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Rosy nights at the opera.

It was quite a shock to take down from my library shelf Joseph Kerman's esteemed study Opera as Drama (1956) and be reminded that an opera I love did not pass muster. For Kerman, Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier consists of "four finicky hours of leitmotives, modulations, and program-musical wit." He writes that "the opening tableau is already so enervated in sentiment that the relationship between Octavian and the Marschallin seems as unappetizing as their affectionate nicknames" and that "the scene of the presentation of the rose has all the solidity of a fifty-cent valentine" Moreover, Kerman concludes, "no one who has understood The Marriage of Figaro could ever have taken Der Rosenkavalier seriously, unless it was Strauss and Hofmannsthal, and even that is not certain"

Strange--all throughout 1999, the fiftieth anniversary year of the death of Richard Strauss, there has been a fulsome celebration of his life and work with the publication in English of no less than four full length studies,(1) not to mention the recent reissue of Kurt Wilhelm's richly illustrated study, Richard Strauss: An Intimate Portrait (Thames & Hudson). Pace Kerman, Der Rosenkavalier occupies an important place in all four of these recently published scholarly examinations, and this constant and seemingly ever increasing interest was confirmed and amplified by a brilliant revival/restoration at the Metropolitan Opera this winter of Nathaniel Merrill's thirty-year-old staging, brushed up and briskly conducted by James Levine. An encore broadcast on PBS of the 1982 version of this same production, featuring Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, Judith Blegen, and Luciano Pavarotti, is scheduled to be seen on March 22 of this year. Last but not at all least, the Met is issuing (for a $150 donation) a CD set of a 1951 performance of the opera, featuring Eleanor Steber, Jarmila Novotna, and Erna Berger, all under the imperious baton of Fritz Reiner.

The Met's six performances of an apparently uncut Der Rosenkavalier (going from 7:30 P.M. to 12:05 A.M., counting the two intermissions), with a thankfully unchanging cast and with the added public benefit of a matinee broadcast on Saturday, January 29, gave evidence of scrupulous preparation and sensitive casting. The three principal female roles are crucial--in these performances, the trio consisted of mezzo Susan Graham as Octavian, soprano Renee Fleming as the Marschallin, and high soprano (Strauss's term) Heidi Grant Murphy as Sophie. It is a commonplace in Strauss criticism that he had a "love affair" with women's voices. Nothing could be more obvious, if we take into account the prominent and exacting demands for the voice in such works as Salome (1905), Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911), on down to the autumnal eloquence of Capriccio (1942) and of course the sublime Four Last Songs (1948). After all, Strauss's wife, the formidable soprano Pauline de Ahna, was a renowned performer in her time. She sang at Bayreuth at the invitation of Cosima Wagner, and accompanied Strauss in a concert tour of the United States in 1904, giving some thirty-five song recitals. Although she left behind no recordings and stopped performing after the American tour, we have some idea of what she sounded like. The curmudgeonly critic Eduard Hanslick, the bane of Wagner's existence, reviewed a Vienna recital of Pauline de Ahna, accompanied by her husband. Hanslick exclaimed, "Frau de Ahna's excellently trained, rich, sweet soprano did our hearts good! We may surely call her his better and more beautiful half." We may rightfully presume that there is a musical agenda behind Hanslick's praise. Just prior to Frau Strauss's recital, he had once again displayed his anti-Wagnerian stance by drubbing her husband's tone poem Ein Heldenleben on the occasion of its Vienna premiere.

