Tomorrow! And tomorrow the sun will shine again and on the way that I will go, she will again unite us, the happy ones amidst this sun-breathing earth, and to the beach, wide, wave-blue will we still and slowly descend silently we will look in each other’s eyes and upon us will sink the mute silence of happiness
There’s been a lot of opera in “Famous Finales” week here at Musica in Extenso, and I’m going to continue adding to the pile. This beautiful final trio & duet at the end of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is one of my favorite operatic pieces and such a sumptuous way to end this story of love and the heartbreak of letting someone go. The fact that Octavian is a pants role is what makes this work so gloriously well, with these three soaring voices filling the air with joyful agony. I’m pretty picky about my trio here, and this is one of my favorites, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Agnes Baltsa, and Janet Perry from the 1984 Salzburg Festival.
It’s been a wonderful season on the blog, and I hope you’ve all enjoyed it! - Melinda Beasi
Die Semperoper in Dresden, Sachsen, Eastern Germany is the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper (Saxon State Opera), the concert hall of the Staatskapelle (Saxon State Orchestra), and it’s home to the Semperoper ballet. The building is located near the Elbe River in Dresden’s historic center. It was built in 1841 and rebuilt after a fire in 1869. It has a long history of premieres, including major works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. Read more.
Richard Strauss - Fruhling (from Vier Letzte Lieder, Op post.) - Renée Fleming
Wandering in darkness under your high vaulting branches, I have dreamed so long of your green leaves and breezy blue sky, the vibrant fragrances–and the bird song!
Now, as you open your robe of winter night, your brilliance staggers every sense. The world sparkles in the light of a Miracle, your recurring presence.
I feel the healing touch of softer days, warm and tender. My limbs tremble–happily, too much– as I stand inside your splendor.
As an interdisciplinary composer and performer, you’d think that I would be deeply into opera. Yet, not so much. I’ll spare you my long rant about why, and boil it down to this. Opera is meant to be the apex of musical theater, and to completely work, the finished piece must function - and succeed - as both music and theater. This rarely happens. I can more or less count on one hand those works where the music is consistently compelling, and I am also caught up in the drama deeply enough to willingly suspend disbelief. In fact, much of the time, the only disbelief is that I spent money to sit through it.
So when it works, I’m always touched. I know for many opera fans, their connection to the opera is through a devotion for certain performers. Opera lovers are often lovers of certain singers, or certain roles. One of the most beloved is the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. This role was one of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf’s defining moments. Others over the years have claimed it as their own. In our days, it is Renee Fleming who has the strongest stamp on the part, and she has sung it multiple times in multiple productions over the years. But recently, Fleming has decided to step back from operatic performances, while her voice is still the memorable instrument it has always been. (I first heard her live in Handel’s Alcina, and she was stunning.) Fleming decided to go out in style: one final production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, with the last performance included in the Met Live in HD series, broadcast live to movie theaters around the world.
To add to the star power, and nostalgia overload, mezzo soprano Elina Garanca, who has been performing the role of Octavian for many years, decided it was time to retire the part, while she could still be believable as a teenage boy. So this was also her final performance in a signature role. Get your hankies ready, ladies and gentlemen.
So, enter the skeptic, moi. I’ve never been terribly fond of Strauss. I’ve tried listening to Der Rosenkavalier many times, and struggle to get through it. While I’ve come to adore the final scene (the trio and duet that end the work), the rest of the opera, as a friend once noted, “is really boring.” The work always intrigued me, however, because of its obvious lesbian subtext. When Strauss decided to make Octavian a “trouser” role, of a man played by a mezzo-soprano, it meant a love triangle of three women. (Oddly enough, not unlike Handel’s Alcina.) Usually, the characters are dressed up in powdered wigs, in an 18th century setting, which actually increases the femininity of Octavian. I bet a lot of the opera’s fans are lesbians, or straight men getting off on the lesbian love scenes.
On the other hand, Rosenkavalier has one of the most literate librettos ever written. Hugo von Hofmannsthal created an intricate, funny, literary play. The opera is 4 hours long because Strauss couldn’t bring himself to cut any of the dialogue. Well, this new Met production, which sets the action not in the 18th century, but in the early 20th century, when the opera was written, suddenly made the whole thing work. Garanca was somehow believable as a 17-year-old boy, not just as a woman-in-drag. Strauss’s music didn’t seem to smother the libretto, but to enhance its emotion. Aspects of the plot that usually ring false in other productions, suddenly rang true. Baron Ochs, instead of an elderly bumbler, was a youthful sexist pig. Sophie was not a passive observer, but feisty and independent. I found myself welling up with tears at the end of the 1st Act, and again at the end of Act 3.
