Tuesday 10 January 2017

Rosenkavalier classes: let in the light

Yesterday's class launching the spring term of my Opera in Depth course at the Frontline Club dealt with the background of my leibsoper (ie the one I love the best), Strauss and Hofmannsthal's 'comedy for music' Der Rosenkavalier. The tube strike wrought havoc; some of the students who came - an impressive two-thirds of the 30 or so signed up - had spent over three hours battling to get to Paddington. I was relatively lucky, cycling to and fro, but I got drenched on the way back.

Yes, it was an awful day in London town. But we all went away, I fancy, beaming with the light and life of Strauss (in this first class, not just Rosenkavalier, where we reached only the Prelude, but also the beginning and end of his first opera, Guntram, and the waltz-sequence from his second, Feuersnot). What could be more of a tonic for the grim hanging-on of winter, other than Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Verdi's Falstaff or Wagner's Die Meistersinger, all three cited by Strauss and Hofmannsthal as role-models in one way or another? Pictured above by Catherine Ashmore, Anna Stéphany as a totally convincing Octavian in Act Two in the second (but absolutely world-class) cast of Robert Carsen's challenging Royal Opera production. Below, the equally impressive Rachel Willis-Sørensen as the Marschallin in Act Three.

This will be the third time in 28 years that I've examined my favourite opera in a lecture series (the other two were under the aegis of Opera in Focus at the City Lit, an institution I've not had any regrets about leaving other than the general one of giving up support for subsidised adult education, poorly paid though it was). I'm not looking back on notes or examples from those previous occasions, and as always I'm excited by how much more material we have to work with. Since the last time, there have been several more Rosenkavaliers on DVD, Richard Jones's Glyndebourne production the most significant, and several invaluable CD archive reissues.

I'm now the proud owner of an Austrian Archive DVD of the 1926 silent film with live accompaniment. Reading-wise, there's no end to how much more one can nose out about Hofmannsthal, though we badly need a good English language biography.

Which there is, I'm glad to say, of Count Harry Kessler, the brains behind the original scenario. I've started reading Laird M Easton's clear and sober study, and I'm hooked. This is a neat sequel to Zweig-worship, since Kessler is another of those passionate Europeans whose devotion has special resonance for our own turbulent time. More of that anon; I've also just ordered up Easton's edition of Kessler's Diaries to 1918.

In the meantime, if you're living close enough to town to join us, it's not too late: next Monday we embark on the opera proper. Dame Felicity Lott, with whom I've had the most delightful e-correspondence and whom I've interviewed on several occasions, lovely lady, will visit us on 30 January. I've been melted by her Marschallin live on three occasions - she's also on the second of the Kleiber-conducted DVDs - though I never saw her Octavian in the 1980 Glyndebourne production designed by Erté, aka Romain de Tirtoff. Below, the design which appeared on the cover of the programme.

Which I still have, because as a teenager I was taken to Glyndebourne for the first time, but to see Haydn's La fedeltà premiata conducted by one Simon Rattle, not the Rosenkavalier, worse luck (though I can tick off the Haydn on the list and hope not to see any more of his after English Touring Opera's brave shot at Il mondo della luna as Life on the Moon).

Richard Jones comes along to the Frontline the week after FLott, on 7 February. So it looks as if we'll be devoting seven weeks to Rosenkav with those chats included before moving on to Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden (Snegurochka) for the last three. Can't wait to see that for the first time on stage in Opera North's production in a couple of weeks.

Let's end with a couple of amusing sideswipes. Can you believe that the below was the image the Dutch National Opera used to herald its new production in 2015?

I can, erm, sympathise with the idea of Octavian as delicious young fawn - though I fear anyone going on the strength of that might have been disappointed by a girl in breeches - but it's unforgivable to portrait the (32-year-old) Marschallin as the 'old woman', however elegant, she foresees herself becoming (eventually). And while we're on the side of age, here's an unexpected cavalier of a golden rose.

No less than Pope Ratz, who might well have been giving it to his handsome assistant but in fact was following the Catholic tradition of a golden rose to a deserving church. Hofmannsthal, or Kessler, got the idea from this source, though I read that the presentation was to daughters of the nobility. Anyway, there's a very elaborate papal rose in the Hofburg's treasury.


David Damant said...

Could not Octavian be sung ( I do not mean always but sometimes) by a counter tenor?

David said...

Personally, I hope not. And no counter-tenor could match the colours of a mezzo (or soprano - Octavian goes up to a top A). Strauss had no faith in tenors, which was certainly the reason why he wrote the role of the Composer in the Ariadne Prologue for a good female singing-actor.

