Richard Strauss, libretto by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, translated by Alfred Kalisch
‘How you were, how you are… no-one knows it’. Young Octavian is full of the mystery of first love as Der Rosenkavalier opens in the Marschallin’s bedroom, where the golden light of morning streams across the rumpled bedlinen. It’s not just the rush of physical pleasure, but the intimacy of knowing somebody privately.
Though it’s set in 18th century Vienna, there’s a very 20th century nostalgia about the piece. The tradition of courtly love, in which the aristocratic bridegroom sends a knight with a rose to his betrothed, is already a social relic. When the Marschallin’s boorish cousin Baron Ochs needs such a Rosenkavalier for his nouveau-riche fiancée, the Marschallin offers her secret teenage lover, Octavian.
Ochs’ pursuit of the cross-dressed Octavian, a female singer playing a youth in female guise, played to full flat-footed comic effect by Sarah Connolly, is funny in the broad tradition of farce. But it’s also a decadent, degraded counterpoint to Octavian’s innocent, romantic love. And yet the Marschallin spends much of the first act telling Octavian – and us – and herself - that sooner or later he will leave her for a younger lover. For what’s supposed to be a romantic comedy, it has a serious and even tragic streak. If you’d asked French writer Colette to write a farce, or Chekhov to reinvent The Marriage of Figaro, you’d get something rather like Rosenkavalier.
It could be a cynical debunking of the romantic dream of love. But it isn’t. The music alone defies cynicism, carrying the young lovers’ theme on a silvery ribbon of flutes, high strings and tinkling percussion. If you wanted to take Rosenkavalier at face value as a tale of young love you could, just about, with eyes half shut. But with eyes wide open the tragedy of the Marschallin, engineering the very abandonment she foretold, adds depth to the story. Amanda Roocroft’s performance brings out the combined vulnerability and strength of experience, that puts more distance between her and Octavian than the difference in their ages.
David McVicar’s revived production leaves the period setting intact, only letting a stained and faded finish evoke an aristocracy that is living on borrowed time. If you expect physical comedy, you won’t be disappointed in the onstage rumpus underscored by folkish waltz. If it’s the romance between Octavian and young Sophie you want, that is tender and passionate. But the deeper questions that run through libretto and music have room to breathe too. ‘You know me how I am,’ the Marschallin tells Octavian, and it’s a recurring theme. To be oneself, by being truly known by another, is the contrast to the comedies of disguise that surround Baron Ochs. But time passes, and the past self is gone. ‘How can this come to pass?’ asks the Marschallin.
Rosenkavalier is sometimes seen as a flawed attempt by late-career Strauss to turn out a crowdpleasing confection. But the very disjuncture between the sugary tunes and the messy, inconclusive human story means it works as well today as when it was written a century ago. The hummable Viennese melodies and witty orchestration slide in and out of darker, unsettling harmonies and discords. The boy gets the girl. But it’s not the woman that he woke up with in Act 1. Rosenkavalier speaks to our own uncertainties as well as it did to 1911 Germany. How do we find our own way in the world, now our romantic traditions are revealed to be empty, a joke? And yet, somehow, there is still love, still hope…