The particular voice timbre preferred by Strauss, both "rich" and "sweet," can be heard, for instance, in the 1933 abridged recording of Der Rosenkavalier, featuring Maria Olczewska as Octavian, Lotte Lehmann as the Marschallin, and the Sophie of Elisabeth Schumann. It was no surprise that Strauss should describe Lotte Lehmann as "the ideal interpreter of my operas." Closer to our times, another kind of preferred timbre can be heard in the voice of Ljuba Welitsch, the Bulgarian soprano whom Strauss had personally coached just before a performance of Salome at the Vienna State Opera in 1944. Five years later, in 1949, Welitsch made a stunning monophonic recording of the final scene from Salome, accompanied by Fritz Reiner and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra--a performance that still occupies a special place in the now wildly abundant Strauss discography. Even closer to our times are such singers as Hilde Gueden, Sena Jurinac, Maria Reining, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa della Casa, and Teresa Stich-Randall, naming only six singers and thus unfairly excluding so many other distinguished Marschallins, Octavians, and Sophies from the past three decades.

Each individual voice here mentioned might collectively give us the ideal composite Strauss soprano or mezzo. How to describe what he wanted? In spite of the sometimes hypertrophic orchestral accompaniment supporting his sopranos and mezzos during this period of Strauss's compositions, it can be said that Strauss was always searching for something different from a Wagnerian singer, typified by the opulence and majesty we now associate with Kirsten Flagstad and, more recently, Birgit Nilsson. Again and again, scholars find the composer begging for a relatively light, silvery voice--not thin, but penetrating and able to cut through the rich orchestral fabric. For instance, he wanted, paradoxically, a light and capricious singer for his ideal Salome, with a "childish charm" and a "latent sensuality" in the words of Michael Kennedy.

In this regard, the young Herbert von Karajan recalled that Strauss once complained to him: "Nowadays all the heavy voices are singing Salome. It's all gone out of control. I don't want this!" In this sense, Welitsch was perfect, giving out a sense of girlish passion--with touches of the sinister--hovering over a purposefully turgid and declamatory orchestral web. This kind of voice is also particularly suited to the operas of Strauss's beloved idol Mozart, at odds with the voices needed for the operas of Strauss's youthful infatuation, Wagner. It must always be kept in mind that Strauss, as conductor and sometime head of the opera houses in Berlin and Vienna in his maturity, was primarily responsible for the return of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte to the European opera house repertory, the work having been relegated to oblivion by misguided romantic ideas about Mozart as the composer of a powdered rococo trifle.

Keeping in mind the relevance still of Strauss's sonic ideal, the trio of singers heard at the Met's first performance of the season and the matinee broadcast were all nicely bright in tone with the always appropriate metallic edge during dialogue and ensembles. This listener had the distinct impression that Susan Graham as Octavian gave the most forceful characterization within the trio, while Renee Fleming was a distanced, pure-toned, and occasionally inaudible Marschallin of slightly less than majestic carriage in the last act. The difficult role of Sophie, a vapid ninny if there ever was one, had a fine interpreter in Heidi Grant Murphy; her hard tone complemented the more rounded timbres of the other two.

As for the Ochs von Lerchenau of Franz Hawlata, it was good to see a baron of less than Falstaffian girth. Nevertheless, there were slapstick touches that really went beyond the pale. Long ago, having learned some hard lessons from witnessing innumerable productions of the opera, Strauss himself warned both singers and directors that
 most basses have presented [Ochs] as a disgusting vulgar monster with a
 repellent mask and proletarian manners.... This is quite wrong: Ochs must
 be a rustic beau of thirty-five, who is after all a member of the gentry,
 if somewhat countrified.

The impression given at the Met was that the singer had fallen into coarseness, both musical and visual; there was no sense of ironic pomp or the comic deflation that the role suggests.

The orchestra under Maestro Levine cannot be sufficiently praised, above all in the deft realization of the "Introduction and Pantomime" music at the beginning of Act III, marked to be played "as fast as possible." I am reminded of rule number nine of Strauss's not-quite-to-be-taken-seriously Ten Golden Rules for the Album of a Young Conductor: "When you think you have reached the limits of prestissimo, double the pace." Levine and the orchestra did just that. He is a master of this complex score, and the performance was nothing if not efficient, though it could hardly be said to exude charm and gemutlichkeit at all times.