Having done a shout out to Garanca and Fleming, who both brought complete commitment to their roles, American soprano Erin Morley was wonderful as Sophie (and not the least bit schwach, as she describes herself). Gunther Groissböck’s Ochs brought an uncanny hint of Donald Trump to the role. And Matthew Polenzani sang the song of the Italian Singer in the first act with vitality and tenderness. That small part helped to launch the career of a young Italian tenor named Luciano Pavarotti. The huge standing ovation at the end of the performance was deserved all around.
The last tone poem Richard Strauss wrote was also his most extravagant, calling for the largest orchestra of all his music [along with the typical orchestra the work calls for 12 horns, 2 trumpets, and 2 trombones offstage, as well as a heckelphone, cowbells, a wind machine, a thunder machine, glockenspiel, celesta, and organ]. An Alpine Symphony was inspired by a hike up the alps that Strauss took years before, and I can only imagine he had a Wordsworthian level of Romantic awe climbing the slopes. In writing music to reflect on his trip, he’d ended up with a glorious quarter hour at least of passionate music. The poem takes the listener through 24 hours in the alps, recreating the sense of majesty through the sunrise, peace through the pastures, violence through the storm, and indifference through the main descending theme; the cold, mysterious statement. For me, it’s one of those pieces that is easy to get lost in, to follow along with the delicious string, woodwind, and brass writing, to let the music flow over you, and to make you forget that any time has passed. Though the music is too warm at times, too dramatic to be an indifferent objective nature painting. Interesting enough, it could be considered an atheistic symphony. Strauss had been compelled by Mahler’s death to complete the work, and while he wanted to depict the alps, he also wanted to evoke Nietzsche after reading Der Antichrist. Strauss wrote, “Mahler, the Jew, could achieve elevation in Christianity… It is clear to me that the German nation will achieve new creative energy only by liberating itself from Christianity… I shall call my Alpine symphony: Der Antichrist, since it represents: moral purification through one’s own strength, liberation through work, worship of eternal, magnificent nature.” Though he dropped the atheist aspect in the final form, it makes sense to think that he is glorifying the natural world around us as is without evoking the supernatural. If I wanted to do a more postmodernist deconstruction, I’d argue the “true” program of the work is how humans project emotion and morality onto nature. It isn’t the sun and the trees and the mountains that are happy and full of wonder, it’s the viewer/listener. And it isn’t the mountain that is afraid when a storm passes through; we are afraid of the storm. In a way, this journey through the mountains is almost a journey through life, with it’s ups and downs, its most playful and most serious, the joys, anxieties, angers, sorrows, and few moments of peace. At this point I’m getting a little too Romantic, so I’ll stop typing now and let you sink into the music.
1. Nacht (Night) 2. Sonnenaufgang (Sunrise) 3. Der Anstieg (The Ascent) 4. Eintritt in den Wald (Entry into the Forest) 5. Wanderung neben dem Bache (Wandering by the Brook) 6. Am Wasserfall (At the Waterfall) 7. Erscheinung (Apparition) 8. Auf blumigen Wiesen (On Flowering Meadows) 9. Auf der Alm (On the Alpine Pasture) 10. Durch Dickicht und Gestrüpp auf Irrwegen (Through Thickets and Undergrowth on the Wrong Path) 11. Auf dem Gletscher (On the Glacier) 12. Gefahrvolle Augenblicke (Dangerous Moments) 13. Auf dem Gipfel (On the Summit) 14. Vision (Vision) 15. Nebel steigen auf (Mists Rise) 16. Die Sonne verdüstert sich allmählich (The Sun Gradually Becomes Obscured) 17. Elegie (Elegy) 18. Stille vor dem Sturm (Calm Before the Storm) 19. Gewitter und Sturm, Abstieg (Thunder and Tempest, Descent) 20. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset) 21. Ausklang (Quiet Settles) 22. Nacht (Night)
Musical director: Daniele Gatti Stage director: Ivo van Hove Sets and lighting: Jan Versweyveld Costumes: An D'Huys Video: Tal Yarden Choreography: Wim Vandekeybus Dramaturgy: Jan Vandenhouwe Orchestra: Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra