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September 22, 2005

Der Rosenkavalier

There are times when I worry that Der Rosenkavalier has told me everything that it has to say. The attraction that drew me to it when I was a young man was very strong, and it had a meteorite-sized impact on my erotic life. It taught me about a kind of love that I should never have discovered on my own, a kind of love that, as I approach old age, seems truly wonderful to me. A little German to the rescue: a love not wunderbar, but wunderlich. I should have had a much better-ordered, less distracted youth if this idea of love as a consequence of carnal desire had never crossed my mind. In other words, Der Rosenkavalier is the dirtiest opera ever. I want to talk about its dirtiest part, which is its first act. While I was listening to it on Saturday, it struck me as perfectly fresh.

How can I put the plot of this big opera, which I have no intention of exhausting all at once, into two sentences? There are four principals: a seventeen year-old boy, new to (actual) love, who can't believe his success in landing the attentions of a very grand and sophisticated older woman (all of thirty-two) who on her part has the bad luck to be related to a very vulgar country cousin who's need of a young man to officiate at some aristocratic formalities with his  teenaged fiancée (the bumpkin's). The older woman nominates her young lover as the man to do the honors - a move that looks more reckless every time I experience this opera; for, when the young man presents the ceremonial rose to the fiancée, love takes turn that, while unexpected by the characters on stage, couldn't possibly be more eagerly anticipated by the audience. In the end, the sophisticated lady and the rube (no longer on speaking terms) are standing alone.

What came to me on Saturday was that Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist, knew his eighteenth century even better than I'd thought he did. He understood that his play was set in an age of new discovery. The new discovery was something that I wrote about the other day, if in passing: the idea that, for the final touches of their education, men ought to submit to women. That women are the transmitters of civilization. Not men. That men don't care enough about succeeding generations. That men are too wrapped up in themselves. That men. immersed in the moment, are disinclined to pay attention to the things that might turn out to be important later.

The first act of Der Rosenkavalier, which so strikingly has its own three-act structure, is, among other things, about how the Marschallin ("field marshal's wife" - the thirty-two year-old lady) teaches Octavian, who is still "ein bub," his manners. And beyond all the little lessons that she conveys is the insistent one that he pay attention. It isn't that an older woman teaches a younger man about love. It's that a woman teaches a man how to behave. That's what changed for me on Saturday, the difference between those two sentences. The older-younger detail, so crucial to our ideas of teaching, is unimportant.

The structure of the first act is a-b-a. In the outer parts, the Marschallin and Octavian are the only singers on stage, and the setting, although not the mood, is intimate. The mood actually changes rather a lot. The central section is a crowd scene to rival Act II of La Boheme, a levée in which the Marschallin receives petitioners or clients - people who seek her influence or protection, or who simply want her to buy something. A hairdresser gets her ready for the day while a flutist and a tenor audition their act. The scene begins when Baron Ochs, the Marschallin's cousin, barges into her bedroom unannounced, and it ends with his withdrawal. It is all very bustling and 'period,' such that it might invite us to regard the flanking scenes as timeless. Certainly love is timeless, but the texture of the lovers' encounter is no less wrapped up in eighteenth-century specifics than the "spies" who try to interest the Marschallin in their scandal sheet.

While the Marschallin is obviously quite satisfied with Octavian's sexual prowess, her love for him seems to have more to do with making him less of a self-absorbed teenager. His solipsism charms her, but only insofar as she can fix it. He throws a little fit when she chides him for leaving his sword in plain sight in her bedroom. She has to calm his jealousy when, in a moment of preoccupation, she hints at having nearly been caught by her husband in flagrante. When he gushes that she must have been terrified on his behalf by the Baron's interest in the lady's maid that he pretended to be during the levée, she replies drily, "Ein bissel, vielleicht." ("A little, perhaps.") But when Octavian insults her with the charge of "talking like a priest" and denying him kisses until she's on her deathbed, she momentarily withdraws her affection and dismisses him, an act she immediately regrets. Their cause of their little tiff is the issue at the heart of the opera: love - their love, certainly - is transitory, and a day will come when it ends. Octavian, flushed with the joys of first love, can't bear to hear this; it is an insult. He's going to be different. (When I first got to know this opera, I vowed that I was going to be different, too.) By the next time that he sees the Marschallin, he has discovered a deeper love for someone else.

But that's in Act III. We'll talk about Acts II and III some other time.

Posted by pourover at September 22, 2005 05:26 PM

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