Performance styles change. For instance, to what extent can we take as authoritative a particular recording that a composer such as Strauss has made of one of his works? In an interview with Paul Myers of the then Columbia Records, George Szell remembered Strauss's conductorial performances as "very often perfunctory. He might be aglow and aflame directing Cosi fan tutte, Tristan und Isolde, Die Walkure, or Fidelio, but intensely boring with Der Rosenkavalier or Salome. It would seem that the music had lost interest for him the moment he had finished with it"

This impression is further confirmed by available film excerpts of Strauss conducting portions of Der Rosenkavalier. They are remarkably uninflected and unemphatic. The conductor Fritz Busch noted that "Nothing annoyed [Strauss] more than when conductors wallowed in his lyrical outpourings." If anything characterizes contemporary interpretations of Der Rosenkavalier such as Levine's or, say, Bernstein's and Solti's, it is that they have much more heft and gravity than those produced during Strauss's lifetime. They also tend to dawdle, as Strauss never did. He just wanted to get back into the wings to continue his favorite card game, "Skat." In this sense, Robert Heger's blithe, fluent conducting of the abridged 1933 Der Rosenkavalier stands either as an admirable performance ideal or one that, by our standards today, is insufficiently pointed, without springy accents.

One last and not at all minor detail: Strauss's ideal Ochs von Lerchenau, Richard Mayr (who was prevented from singing in the 1911 premiere because of contractual obligations), finally recorded his stupendous reading of the role in this 1933 recording. You only have to see a few minutes of the Rosenkavalier video filmed at Salzburg in 1962 under Herbert von Karajan, and featuring one of Mayr's heirs apparent, Otto Edelmann, in the role of Ochs, to realize how the projection of porcine gallantry can work on the stage without any heavy burlesque. This elusive touch in a performer is what Alan Rich called the "tastefully controlled low comedy of Edelmann's Ochs" As the Marschallin so clearly states at the end of Act I, "Leicht muss man sein, mit leichtem Herzen und leichten Handen" ("One must take it lightly, with light heart and light hands").

Our four Strauss scholars seem to agree that, after the blaring dissonances of Elektra, which certified Strauss as an avant-gardist, both librettist and composer enthusiastically declared a "time out" to indulge in an exercise of what might be called the anachronistic imagination. As one critic put it, Strauss "had had enough of murder and perversion." It was necessary to follow Elektra with a "Mozart" opera, a "psychological comedy with both mischievous and sweet characters, and, like a Beaumarchais play, containing round misunderstandings, love's complications, and disguises in which nobody recognizes anybody;' as George R. Marek said. It must have been irresistible for both Hofmannsthal and Strauss to go back to an imagined time where, at the proper distance, courtly punctilio was observed in the text, if not in the music. The elaborate polyphony, occasional orchestral surfeit, and what Strauss himself admitted were "longueurs"--plus the waltzes outrageously inappropriate for an eighteenth-century setting--all these matters were grave problems for a few observers, in spite of the wholesale acclaim.

Strauss recognized his tendency to varnish his music. As Norman del Mar noted in his definitive three-volume study of Strauss's music,
 [An] absolute mastery of technique had, of course, its own special dangers.
 He could scarcely look at a page of score without new counterpoints
 suggesting themselves instantly to him, a "verdammte Begabung" as he
 described it, a damned gift which he was well aware prompted him often to
 overfill his scores.

Along the same lines, Thomas Mann wrote an enraged letter of sympathy to Hofmannsthal after the premiere. Mann was inconsolable:
 What in God's name do you really feel about the way Strauss has loaded and
 stretched your airy structure? A charming joke weighed down by four hours
 of din! ... Where is Vienna, where is the eighteenth century in this music?
 Hardly in the waltzes. They are anachronistic, and put the stamp of
 operetta on the entire work.... Not a word can be heard.

