Today finishing my review of the opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss which concluded the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for this season. I know that this review has turned out to be quite long. But then, it’s a long opera. And, believe it or not, my blog has enjoyed an above-average number of views over the past few days — methinks there are some secret opera lovers out there! Come on, folks, come on out of that closet, and stop pretending that you enjoy hip-hop music!
Anyhow, let’s get down to business and finish this: All we have left to go over is the predictable conclusion to these zany hijinks. Recall that the story is basically an 18th-century bedroom farce, in the style of Molière. This is a story of complicated human relationships. The key relationship is the love affair between 32-year-old Marie (=the Marschallin) and her boy-toy lover 17-year-old Count Octavian. (They are cousins, by the way.) In Act I, after a passionate love-making, we saw Marie rudely break up with the infatuated lad. Why? Because she is racked with female neurosis, she sees the age difference, obsesses about age and growing old. She confesses that she sometimes wanders around the palace at night and tries to stop the clocks. Time, the friend of youth, is the enemy of the mature woman.
Not to mention that Marie is married, she is carrying on this affair behind her husband’s back, and this causes her maybe a molecule of guilt. For the same reason that Countess Rosina in the Beaumarchais plays of the same era breaks off her relationship with her page-boy Cherubino. This plot point is part of the canon, and it plays realistically because, well, this IS human nature.
What the Marschallin didn’t expect is that Octavian would bounce back so soon – hey, he should have suffered mental anguish at least for a couple of hours — but no! When, on behalf of Baron Ochs, Octavian delivers the traditional silver rose to Sophie von Faninal, the Baron’s bride-to-be, the two teenagers (she is only 15) fall in lust at first sight. And Gold-digger Sophie — here is where I break with canon and denigrate her character — sees her chance to have her cake and eat it too: If she can snag Octavian, then she still gets her promotion to aristocrat while not having to marry that dreadful drunken lout, Baron Oxen.
Meanwhile, the marriage contract is practically signed: The only glitch is that Ochs insists on a reverse-dowry — see, he’s broke, and he needs a large dose of Faninal’s money, in return for making Sophie a Baroness. Once the parties (Ochs and Sophie’s father) get over this part of the buying and selling of human flesh, they have encountered a second obstacle: Sophie has declared that she will not marry Ochs. Sophie’s father is perplexed and outraged. In the canon of Commedia dell’arte stock characters, Sophie is supposed to be the sweet and obedient daughter, the “O mio Babbino caro” type. But when she rebels, it’s not just because Ochs has been brutally harrassing her, she also sees a better prospect in the wings: Octavian.
In her backstage interview, soprano Erin Morley was asked if her portrayal of Sophie was more “feisty” than usual. “Feisty” being considered a positive thing in the modern world, especially for girls. Seeing Sophie as a proto-feminist. As if verbal feistiness alone can save Sophie from a horrible marriage. No, in this case a bit of female Conniving is a way more effective strategy.
Between Acts II and III we are to understand that some plotting has gone on behind the scenes….
Octavian has rushed back to the Marschallin
crying “Mommy Mommy!” to request her assistance in stopping the marriage between Sophie and Ochs. Oddly enough, Marie doesn’t appear to have cottoned on to the fact that Octavian and Sophie are already an item. She seems to think that this is just some abstract, feminist project to save a young girl. We know this because later, towards the end, when she learns that Octavian wants to marry Sophie himself, she murmurs wonderingly: “I knew this would happen, I just didn’t know it would happen so soon…”
To me, this is the weakest link in the plot chain: Namely, not being clear about the Marschallin’s motive in helping Octavian abort Sophie’s marriage. All we have is some vague motivation involving female solidarity, and the Marschallin’s contempt for Baron Ochs. Other than that, it’s a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it is explained better in the original French plays, which, alas, I have not read.
The other thing I didn’t like about this production is that they chose to set Act III in a bordello. Perhaps the Creative Director getting confused between this story and “The Merry Widow”, which also starred Renée Fleming. All part and parcel of a trend, in recent years, at the Met, to include vulgar bits of pornography in otherwise respectable productions. I grant that the horny Baron might have chosen such a venue for his rendez-vous with the chambermaid “Mariandel” (=Octavian in drag). But was it really necessary to flash female tits and asses at the viewers? Remember, folks, people bring their children to these operas. To give ’em some Kultur. Let the kids find their own pornography, on the internet.
Be that as it may, the Marschallin and Octavian have cooked up some zany sitcom plot against Ochs, in which they mean to expose him to the public as a philanderer (which he is), and frame him to the police as a bigamist (which he actually isn’t.) While Ochs is flirting with the fake Mariandel, random people (hired by the Marschallin) wander in and out of the room. Including an old harridan who claims that Ochs is her husband. And a small army of orphans bleating “Papa! Papa!” When the police come to investigate, Ochs has to admit defeat and give up on his plan to marry Sophie. Especially after Octavian steps out of his disguise, and the Marschallin shows up in person to twist the knife into her cousin.
Love Matches Always Bring Successful Marriages
With a defeated Ochs out of the way, Octavian now has to make his final choice between Marie and Sophie. For a moment, it almost seems like he will go back to the Marschallin. “Well, we broke up your marriage,” he tells Sophie. “You can thank me later.”
“But… but… ” she stammers. “I was expecting … more….” Of course she was. She was expecting to get hitched with this wealthy, handsome, and important young Count, whom she has known for all of one day… Oh, she’s a regular Cinderella, all right, and she didn’t have to do one damned thing to earn her Prince. Not even sweep the floor.
It is the Marschallin who delivers the final rebuff to Octavian and sends him on his way, into the arms of Sophie. The final trio (two sopranos and a mezzo) turns into a duet of the two sopranos. And the gorgeousness of the music urges one to believe: Yes! This is true love!
Remember that “he” is 17 and she is 15. They will be wed tomorrow, and their marriage has a 100% chance of being successful. Just like the earlier love-match between Rosina and Count Almaviva. Who loved each other so passionately and defied her father’s wishes in order to consummate their lust … and ended up living unhappily for the next 20 years or so on his country estate, with the Count banging every servant-girl in the place, and Rosina having an illegitimate baby with her page-boy Cherubino… But that’s a whole ‘nother story!