I’m always uncomfortable with Strauss. I find him impossible to fathom, which makes me deeply unpopular in certain circles. Salome, which I went to see a few months ago, was a terribly difficult experience. Many of my friends found it wonderful. So I wasn’t feeling my best when I set off with a friend to the Opera Bastille to see Rosenkavalier, whose first performance I had missed in December.
Rosenkavalier is different from Salome, though. It’s actually the first opera I ever saw, as a young boy at Covent Garden. And to understand it properly, you have to bear in mind that its purpose, at the time it was created in 1911, was to recreate the atmosphere in Maria Theresa’s Vienna. The plot takes place in 1742, which was perceived, on the eve of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a golden age, that had supposedly reached a pinnacle of politeness and civilisation. This, at any rate, was a view prevalent among Germans at that time. And for Strauss, who always defined himself as a German composer, it was essential.
In reality, German-speakers in 1911 saw Theresine Austria through rose-tinted spectacles. The constant stream of waltzes in Rosenkavalier are an illustration of this. Maria Theresa’s Empire was international rather than German. Artistically, at any rate, it was wholeheartedly cosmopolitan, so the contrast with Wihelmine Germany, in which Strauss composed his opera, could not have been greater. The Saxon audience at the work’s creation, in Dresden, may have found it easier than its Berlin equivalent to connect with this work. Nonetheless, it had, from the outset, an artificiality, half-way between pseudo-classicism and Romanticism, that I didn’t fully understand.
The Introduction, which Strauss doesn’t even dare to call Overture, illustrates this to the point of caricature: I’ve always found it closer to film music than to eighteenth-century Vienna. Whenever I hear it, I’m gripped by panic, consternation and, above all, incomprehension. And I’m not the only one: Thomas Mann, according to Richard Osborne, rather despised Strauss and tended to assimilate him with two of his ruder characters, Ochs and Faninal. Viennese reviews in 1911 were unanimously unfavourable, although the working classes are said to have loved it. And Walter Legge, husband of ELisabeth Schwarzkopf, also thought Rosenkavalier at once vulgar and elegant, meaning it was difficult both to conduct and to direct:
The opera itself is such good “theatre” and so intensely human that it needs only reasonably good acting and expressive singing to enchant any audience, highbrow, lowbrow or no-brow.
—Walter Legge, Words and Music, anthology edited by Alan Sanders, 1998, p. 34;
The music, to me, is a similar mix of vulgarity and elegance: the dazzlingly complex score is rather disconcerting. At any rate it takes us rather far from eighteenth-century standards. The occasional hint of Mozart is not enough to rectify this. The orchestra, especially the winds, are quite overbearing from beginning to end. This is actually the opposite of a classical opera when the instruments subtly and discreetly accompany the voices. I simply cannot understand the widely-held view according to which Hofmannstahl accompanied Strauss on the road to neoclassicism.
Rosenkavalier effectively abolishes any distinction between recitative, aria and choir. So the orchestra is summoned to fill the resulting void. This obviously requires considerable skill on the part of the conductor, and not all were up to the challenge. The music, as always with Strauss, dominates everything, meaning that Hofmannstahl’s exquisite libretto is rather left in the background, and Strauss’s manic attention to it was, in a sense, rather pointless. Set construction, which he also felt was important, was a more promising way of redeeming the disconcerting music, for obvious reasons, and it has thus always featured prominently in any production of this work: indeed, for many years, the theatres that produced Rosenkavalier were contractually bound to reproduce the original creation’s décor at Dresden’s Königliches Opernhaus.
So basically, the above means that I can only “enjoy” Rosenkavalier if the music does not crush the singers under its weight and if the set construction is in harmony with the original 1911 standard. Both these conditions, I’m glad to say, were met at last night’s performance, jointly produced by the Paris Opera and the Salzburg Festival. M Philippe Jordan’s conducting is precise and as discreet as can be given the gigantic 118-strong orchestra required by the composer. The principals chosen by M Gerard Mortier, who is always attentive to every detail, are outstanding. Anne Schanewilms, in particular, is an elegant Marschallin, with just the right touch of Romanticism. And Wernicke’s direction is perfectly faithful to Roller’s original standards, and thus superb. I think the friend with whom I went enjoyed his evening out, and so did I.