It should be said that the conductor at the 1911 premiere, Ernst von Schuch, was renowned for drowning out his singers. At the Met, the text came across with distinct enunciation, except for the moments when one of the singers had to race through a part as written by Strauss. The result is a Straussian "gabble" something of which he was very aware, and which is impossible to understand, no matter what language the opera might be sung in. As Strauss so ruefully admitted in his recollections of the first performances of the opera? "The evening was a little long drawn out, since, in my enthusiasm, I had composed the whole of the somewhat talkative text without alteration, although even the author had expected me to make cuts."

Still, unlike most opera librettos, Hofmannsthal's deserves close scrutiny beforehand. As Mr. Gilliam perceptively notes in his straightforward biography of Strauss, the opera is
 about time and transformation on multiple levels.... Octavian himself takes
 on various transformations, as the Marschallin's adolescent lover, as her
 chambermaid, as a rose cavalier, and--by the end--as a wiser young man....
 To Hofmannsthal, the miracle of life is that an old love can die, while a
 new one can arise in its ashes.

Moreover, there is more in the way of social commentary than is generally recognized. Hofmannsthal knew all about acquired nobility and sudden social ascension. As Ilse Barea tells the story in her still useful book on Vienna, the founder of the Hofmannsthal fortune centuries back, a silk merchant from Prague, came to Vienna and, once ennobled by the court, endearingly chose for his coat of arms a mulberry leaf (symbol of the silk industry) for one field of the escutcheon, and the tablets of the Mosaic law for the other. This man's son married an Italian woman and converted to Catholicism. Further on down the genealogical line, Hugo yon Hofmannsthal grew up as a Catholic, but was conscious of his Jewish ancestry: arrivisme was in the air. Theodor W. Adorno, in his scrutiny of the correspondence between Stefan George and Hofmannsthal, gave an acid portrait of the ambitious pretensions of the young Hofmannsthal:
 It is the diligent cosmopolitanism of the young gentleman of good family,
 the model which Hofmannsthal later used in stylizing his own past, a legend
 from the very first. His is the laxity of one who identifies with the
 aristocracy, or at least with that kind of upper-class society which shares
 most of its interests and knows its way around.

In his time, Hofmannsthal was able to observe the turn-of-the-century equivalents of a few wistful Marschallins of a certain age, accompanied by their passionate Italianate loves such as Octavian Rofrano. Also within his salon scrutiny were such types as the ambitious Faninal and his newly eligible daughter Sophie, she just out of the convent (as was the Marschallin before her arranged marriage a few decades before). In the opera, all of the foregoing characters are soon to be put to the test by the intrusion of the rough-hewn blueblood Ochs von Lerchenau, intent as he is of making use of his decrepit title to liquidate some longstanding debts by means of a suitable marriage to Sophie. In turn, pater Faninal, recently enriched as a purveyor to the troops in Flanders and possessor of twelve rentable houses, needs Ochs for his ascension in Viennese society just as much as Ochs needs financial relief. Social ambitions collude with the financial need of a wasted aristocracy. The same interaction between arrivistes and proud bluebloods occurs in Lampedusa's The Leopard.

Strauss himself, the son of the horn player Franz Strauss (who had risen in society by marrying the heiress of a Munich brewery), contracted marriage with the imperious daughter of an army general. Pauline de Ahna never permitted her composer-husband to forget his relative social inferiority within the echelons of Bavarian society. By most accounts (those of Alma and Gustav Mahler, Pauline Dehmel, and Lotte Lehmann), it was a bizarre marriage. Lehmann was the most devastating witness: Frau Strauss called him a peasant and their marriage a mesalliance; she could have had a dashing hussar, and his music couldn't compare with that of Massenet. Richard refused to be ruffled: "`Believe me, Lotte,' he said to me the day I was leaving, `the whole world's admiration interests me a great deal less than a single one of Pauline's fits of rage:'" It is true that he prided himself in playing out the role of Bavarian bumpkin. In this regard, Hofmannsthal's description of Strauss in a letter to a friend sounds strangely like the Marschallin in her confrontations with Ochs:
 [Strauss] is such an incredibly unrefined person, he has such a frightful
 bent toward triviality and kitsch ... an extraordinarily mixed character,
 but vulgarity rises in him as easily as groundwater.

