Where we left off, I was praising the musical and comedy talents of bass Günther Groissböck, who almost stole the show. Groissböck declines to portray the villain, Baron Ochs, in the traditional Italian “buffo” style of the deluded old man seeking to marry a young virgin. His Ochs is not old. He is not young either. He is middle-aged, bald, hides his baldness under a wig, which later falls off, in the traditional Commedia dell’arte gag — but this one concession to vanity does not make him a buffoon. Nor is Ochs deluded: Unlike Don Pasquale, he has every rational chance of getting the girl. Sophie von Faninal’s bourgeois father is more than eager to give away his 15-year-old treasure. It would be an even exchange: Ochs has noble rank. Faninal has money and a marriageable daughter. Both sides are happy to trade. Sophie herself, when we first meet her in Act II, is looking forward to meeting her betrothed, not to mention happily counting all the accoutrements of noble life that will befall her in her new state.
And this is where I am forced to comment, that I do not like the character of Sophie. I know that we, in the audience, are supposed to adore her and fall in love with her at first sight, as Octavian does. Sure, she is young, sweet, and beautiful. But she is not virtuous, in my opinion. (I concede that my interpretation might be unorthodox.)
To me, Sophie comes across as a bit of a gold-digger. And this is nothing negative to say about soprano Erin Morley who portrayed Sophie. Morley is a talented singer and actress. It’s the character itself, and it’s right there in the libretto: Sophie wants to marry up. She wants to be a noblewoman. She would have jumped into bed with Ochs in a second, were he not simply too, too egregious. She only rejects Ochs when she sees that she has a much better prospect waiting in the wings: the Baron’s cousin, young Count Octavian Rofrano. Soon enough, Sophie has Octavian in her tender clutches.
High And Low
But where does this leave Octavian’s current lover, the Marschallin? I forgot to mention that in Act I, after their passionate love-making, Bichette broke up with Quinquin. Why? Typical female neurosis: Marie is worried about the age difference (she is 32, Octavian is 17), she knows that sooner or later Octavian will meet somebody more suitable (like, more his own age, and preferably not already married). Instead of just riding out a good thing until it comes to an end all by itself, Marie decides to quit now, while she is still ahead.
So, she preemptively breaks up with her boy toy. Around this same time, coincidentally, Ochs has appeared on the scene, with his need for an emissary to deliver the ritual Silver Rose to his betrothed. A tradition of his family, the Barons of Lerchenau. Not really thinking this through, Marie assigns her now ex-lover Octavian the duty of being the “Rose-Bearer” for their mutual cousin. Octavian will deliver the bling to Sophie. And again, everybody except the Marschallin can see exactly where this is going to lead. When Octavian enters the Faninal home and presents the rose to Sophie, the two teenagers fall in lust at first sight.
In the ensuing three-way between Sophie, Octavian and Ochs, hi-jinks ensue, resulting in an aborted swordfight, and Ochs getting lightly wounded. In the tumult, Octavian runs home to seek counsel from the Marschallin. How can he abort Sophie’s marriage to such a lout?
Meanwhile, a wounded Baron Ochs embarks on his famous “Drunken Waltz” sequence. This is the best part of the whole opera. This is where Strauss proves that he is a true genius: In a completely in-your-face manner he insists on combining High and Low. A method he shows off to great effect in his other opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Where the composer directly, right on the same stage, combines “high” Wagnerian grand opera with the lowest of the low Commedia dell’arte Harlequinery. Literally. There is a Harlequin and a Columbine, singing side by side with tragic heroes from Greek mythology.
And even though Richard Strauss was not related to the famous “Waltz King” Johann Strauss (different family tree), he was no mean waltz writer himself. In this famous Act II sequence, he combines his sublime waltz music with the low-brow Ochs prancing about like a sociopathic Harlequin singing of his own vulgar desires.
Following this tour de force, as the curtain went down, Groissböck bounded into the wings for his backstage interview with HD host Matthew Polenzani. “I have no oxygen left,” Groissböck gasped. He had just finished on a low bass note, which he seemed to hold forever. “That was a low E!” Polenzani marvelled. “Is that as low as it goes?” “No, I have an even lower one – a C!” Groissböck bragged.
I found this clip on youtube, it’s a different production, but you can marvel at the sublime beauty of the waltz music; at Groissböck’s bass voice; his low notes; and the relentlessness of his reprehensible, yet strangely likable villain:
[to be continued]