade, his eye will roam. In a mood of great melancholy, she dismisses him and heads for church. This scene is one of opera’s most touching, especially in view of the fact that Renee Fleming, as beautiful and creamy voiced as ever, is now contemplating retirement from the opera house stages of the world. I could not but think deeply of her many performances here and the pleasures she has brought us. “Time, flowing silently, like sand in an hour glass.”

Then, suddenly, the nostalgia passes and we are in the world of Baron Ochs, played in a rather menacing way as opposed to the usual oafish one, by Matthew Rose, a burly, vulgar country aristocratic on his uppers, who has made a marital contract with a darling young girl whose father, a parvenu upstart and munitions manufacturer, wants a noble son-in-law. Octavian, the young Count, has been chosen by the Marschallin, to present a silver rose to Sophie on behalf of his putative Cousin Ochs, as a gesture of betrothal. He and Sophie, both seventeen, fall in love at first sight. The Baron is particularly noxious, and his courtship of Sophie teeters on the abusive as he grabs and gropes her. Chaos ensues.

The opera was first performed in 1911, written about the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the 18th Century, in the time of the Empress Marie Therese. There is plenty to think about for our and any other time!

Act Three is set in a turn-of-the-century brothel, where Octavian dressed as a young prostitute lures Ochs to misbehave and discredit himself in the eyes of his potential father-in-law. Alice Coote gives a bravura performance as a woman dressed as a man (a so-called “pantaloon part”), first disguising himself as young virginal chambermaid, Mariandel, who then disguises herself as a frisky young sexual predator. With the best of intentions, Octavian as Mariandel in her frilly underwear seeks to seduce Ochs to show him up for the boor and golddigger he actually is. All manner of shenanigans break out, including a group of children who appear calling him Daddy! At the height of all of this, the Marschallin miraculouly re appears and brings order again to this world. She accepts ruefully the loss of her Octavian, gives his new love her blessing (kind of) and walks through the doors of the set with what might be a new love, her husband’s tall and handsome former orderly. All is right with the world. It is time to move on.

The audience was hysterical with joy. We clapped, cheered, and cried, at least I did. We moved out into the night to new adventures, cherishing the old ones.

Kaaren Hale



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