Fans of Bollywood should find Der Rosenkavalier (The Rose-Bearer, 1911) to be strikingly familiar: central to the plot is an arranged marriage, which in the 18th century--the period of the opera's action--was common among the European aristocracy. The middle-aged Baron Ochs has come to Vienna to marry Sophie, the beautiful young daughter of the wealthy merchant Herr Faninal. From the marriage Ochs will gain Faninal's wealth and Sophie's youth and beauty; Faninal and Sophie will get a more exalted social status. It’s a straightforward business deal between the two men: Sophie herself doesn't have a say in the matter.
Or does she after all? In the comedies of Molière and Beaumarchais and Goldoni, the young girl destined to be united with a husband she doesn't love contrives to thwart the older man's desires and assert her own. And it was those comedies, along with Louvet de Couvray's novel Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas (1781), Mozart and da Ponte's opera Le Nozze di Figaro (1786), and William Hogarth's painting series Marriage à la Mode (1743-45) that librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal took as explicit models when he sent the first outline of what would become Der Rosenkavalier to the composer Richard Strauss.
The engine of the plot may be the plans of the Baron Ochs (pronounced "ox," and with good reason) to marry Sophie, and her attempt to escape the fate the Baron and her father have arranged for her. But the true centers of interest are the Marschallin, a woman past the first bloom of youth, and her adolescent lover Octavian--played, like Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro, by a woman. In another Figaro parallel, the Marschallin, like Mozart's Countess, is trapped in an unhappy marriage and facing the loss of her youth and allure. Octavian is evidently neither her first nor probably her last lover.
In the first moments of the opera Octavian and the Marschallin are entwined in her bedchamber after a night of passionate lovemaking (strongly, not to say vulgarly, suggested in the opera's overture) when Ochs bursts through the door. He's made his unwelcome entrance to ask the Marschallin to nominate the person who will be the bearer of the silver rose that Ochs, by family tradition, will present to his new bride. The Marschallin, in a moment of perhaps deliberate incaution, names Octavian. Her choice will have far-reaching consequences for everyone involved when the 16-year old Sophie and the 17-year-old Octavian set eyes on each other. (The presentation of the rose, above; Octavian and Sophie becoming acquainted, at right.)
Baron Ochs is usually portrayed as a blustery, dim-witted and lecherous old man, an immediate figure of low comedy. But Ochs doesn't have to be such a buffoon. Strauss himself wrote of the Baron, "Most basses have presented him as a disgusting vulgar monster with a repellent mask and proletarian manners. . . This is quite wrong: Ochs must be a rustic Don Juan of 35, who is after all a nobleman, if a rather boorish one, and who knows how to conduct himself decently." But over time Ochs has become a role for aging basses, so that in most productions these days he seems to be at least in his 50s, and the coarse and clownish aspects of the character have become more prominent.
The jarring comedy of the Baron is all the more surprising because Hofmannsthal could write scenes possessing an incredible delicacy of feeling. In the first act the Baron's plans bring the Marschallin to the uncomfortable recognition of the ways in which her own life parallels Sophie's: she too was a young girl brought out of convent school to marry an older man whom she barely knew. This recognition makes her feel the passing of her youth all too keenly, and in a touching monologue at the close of the first act she laments the passage of time:
"How can it really be
that once I was little Resi
and that one day
I shall be an old woman?
An old woman, the old Marschallin!
'There she goes, the old Princess Resi!'
How can this happen?
How can our dear Lord make it so?
When I am still the same person?
And if He must make it so,
Why does He let me see it all
so very clearly?
Why does He not hide it from me?"
Strauss felt that this scene must be played, "not sentimentally as a tragic farewell to life, but with Viennese grace and lightness, half weeping, half smiling."
In the great final scene of the opera, Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin all finally meet. Sophie realizes immediately that there's a disturbingly intimate connection between Octavian and the Marschallin; Octavian feels torn between his new love for Sophie and his sensual connection to the Marschallin; and the Marschallin realizes that the inevitable day of parting from Octavian has arrived far sooner than she anticipated. These characters express their bittersweet feelings in a trio which contains some of the most breathtaking music in all opera.
This is an excerpt of the final scene taken from the 1960 film directed by Paul Czinner, conducted by Herbert von Karajan, and featuring Sena Jurinac as Octavian, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, and Analise Rothenberger as Sophie (alas, no subtitles):
As if this ravishing music weren't enough, at the end of this amazing scene the Marschallin withdraws, leaving Sophie and Octavian to sing one of the most tender love duets ever written.
There are many wonderful recordings of this opera to choose from. I can personally recommend two on DVD. The first is the 1979 Munich production conducted by Carlos Kleiber and designed by Otto Schenk. It has perhaps the greatest Octavian ever in Brigitte Fassbaender, who has the charisma of the young Elvis in the role; the heartbreaking Marschallin of Gwyneth Jones; and the Sophie of Lucia Popp, who may look slightly mature for the role (Sophie is, after all, supposed to be 16) but whose youthful voice and acting sweep away any hesitation. My second recommendation is the 1985 London production conducted by Georg Solti and designed by William Dudley and Maria Björnson. Anne Howells is not perhaps among the greatest Octavians, but Kiri Te Kanawa is a coolly regal Marschallin, and Barbara Bonney's beautiful (and beautifully sung) Sophie makes the "love at first sight" moment with Octavian in Act II perfectly convincing. The 1960 film excerpted above also looks well worth viewing in its entirety.
The classic 1956 studio recording conducted by Herbert von Karajan with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin, Christa Ludwig as Octavian and Teresa Stich-Randall as Sophie remains the standard version more than 50 years on. But this is an opera that should really be seen to be appreciated--live, if possible, but if not, via one of the superb DVD versions recommended above.
The photos in this post were taken by Terrence McCarthy during San Francisco Opera's 2007 production, which was adapted by Thierry Bosquet from Alfred Roller's original 1911 designs. The Marschallin was sung by Soile Isokoski (pictured above) and Martina Serafin, Sophie by Miah Persson, and Octavian by Joyce DiDonato. DiDonato writes a delightful blog, Yankee Diva, which I highly recommend.
Update 12 August 2009: Thanks to ruizdechavez, (most of) the final trio and duet of the 1979 Munich Rosenkavalier featuring Lucia Popp, Brigitte Fassbaender and Gywneth Jones has been posted on YouTube--watch it while you can: