Monday, January 11, 2010

The Rose Cavalier

The arrival of Der Rosenkavalier, the titular Octavian
(silvery figure in the middle, standing at attention)

We went to the opera on Saturday -- well, we went to the movie theater to see the Met Opera HD relay, but truly it's better than going to the opera -- to see Der Rosenkavalier, an opera by Richard Strauss.  Don't worry, I'll explain everything you need to know (even spoilers!) so that no one else need go.  I'm a passionate opera fan now, and even I found the music challenging.

But the plot is fun, and interesting to me as a romance fan, which is why I'm writing about an opera few of you knew about and even fewer will ever see.

Set in 18th century Vienna, the opera opens in the bedroom of Marie-Therese, a princess married to a Field Marshall and thus bearing the honorific the Marschallin.  She's young by our standards -- 32 -- and having a passionate affair with Octavian, the 17-year-old Count Rofrano.  In Act 1, the Marschallin realizes on her own account that she is going to have to end the affair because Octavian is so attached to her that he won't make that decision for himself.  When her cousin, Baron Ochs, shows up to tell her that he's marrying a nouveau riche family's daughter, they discuss the need for a rosenkavalier -- a young man bearing a silver rose to be presented formally to the young woman Ochs has selected.

You can see immediately where this is going: Octavian is picked to be Der Rosenkavalier, and the moment he sees Sophie, the 15-year-old Ochs wants to marry, he's smitten (sort of).  Ochs turns out to be a boor, and Sophie quickly discovers she doesn't want to marry him.  Octavian thinks of a clever scheme to disrupt the marriage plans, and he ends up with Sophie.  There's a sublime bit at the end where Octavian (remember, he's 17) is torn by his love and emotional commitment to Sophie versus his connection to the Marschallin.  The trio that the three sing (all female voices -- I'll explain that in a moment) at the end is justly famous in opera.

Strauss was himself married to a soprano, so one of the joys of this opera for him was that the three main characters -- the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie -- are all sung by women.  (Octavian is a mezzo-soprano role, which is slightly deeper than an soprano, but there's no pretense that it's a man's voice.)  Thus Octavian is a "trousers" role -- a woman dressed as a man.  Susan Graham, the mezzo who sings Octavian in the Met's production, is 6 feet tall and has a wonderful smooth, wide-eyed face: perfect for the illusion that she's actually a young man.  Renee Fleming has been singing the Marschallin for over ten years now; she'd have been closer to the character's age back then, but her emotions -- sadness, affection, loss and determination -- are more subtle now that the soprano's a bit older herself.  Christine Schäfer, a German soprano bearing a resemblance to Eloisa James, played Sophie.  The HD close-ups aren't kind to a soprano playing a 15-year-old girl, but that role will never be sung by anyone nearly young enough, and I gather the principals at the Met steel themselves for the HD performances.  (It's true: you can often admire the soprano's manicure!)

Here's what really struck me about this love triangle.  The Marschallin, no matter how much she cares for Octavian, knows she has to kick him out of her bed so that he can have a life, and love, of his own.  (It's not clear whether she was thinking he'd end up with Ochs' fiancée when she suggested Octavian as the rose cavalier, but she certainly isn't surprised when that's how it turns out.)  Sophie is young, dutiful, more than a little bit religious, and very eager to be loved.  Neither the Marschallin nor Sophie change in the course of the opera.

But Octavian -- ah, Octavian really changes.  It's not just that he falls in love with Sophie.  It's that he rescues Sophie -- the act of an alpha-hero! -- through cleverness and guile and all on his own.  Sophie needs his help, which the Marschallin will never do, and I think that's what Octavian responds to.

All of this has to be seen in the context of Europe in the 1740s.  Today -- well, think about Juno and her boyfriend (played by Michael Cera in the movie, an actor with a high enough voice that one can almost think Strauss wasn't crazy to make Octavian a trousers role).  Juno works out her own problems, thank you very much, and the boyfriend (tellingly I can't recall his name) is just there for moral support and general acceptance.  We don't think young women need to be "rescued" by their swains the way Sophie does, or at least not without the heroine making a good faith effort to rescue herself first.

And the Marschallin -- well, it's actually the most emotionally affecting role in the opera because who hasn't experienced the need to let go of something for the right reasons?  It may be the right thing to do, but it's still a painful loss.  But a 32-year-old sleeping with a 17-year-old?  Way too Desperate Housewives (not to mention statutory rape).

No, it's not that the plot translates directly to more common romance novel tropes.  But Octavian gets a chance to be a hero, and he takes it.  There's something timeless about that.

Edited to add:

Here's the Trio, without subtitles.  Fair Warning:  If you think opera = caterwauling, this is opera on steroids!  But if you're brave, click it to see & hear a snippet of opera that is so powerful, it's roughly equivalent to Kinsale/Ivory/Woodiwiss/Gabaldon/Spencer: challenging but worth it.  (And while I can't tell you precisely what each character is singing, here's the gist:  The Marschallin is ruminating on losing Octavian: necessary but did it have to happen so soon?; Octavian is singing about his feelings for both women; and Sophie is confused but hopeful.)


  1. But a 32-year-old sleeping with a 17-year-old?...(not to mention statutory rape).

    Not in Missouri. :P

    I'm definitely more along the lines of wanting to be the May in a May-December, but as I get older, the cougar is coming out in me. LOL

    When you mentioned the last trio of female voices, I immediately brought up The Flower Duet to listen to, but obviously that's not the right one.

  2. Moriah -- Just for you, I will provide a hyperlink to YouTube clip of the final Trio (known just as the Trio) but be warned: It's powerful but not easy music. Strauss was a complicated composer of complicated music.

    And, frankly, even the opera is complicated -- not in the plot (which is two-thirds French farce and one-third Stella Dallas) but in this odd mix of slapstick physical humor and then a complete 180 to deeply felt emotion.

    I left the theater and told my husband that I would have to hear the entire opera three times before I had a chance of "getting" the music.

    And, if Lakme's The Flower Duet (which others might recognize as the music from those British Airways ads a decade ago) is what came to mind, I warn you: the Trio is sublime music -- even I can tell that! -- but it is not "pretty."

    As for the cougar thing: No comment. (My first husband was only teeny bit younger than I, my current husband is close to four years younger. Not a lot at our age, but it does give me pause.)


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