Rosenkavalier tells the story of an aging (32!) Marschallin (the wife of the Field Marshall) who’s having a love affair with her young (17) cousin, Octavian. Octavian is a “trouser-role—i.e., a young man played by a mezzo-soprano—so Robin and I always enjoy the opening scene in which the Marschallin and Octavian are lying in bed, kissing and embracing after a night of steamy love-making.
Renée Fleming and Susan Graham share an intimate moment in Act 1
web photo [source]
web photo [source]
Octavian is asked to be the rosenkavalier, and present the traditional silver rose to the 15 year old fiancée of yet another cousin, the lecherous Baron Ochs (a “tradition” of 18th century Vienna invented for the story). During the presentation of the rose—one of the vocal highlights of the opera—Octavian and Sophie (of course) start to fall for each other, and Octavian concocts a plot to allow Sophie to be released from her engagement to the loathsome baron. (See clip here, with Ann Sophie von Otter [Octavian] and Barbara Bonnie [Sophie].)
I won’t go into the intrigue—which is comic and farcical, and involves slapstick and cross-dressing (the mezzo playing a boy, disguised as a girl). Suffice it to say that the story ends with the Baron being caught in flagrante delicto and being forced to renounce his claim on Sophie.
But for me—and most opera-lovers, no doubt—the central relationship is not that between Octavian and Sophie, but between Octavian and the Marschallin. And although I’ve seen the opera several times, I was particularly moved by their story this time.
At the end of the first act, when Octavian comes back into the Marschallin’s boudoir after a short absence, he finds her mood completely changed: she is lamenting the passing of time, the fact that all things must change and age, and the certainty that Octavian will eventually leave her for another, younger than she. The libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal at this point is achingly poignant and beautiful:
...time, how strangely does it go its ways.(See clip here, with Robin’s favorite mezzo, Tatiana Troyanos, and soprano Kiri Te Kanawa [1982, Met].)
First we are heedless, and ’tis as nothing.
Then a sudden waking, and we feel naught else but it.
All the world tells of it, all our souls are filled with it.
No face but shows the mark of it; no mirror but shows it us.
All my veins feel its throbbing,
And there ’twixt you and me, it flows in silence,
Trickling like sands in the hour-glass.
But sometimes I hear it flowing, ceaselessly.
Sometimes I arise at the dead of night,
And take the clocks and stop them, ev’ry one.
Yet one must not be afraid of time,
For time is a creature of our Father, who made us all.
[Octavian], now or tomorrow, surely,
You will go from me, leave me and choose another.
A younger and prettier one than I.
The day will come unbidden.
Today or tomorrow it must come, Octavian.
The performance by Renée Fleming during this scene yesterday was flawless. And when a single tear slid down her cheek as she sang of the of impossibility of stopping time, my eyes teared up in kind.
web photo [source]
The Marschallin’s prediction comes true—the very next day, when Octavian meets Sophie. And in the final thrilling and beautiful trio between Octavian, the Marschallin and Sophie, when Octavian is experiencing anguish about his choice of Sophie over the Marschellan, she gives him her blessing, and tells him to go to her—go to Sophie. This has got to be one of the noblest deeds in all of opera. (See Kanawa/Troyanos/Blegen clip here; the trio begins at 4:00.)
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about change, aging, and death of late. Poor little Rosie is still never far from my thoughts. And this afternoon we attended the memorial for a dear friend of my mother.
It’s true that the older you get, the faster time moves. The nine months in a school year seemed interminable to me as a youngster; now they pass with the blink of an eye. Whereas I used to think of my life as somehow endless, I’m now acutely aware that it’s closer to the end than the beginning. Perhaps that’s why I felt the need to start this blog—as a way to etch my existence in cyberspace for posterity.
Twenty-five years ago, I felt like a young buck, and would surely have identified with Octavian had I seen the opera then. But now my sympathy—and empathy—lies with the Marschallin. I only hope that, if faced with a similar situation, I would be as noble as she.