“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.

Love, Death, and Memory: “Elektra” and “Metamorphosen”


Anniversary 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, two works:

Premiere of Elektra: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden; Monday, January 25, 1909.

Premiere of Metamorphosen: Kleiner Saal, Tonhalle, Zurich; Friday, January 25, 1946.


Like Salome, I always recommend Elektra as a “first opera” to newcomers. Strauss’s Tragödie has all the necessary ingredients: brevity, violence, great set pieces, women driving all the action, and, perhaps surprisingly for an operatic work, no love story. (Or at least a conventional love story…) It’s still my desert island score. (And, for what it’s worth, the source for the title of this blog.) It’s a vital presence in my research and playlists, but more often than not, Elektra is most valuable to me as a rebound opera. Adverse incidents usually send me back to its paroxysms of maenadic rage, its oases of lyricism, and its frenzied catharsis. (Along with the second act of Wagner’s Götterdämmerug, it’s stood me through more than one breakup.) Immersed in it now for over a decade, I think it’s the emotional purgation that Strauss gets best in this work, showing his dramaturgical prowess as an editor in distilling Hofmannsthal’s original stage text. The one-act is wound tighter than an industrial spring and should uncoil just as fatally. Yet the more I live with it, the more I realize just how heavy its unfurling hits. It’s relentless drive to the final, leveling C major is a snap that sometimes threatens to overwhelm everything, like the monstrous, twentyfold ocean Elektra describes burying her every step of her triumphant dance.


Part of that whelming likely comes from my unabashed preference for Sir Georg Solti’s recording of the work from 1967 on the Decca label. (It’s still my recommendation for first-time listeners as well.) Though still popular, Solti’s efforts on record (Strauss or otherwise) seem to be muscled out of fashion by efforts considered to be more lucid and restrained. Indeed, the maestro was not one for subtlety. Not unjustly did Wieland Wagner accuse him of orgasms every other bar, and the word “vulgar” is more than occasionally bandied about in discussions of Solti’s discography. Yet his recorded operas (I sadly never heard him live in the theatre) possess the vital edge and urgency one expects from the medium, something akin to the radio dramas of an earlier era—with no visual, the recording needed something extra to reach across the proscenium of the home speaker system or headphones. John Culshaw’s work as producer on Solti’s more famous releases is also no stranger to criticism, yet I’ve always reveled in the unabashed “Grand Guignol” (to use Culshaw’s own words) of Elektra, and Salome before it. There’s always a grisly relish in Birgit Nilsson’s triumphant B-flat in her opening monologue at the line “rings um dein Grab!”, Regina Resnik’s malicious cackles, Gerhard Stolze’s schrecklich Aegist. Vulgar on occasion, perhaps, but never boring. I’m also of the opinion that Elektra is not a work for understatement. If Salome is perfumed gossamer, Elektra is a bloody sack of burlap and should feel that way.


For all my love of recordings, as a student of opera staging history, I firmly believe that recorded Strauss is only half the experience. The power of the stage works depends on just that: the stage. (I use the term stage works consciously. “Opera,” though a term of convenience and habit, is ultimately an unwieldy term, especially in light of Strauss’s specific generic subtitles.) There’s no shortage of filmed Elektras, however, and the videography boasts some of the best-stocked casts of any opera of the twentieth century. Like Der Rosenkavalier, it is fascinating to see singers move from role to role in the piece. The triple crown of Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Klytemnästra provides a particularly diverse range of musical and dramatic challenges. Only the likes of Leonie Rysanek and Dame Gwyneth Jones could attempt it with impunity.


I had the good fortune to see Sir David McVicar’s production when it debuted in Chicago in 2012—a bold season opener—with Christine Goerke, Emily Magee, and Jill Grove in the principal roles. (A revival in Houston is currently underway.) Key to its success were John Macfarlane’s set and costume designs, a true exercise in scenography. Entering the auditorium, you were confronted by doom and dread emanating from the show curtain, a giant, tattered funerary shroud that replaced the famous Lyric Opera fire curtain and main drape. Elektra, like Tosca, possesses one of the strongest openings to any operatic work, a startling, pummeling statement of the masculine presence that hangs over the work, here the D minor theme representing the murdered king Agamemnon. The grey pall was impressively flown out at this moment, revealing the decrepit palace in Mycenae framed in the full proscenium. The familiar teaser was absent, and the screen for supertitles was hung, appropriately, off-center.


