“I swore to love him” or, On-again/Off-agains with “Der Rosenkavalier”

FullSizeRender-2Anniversary meditations on the works of Richard Strauss.

As breaks amid preparations for my exams, I’m revisiting Strauss’s major works on the anniversaries of their premieres with more informal and personal, if not occasionally wandering, musings.

Today, a big one:

Der Rosenkavalier

Premiere: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden; Thursday, January 26, 1911

The calendar struck with two big Strauss anniversaries back-to-back, so this offering is unfortunately tardy. Looking over the fare I offered on Elektra and Metamorphosen, I realized that I skirted too closely around the shoals of formality. The benefit of a medium like this is frankness. One should always be accurate, of course, and I welcome any and all responses to what I’ve written. My goal is to nourish kernels of my own thoughts which would not likely have a friendly home in a more academic venue, and wrestle with ideas without concern if they come up short. Much will end up ultimately being fragments, a form too often undervalued.

Which brings me to the work under consideration for today, perhaps the most quintessential of all Strauss stage works: Der Rosenkavalier. Lately, I’ve been perplexed. When it comes up in discussion, I routinely stifle a sensation close to ambivalence. Moods happen—yet this tepidity is different. It’s not a case of out-and-out dislike. As someone who studies opera production history, Rosenkavalier is one of the central case studies, and for good reason. Apart from the joy that is the work of designer Alfred Roller, the circumstances of the premiere (Strauss’s contractual battles, wounded feelings at Dresden, Max Reinhardt’s involvement), no matter how many times retold, still yield forth fresh gems. Beyond this, Der Rosenkavalier is central to the Strauss canon, the wider operatic repertoire, and the course of art music in the twentieth century. Yet in putting these thoughts down, I find the same sensation surfacing again. Whence this dissatisfaction?

In this regard, I am not alone. Though this was the first original collaboration of Strauss and Hofmannsthal (Elektra already existing as a stage text) and easily their most successful (at least commercially), at certain points they themselves perceived personal qualms. Strauss later admitted the work was hampered by longeurs of his own making. More bitingly, before the ink on the score was dry, Hofmannsthal was venting his distaste of Strauss’s efforts to Count Harry Kessler with one hand while dashing off praise to the composer with the other. Despite these misgivings, no attempt was made to revise the work as with Ariadne auf Naxos, though Strauss did eventually sanction cuts. (Myself, I prefer the work without them.) One could look to Arabella, so often described (both positively and negatively) as a “second Rosenkavalier,” as an attempt to respond to the earlier work, but such a tack soon runs into a slough of its own.

It may be, simply, just Rosenkavalier fatigue on my part. Some of this fatigue, however, is relief. The hackneyed critical line about Rosenkavalier as a threshold of regression has been soundly obliterated, though it occasionally resurrects itself. Furthermore, the work has been the center of valuable attention in the last decade. Michael Reynolds has offered a probing study of the contributions of Count Harry Kessler and the origins of the scenario in the 1907 operetta L’Ingenu libertin. The press response to Glyndebourne’s production in 2014 exposed and incited a valuable dialogue about body-shaming in opera criticism. There also was a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times online, which I shall address at a later date. These latter two instances point to the greatest challenge facing the work, indeed the entirety of Strauss’s output: how do (and how will) these works speak—through performance—to the concerns of our century? What answers can a “comedy” so inexorably and problematically tied up with questions of gender and power provide to #metoo? Opera’s not-impalpable undercurrent of misogyny has drawn our comfort with numerous works of the nineteenth century into question, along with how they appear in the hands of contemporary directors, designers, and performers. The rest of the repertory faces similar scrutiny.

These criticisms are in no way new; indeed, they are if anything long overdue for response, as well as action. Ultimately, criticism and exegesis on the web or on paper only reach so far. These are dramatic works and answers to their questions are (and must) be found in performance. It may be that once Strauss’s works fall completely into the public domain across the globe, much will be done in the way of reinvention, reinterpretation, and recasting, both literal and figurative. This is a sensitive nerve with Rosenkavalier, since its stage history is so inexorably bound with attempts to preserve a particular vision of the work—as the creators “intended” it to be. I am tempted to say that “traditional” Rosenkavaliers will always be with us, but really, what does “traditional” mean, and what is a “traditional” Rosenkavalier? Is it merely rigid adherence to the original designs and prompt book? The complete score with the complete forces dictated by the composer? Or is it more a vision of what will placate opera’s Achilles heel: the ever-feared but always necessary audience that may provide that fatal rejection of not buying tickets or donating money if what they see fails to entertain or holds up too brutal a mirror.

I frequently quip, with much seriousness, that someday someone will produce a version of the Ring with a dozen performers, two pianos, two chairs, and a stick, and it will be the greatest revelation in Wagnerian history. Strauss could do with the same. If the works are strong enough, rich enough, and powerful enough, they will survive being adapted, being challenged, being put into dialogue with what was once done, and what could be done the next time around. We may wring hands that the creator’s wishes are being violated, disgraced, or some other melodramatic participle. No doubt, Strauss and his librettists would have strong and resolute opinions on what they would see on the stages of today’s opera houses, but these acts of supposition are just that. I don’t mean to give carte blanche to interpretations that take little of the dramatic and musical substances of the work into account. The informed is always the enemy of the reckless. And we must hold the unaccounted for accountable in what we see onstage. If, like the Marschallin, we have sworn to love these works to the point that we can appreciate attractions to them from other corners, then we too can support a plurality of approaches to them.

A Coda. We must not forget that Strauss took his own “liberties” in bringing Gluck (Iphigenie auf Tauris), Beethoven (Die Ruinen von Athen), and Mozart (Idomeneo) to the stage in his own era. January 26 also marks the anniversary of the premiere of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a clear ancestor of Rosenkavalier and one of Strauss’s specialties as a conductor. It is also the eve of Mozart’s birthday. Strauss’s reverence for the composer was nigh on absolute, but even he abjured pedantic adherence to tradition. I’m reminded too of Strauss’s epithet “the divine Mozart,” and how, in a late philosophical fragment on his forebear, Strauss considered his melodies to be “primal types” (Urbilder) to be experienced by emotion, breathed in by the ear. If Strauss could still breathe a different sense into Mozart a century and a half after his death, we should be able to do the same for Strauss in our own century.

(c) Ryan M. Prendergast, 27 January 2018.

Author: Ryan M. Prendergast

Ph.D. Candidate @ the University of Illinois. Theater, opera, music, media, art, history, detritus. I smile, of course, and go on drinking tea.

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