Richard Strauss's most popular opera is a throw-back to the dreamy and nostalgic world of Vienna in the 18th century. The musical score is famous for its waltzes. In fact, waltzes had not become part of the social fabric of the early 18th century until another Viennese namesake (but no relation) Johann Strauss Jr. made his lilting tunes the core of entertainment in central Europe of the late 1800s. That didn't stop the composer of "Der Rosenkavalier" from using that popular musical style of his day as the focus of his 1911 masterpiece.
The romantic tale of the opera centers on the fading affair of the noble but mature Marschallin and her teenage lover, the young cavalier Octavian. The first act opens with a pre-dawn romp in the lady's boudoir interrupted by the loutish Baron Ochs seeking a gallant to present the traditional silver rose to a young heiress he seeks to marry.
That leads to a series of mistaken identities as Octavian cross dresses as a maid in disguise as a cover-up for his presence in the lady's bedchamber and catches the eye of the lecherous Baron. The rest of the opera is staged around the three-way amorous exploits of Octavian as the dashing cavalier, also posing as the fetching maid, dealing with the Baron, his instant attraction to the young heiress Sophie and his devotion to the aristocratic Marschallin. If it sounds confusing, it is.
One of the most dazzling scenes in opera occurs in the second act as the Rosenkavalier presents the rose to the Baron's intended bride accompanied by Strauss's lively waltzes. Of course, the two teenagers find instant love and plot to outwit the boorish Baron. Using his alter ego, the mistaken-identity maid, as a ploy to embarrass the old scoundrel, Octavian successfully wins the hand of Sophie with the blessing of the Marschallin and a happy ending.
The unique feature of "Der Rosenkavalier" is to cast a lithe mezzo soprano as Octavian in a cross-dressing role as an ardent male lover that reverts to portraying a man in disguise as a woman. It takes acting talent to put on a manly swagger then switch to a man in disguise as a woman. This entire charade is performed while the stars are singing the superb music by Strauss.
How did the tradition of using women in young men's role begin? Perhaps it was the early works of Handel and Rossini when their style of opera seria of the 18th century featured the castrato superstars of the day. When laws were passed to prohibit the castration of young boys for training as adult soprano voices, the opera roles were taken by contraltos and mezzos. Today these parts are sometimes sung by counter tenors, such as SDO featured in "Julius Caesar in Egypt" in 2006.
Composers of 18th and 19th century opera continued to feature the soprano voice in roles of young men. A teenage boy does not have the vocal strength or stage experience to play those pivotal roles. Then there is the appeal of seeing a well-shaped woman in britches when the fashion of past days barely showed an ankle under voluminous skirts. It was a sure lure to get men into the opera house.
The German court censors had a problem with a woman making love to another woman, despite the custom of casting sopranos as young pages or cavaliers in 19th century operas. The compromise approved by Kaiser Wilhelm himself was for Octavian to be positioned half in and half out of the Marschallin's bed in Act I at the Dresden premiere of "Der Rosenkavalier."
Strauss's score develops an erotic glow, perhaps more subtle than his music for "Salome." He had a keener sense of theater drama than librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The sophisticated Viennese poet envisioned a more subtle style to depict the sophisticated life of his 18th century hometown. The musical identity of Baron Ochs, accompanied by his loutish lackeys and the horseplay in Act III at the tavern, were definitely Strauss touches to give the opera a more earthy touch in contrast to the courtly manners of the Marschallin's world.
The SDO cast for "Der Rosenkavalier" is headed by Twyla Robinson making her company debut as the Marschallin. The young cavalier Octavian is sung by mezzo Anke Vondung, also her company debut, and Baron Ochs is Andrew Greenan returning after singing here in 2008. Veteran director Lotfi Mansouri again guides the production and Christof Perick conducts. The SDO production marks the centennial of Strauss's elegant composition.
"Der Rosenkavalier" is sung in German with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are: 2 p.m. April 3; 7 p.m. April 6; 6 p.m. April 9; 7 p.m. April 12. For ticket information, call 619-533-7000 or visit sdopera.com.
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University.