The baffling marriage takes up a considerable amount of space in these four studies of Strauss; other points in common are the nature of his changing collaborations with Hofmannsthal up until the latter's tragic death in 1929; the mixed fortunes of Strauss's post-Hofmannsthal collaborations with Stefan Zweig, Josef Gregor, and Clemens Krauss; his ongoing interest in lieder composition and orchestral works, culminating in the final instrumental masterpiece, the Metamorphosen for twenty-three solo strings, composed in 1944-45.

If any major distinctions are to be made among these four books on Strauss, they lie in the varying interpretations and emphases on the relationship of Strauss to the Nazis. It is notoriously well known that the composer carried out a cynical dalliance with the movement known as National Socialism: he occupied official posts in their cultural ministry, was photographed effusively shaking hands with Goebbels, and wrote a fawning letter to Hitler. It is less well known that his only son Franz had married a woman of part-Jewish ancestry, that the couple was constantly threatened with arrest and deportation (and in fact was arrested for a short time), that Strauss's grandchildren wore the yellow star of David to school in Garmisch, thereby inciting the local toughs against them and the whole family, in spite of their eminence. Foolishly thinking, as did Wilhelm Furtwangler, that an accommodation with the regime was possible in the Thirties, Strauss got his comeuppance in the early Forties. By then, he was formally declared non grata, and indeed underwent a confrontational excoriation personally delivered by Goebbels: "Stop all your claptrap about the importance of serious music, once and for all. Tomorrow's art is different from yesterday's. You, Herr Strauss, belong to yesterday!"

All four Strauss scholars try to be fair each in their own way with this ignominious twelve-year-long episode. Michael Kennedy is the most judicious and balanced, bordering on the apologetic. Mr. Ashley sees Strauss as flailing between two extremes: "On occasion, he acted out of self-interest, or, even worse, personal spite; there were other times when he was, with out question, deliberately persecuted and emotionally blackmailed" Matthew Boyden's study, especially rich on the cultural background of Strauss's youth and adolescence, contains the most unrelentingly negative portrait of Strauss as a man. It must be said that the facts do not have to be at all twisted by any observer to make the man Strauss into a cold, calculating machine for luxuriant musical composition. As Boyden sourly notes,
 the unease to which he was prone during his last four years does point
 towards the existence of a conscience, but it might just as easily be
 argued that he was fearful for the future of his music in a world hateful
 to anyone and anything connected with Hitler's Reich.

As for the other three studies: Kennedy's is the most encyclopedic, while Ashley and Gilliam work with the same material in a more elegant and selective manner.

None of these academic studies can answer what Fritz Busch called in 1949
 the puzzle of Strauss, who in spite of his marvellous talents is not really
 penetrated and possessed by them like other great artists but, in fact,
 simply wears them like a suit of clothes which can be taken off at
 will--this puzzle neither I nor anyone else has yet succeeded in solving.

Strauss himself, in an uncommonly blunt moment of self-assessment, told Stefan Zweig in 1934 that
 what suits me best, South German bourgeois that I am, are sentimental jobs;
 but such bull's eyes as the Arabella duet and the Der Rosenkavalier trio
 don't happen every day. Must one become seventy years old to recognize that
 one's greatest strength lies in creating kitsch?

Not at all in his dotage, can the composer himself have been that far wrong?

(1) Richard Strauss, by Tim Ashley; Phaidon Press, 240 pages, $24.95. Richard Strauss, by Matthew Boyden; Northeastern University Press; 431 pages, $29.95. Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma, by Michael Kennedy; Cambridge University Press, 468 pages, $34.95. The Life of Richard Strauss, by Bryan Gilliam; Cambridge University Press, 202 pages, $49.95, $15.95 paper.

Alexander Coleman reviews music regularly for The New Criterion
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Coleman, Alexander
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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