Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rosenkavalier Stops Time

(Reflection on DER ROSENKAVALIER by Richard Strauss and Hugo van Hofmannsthal, after seeing the HD LIVE performance from the Metropolitan Opera, starring Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and Kristin Sigmundsson.)

All music and all drama are concerned with time. Composers mark time with musical events that develop through repetition, expansion, contraction. Playwrights often must find a way to compress a lifetime of story into a two- or three- act stretch of time. But time is both a theme of the libretto and a structural element in the music of DER ROSENKAVALIER in a way that never struck me before I saw the Met's HD Live production yesterday.

That's not entirely true, because I re-opened a recording made by Bernstein with Christa Ludwig back in 1971, and there in the liner notes is an essay, "Der Rosenkavalier: World without Time" by Robert Jacobson. He points to the anachronism of late-nineteenth-century waltzes in music for a comedy set a century earlier. Writing just as Modernism was beginning to look dated, he also suggests that, even to stage ROSENKAVALIER is anachronistic -- a view pretty laughable today.

The overall design of Act One plays with time. Young lover Octavian complains that morning has come, and he wants to extend the night by closing the drapes. The long twining lines of "his" duet with the Marschallin extend that mere moment of waking to some fifteen minutes. But day intrudes with the arrival of Baron Ochs and then a crowd of "riffraff," a scene of chaos meant to last the morning, tightly controlled by Strauss to last around ten minutes, a time marked by two attempts of "An Italian Singer" to finish the same verse of a love song about "love at a glance" over the chatter of gossips, orphans, hangers-on, and Ochs's bartering for his bride. The Marschallin listens to the song, is annoyed at Ochs's rudeness, all while watching the mirror as her hairdresser makes her up -- and she observes that he has made an old woman of her. Her patience at an end, she sends everyone out. Time stops again, while her sympathy for the young girl who'll have to endure marriage to Baron Ochs makes her think of time's passage in her own life:
I remember so well a young girl, straight out of a convent, who was ordered to marry. (Takes the mirror.) Where is she now? ... But how did it happen that I was the little Resi and suddenly I am the old woman! ... How does the Good Lord do it? I'm still the same, after all. And if he has to do it this way, why does He let me see it all happen with such a clear head? Why doesn't He hide it from me?
She concludes that God put us here to bear time, and how we do it makes all the difference. Just then, Octavian returns, and he tries repeatedly to embrace her, and she tells him with certainty that he cannot hold on to her, because he cannot hold on to time: "Sooner or later," she says to the boy, "[you] will leave me." He thinks she's rejecting him, and she explains:
When we [are young], time means nothing. But, then, suddenly, all we feel is time. It's around us -- it's inside us. Time shows in our faces ... and throbs in my temples. And between you and me time flows again.... Sometimes I can actually hear the time flowing....
Here, Strauss scores the chiming of a clock.
Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and stop every clock. Still -- one shouldn't be afraid of time. Even time is the work of God, the Creator of us all.
No wonder Octavian observes a moment later that "you sound like a Priest today." In Act Three, when the Marschallin again enters after an absence of nearly two hours from the action (and another hour more, if you count two intermissions), the young girl Sophie whom Octavian rescues from Baron Ochs comments that she feels like she's "in church" while the Marschallin preaches about time and the necessity of letting go.

Of course, the iconic moment of the opera, the one pictured in nine out of ten images at Google, is the presentation of the rose, when all time stops. Sophie sings a prayer quietly while her father's household fills with bustles and hustlers, anticipating the arrival of the young man who will bear the symbolic silver rose. All settles to tremulous strings and those crystalline chords, as Octavian and Sophie exchange formal dialogue, and the music expands the moment when their eyes meet for the first time.

The most familiar phrase of music is a song that Ochs sings in Act Two, and every other chance he gets, and it plays at Act Three's tavern, too. Its bawdy lyric is about time, ending, "With me, night will never end."

Act Three is all good Shakespearean / Falstaffian shenanigans. I enjoyed the busy-ness of the music accompanying the pantomime of setting up Act Three's Tavern to be a trap for Ochs (Susan Graham called it "a sting operation" in a backstage interview).

Once Ochs leaves the stage, however, time stops again, as the Marschallin helps Octavian to convince Sophie that he is for her, and, off to the side, she pronounces her benediction on the young lovers, "May they have happiness, or what men believe to be happiness. God bless them."

So this opera that begins with two actresses in bed, two characters in adultery, a lecherous baron crudely boasting of his exploits among the lower classes, venal double-dealing gossips and a father blinded by his social - climbing, turns out to be religious in the broadest sense of the word, a meditation on time, and letting go, and responsibility for each other. It's beautiful on many levels.

1 comment:

Gary Freedman said...

Wonderful insights, beautifully written. I just rediscovered the opera recently, and I can't stop listening to it!