Continuing my review of the opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss which ended the 2016-2017 season of Live in HD From the Metropolitan Opera. I watched the show in an IMAX movie theater. I was alone this time. A friend was supposed to come with me, but she bailed at the last minute, just couldn’t stand the thought of sitting for 5 hours — yeah, this was a long one. Me, I could easily sit for 5 hours just watching and listening to Elīna Garanča in the “trousers” role of Octavian. There is something very sexy about the mezzo-soprano voice. And I don’t know what it is about tiny Latvia, but they have punched way above their pay-grade in the production of great opera singers.
Anyhow, having gotten that off my chest, it is time to continue breaking down this opera. When it comes to Strauss, I always feel like I am not qualified at all to discuss his works, neither musicologically, nor psychologically. So why do I even bother trying? Because I am ambitious. I like most of his stuff, but it’s up there, above my head. And frankly, I don’t know why Der Rosenkavalier is such a popular work, even in the United States. I know why I like it, but I don’t know why other people like it. It’s not all that accessible. Strauss is no Verdi. Maybe it’s the sexuality, the Fin de siècle decadence, the gender-bending, the tittilation. Maybe it’s the broad comedy, the vaudeville buffoonery. I’ll get to that later, when we discuss Günther Groissböck and his (somewhat unorthodox) portrayal of Baron Ochs. In a way, Groissböck sort of stole the show, and all he had to do was be a bass, reach his low notes, not sing in a funny voice, and portray the Baron as a complete psychopath. All in a day’s work!
Now, everybody knows that this opera begins with that famous 7-note horn solo riff in the Overture, here is an example. Once you hear that riff, you never get it out of your mind:
What do the horn notes mean? I don’t know what the musicologists say. I think maybe the horn notes signal the moment when 17-year-old Count Octavian Rofrano scores his home-run with the Marschallin. A mature but still beautiful woman of 32. Who happens to be Octavian’s cousin, which makes the sex all the more piquant, because now you add incest to child molestation. (Thinking in modern terms.)
The Overture continues for a few more minutes, and then the curtain rises on the post-coital cuddling of the happy couple. In the libretto, the two lovers have endearing nicknames for each other, when they are not just formally calling each other “Mon cousin” and “Ma cousine”.
Octavian calls Marie “Ma Bichette” which does not mean what you think it does; that’s French for “doe”, as in “doe a deer”. And she calls him “Quinquin“, I googled it, and apparently it is bastard French for German “Kindchen”, “my little child”. So cute!
The pair are rudely interrupted with the arrival of Marie’s other cousin, Baron Ochs von Lerchenau, who simply bangs on the door and tries to barge into Marie’s bedchamber. (Since Ochs is Marie’s cousin, and Quinquin is also her cousin, then, by the law of commutation, Ochs and Quinquin are also cousins…). Marie panics at first, thinking her husband has returned and will find her in the bedroom with Octavian. With nowhere to hide, Octavian quickly grabs some female garments and dresses himself as a chambermaid. And this is the classic opera hat-trick for the trousers role: A girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl! Elīna pulls it off beautifully, she portrays the fake chambermaid “Mariandel” just like a boy in drag. And I like the fact that she doesn’t do what some do in this role, and sing Mariandel in a “funny” voice. No, she just continues to sing beautifully, in her own voice, and this is the way I like it. (As a personal aside: I don’t like it when people sing in “funny voices” in Grand Opera, not even Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.)
It goes without saying that the horny and brutal Ochs (which is German for “Ox”) finds himself sexually attracted to the maid, Mariandel. Why? Because she is a powerless servant, and he is a brute who can’t keep it in his pants! Sexual harrassment is the only thing that gives this Baron’s life any meaning.
In between chasing the fake maid around Marie’s bedchamber, Ochs explains to his cousine what he needs from her: He is set to woo the hand of the daughter of a coarse (but rich) commoner. The daughter of a stinking bourgeois. He needs this marriage, because he is bankrupt. He is willing to trade his noble rank for the price of a rich dowry. And he needs the high-ranking Marschallin to help him pull this off.
In a backstage interview Groissböck explained how his interpretation of the comic villain, Ochs, differs somewhat from the traditional one. He doesn’t see Ochs in the classic Italian Commedia dell’arte tradition of the “ridiculous old man”, or “basso buffo” who sings in a funny voice and needs to be taught a lesson, because he thinks he can snag a virgin, even though he’s so old and over the hill. Instead, he sings Ochs as a sinister pervert and bully. Who is still laughingly funny because of his batshit crazy and over-the-top relentlessness!
[to be continued]