Eschewing sanitized visions of ancient Greece, Macfarlane painted a nightmarish landscape of the royal abode as a tremendous ruined edifice replete with oblique walls and smoldering debris, endless shadows and perplexing angles. Light, an important dramatic symbol and motif in the text, received a skillful manipulation in this world by designer Jennifer Tipton. Given the director’s comparison of Strauss and Quentin Tarantino in his program note, there was no shortage of gore in McVicar’s final scene, when a rush of blood poured down the palace stair. (It was a particularly thrilling sight from the first balcony.) Amid Elektra’s final dance, the threshold to the palace was sealed by an ominous door of solid sheet metal, an image which left me perplexed and startled with its suddenness. No stage direction for the closing of the door appears in the libretto or score, yet the chilling stage direction of “Stille” following Chrysothemis’s final “Orest!” as she beats on the door of the palace defies a concrete description of what might be going on inside the palace. The hint, provided by bassoons and Wagner tubas in the orchestra, is ominous. The unsettledness of McVicar’s image recalled something between a slaughterhouse door or the entrance to Leatherface’s lair in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like the conventions of ancient Greek theatre, it suggests that what’s going on offstage—Orest’s purgation of the palace or even his own torment by the Furies—is even more terrifying than what might be happening onstage. Sadly, Strauss and Hofmannsthal never progressed beyond an embryonic idea for a ballet based on Orest and the Furies, an effective sequel to Elektra, so the fate of all remains ambiguous, at least as far as the creators are concerned.


It’s altogether uncanny that a work with such rage and violence should share a premiere anniversary with a work of such profound melancholy. One should not read too much into the coincidence but positing Elektra and Metamorphosen in dialogue encourages reflection. Both are, in their own ways, threnodies. Elektra keens for vengeance for her father’s murder and the eventual, but always elusive, triumph of his brood. The lamentation in Metamorphosen, however, is less straightforward. The familiar image of Strauss mourning the destruction of Germany has been fruitfully problematized in the last decades of scholarship. Like the exiled Thomas Mann, Strauss returned more and more to the works of Goethe in his final years, themselves spent in refuge in Switzerland. His work on Metamorphosen took up the latter part of 1944, originating first in a setting of Goethe’s text “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” (No one can know himself) before reaching in its final form in the piece commissioned for the Collegium Musicum Zürich by Paul Sacher, Willi Schuh, and Karl Böhm.


Finished in Garmisch on April 12, 1945, the same day as the death of FDR, Metamorphosen lacks any easy or convenient exegesis. The composer left a substantial clue, however, in the title. A metamorphosis, as it would have been familiar to Strauss, would be an achievement of transfiguration through a search and acknowledgment of the divine within. Throughout Strauss’s instrumental and operatic works, the similar, but distinct, dramatic gesture of transfiguration (Verwandlung), from human to the divine (Ariadne auf Naxos, in both the 1912 and 1916 versions), the divine to the human (Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1919), or from humanity to nature (Daphne in 1938) is presented as an act with positive, but not solely redemptive (read: Wagnerian) connotations. Metamorphosen counters these examples. This “Study for Twenty-Three Strings” presents an intense probing of the self, but without the expected, redemptive ending. As Timothy Jackson’s research has suggested, the awareness of the inner beast, something morose and ultimately vile, is the piece’s parting sensation. With its final quotations “In Memoriam” from the funeral march movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Metamorphosen succeeds in emphasizing a sense of negation and abnegation, reinforced by the continual chromatic tension between C major and C minor, the latter claiming victory in the last bars of the piece. Compare this with the final bars of Elektra, where C major provides a triumphant, but also somewhat compromised, accompaniment to the image of the prone, immobile Elektra. Her long-held objectives are realized but her “self” is seemingly absented in the process, a metamorphosis to some state. In their earlier confrontation, Elektra taunts her mother with the question “What must bleed?” to her question about comforting sleep. Metamorphosen perhaps hints that any peace comes at the price of self-purgation.


(c) Ryan M. Prendergast, 25 January 2018.