Are you pwrhaps thinking of Iestyn, whose ongoing boyish good looks could make him suitable? I'd be happy to see what he could do.

I was rather banking on you bringing up the Graefin Degenfeld when I wrote about Harry Kessler. Have you read the biog or his diaries? Fascinating man.

Susan said...

We are back at viabutera28, at our home away from home for our last night in Sicily, waiting for the dinner hour to arrive at the restaurant across the street. So, now back with a solid internet connection, I ventured over here to say hello. I do love Der Rosenkavalier, one of the very few I've actually seen live more than once. I and my opera-going pal picked up tickets for the new production at the Met--we will go end of April and very much looking forward to it.

David said...

It's one of the biggest delights of blogging to picture where one's pals are writing from, and never more so now you're spending your last night (for now!) at Via Butera 28. Been a joy to follow your route on Josie's blog, and next stop of course is Mary Stuart (I am about to put you in touch with a student and friend who's a Donmar patron and travelling over to see the show in NY).

Weird that it's been colder there than here, though apparently we're in for it shortly.

Depends on how much time you have tomorrow, but I hope that if you haven't eaten at the Antica Focacceria ten minutes' walk from where you are, you can tomorrow, for lunch or even breakfast. My favourite eatery in Palermo (I don't think we ate at the restaurant opposite 28).

And you should enjoy the Carsen production when it hits the Met. Not everything works, but it does look a million dollars and apparently Renee was still on good form (I've seen Cast Two, which I adored).

David Damant said...

I did think of mentioning the Grafin Ottonie Degenfeld - for those whose memory is not as good as David's I will add that I met her twice in her last years when she and I were both on holiday in Florence, in the house of a descendent of the composer Hummel. She always came down late for dinner keeping everyone waiting - and as this was a household that followed earlier practice there were no drinks before the meal, only during and after. Rosenkavalier was written in her house and she had many stories ( rather often rehearsed, though with discretion) about the comings and goings of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. After the death of her husband in 1908 she corresponded a great deal with Hofmannsthal, but ( I have lost the volume) the published letters were not very enlightening though it is claimed that they shed new light etc etc. I will revisit Graf Kessler.The Degenfeld name in important in 19th century Austrian military history but that is another story.

David said...

I can well imagine how distressing it must have been to yourself to have to wait for the drink - I don't suppose the food mattered so much... As I understand it, the thrashing-out of Rosenkavalier outlines between Hofmannsthal and Kessler took place in Weimar - I thought at Kessler's home, but if you tell me that the Degenfeld home was in Weimar, that makes a difference. Or maybe they had further meetings chez the Graefin.

David Damant said...

I would expect that the old Graefin exaggerated the time during which her house was the scene of the writing of the opera, though her long intimacy with Hofmannsthal ( including the relevant years) was real enough - it is supposed however that they were not lovers

As for the absence of a drink, one really understood the phrase mauvais quart d'heure - sometimes longer as the countess was often even later. The guests included a number of aged females of the German aristocracy. Dinner was like an opera in itself

David said...

'Je crains de lui parler la nuit' (Queen of Spades Scene Four). What a splendid scenario or short story that would make. But my, you're up early. I am because our neighbours from hell have had another of their many all-night gatherings. Decamped to sofa bed at 1.30am, but it's uncomfortable and I woke at 5 hoping I could sneak back into the bedroom. No such luck - still going strong. They haven't gone to bed yet. Time to widen the field of operations beyond our Estate Office to get these tenants removed.

David Damant said...

I have in fact written the story of my first visit to Florence, and in view of your comment will try to find it. I remember one of the younger of those present (she was I suppose 60) saying as we sat down to dinner " Every time I sit here I feel myself on the edge of the stage. Prepare yourself for the next act ! "

So sorry about the neighbours.....better send the Boys round - " Nice little flat you have here....."

Catriona said...

I expect you have read Anna Picard's review of ROH's Rosenkavalier in last week's TLS. Interesting discussion, at least at this distance.

David said...

No, Catriona, why would I? Nor do I look at any Times or Sunday Times reviews because they're behind the Murdoch paywall. But do give the gist of it. Anna Picard endeared by going nuts over Richter's Schubert D960 on Twitter recently (again, not something that I look at other than vicariously).

Catriona said...

I've been a TLS print subscriber for decades, long before paywalls were even thought of, and I don't 'do' the Times or Sunday Times either.
She highlights how the production is set in the year of the opera's composition and three years later the men are at war, five years after that the title 'bought' for Sophie will be abolished, then speculates on the choices any survivors are likely to make come the Anschluss. Although she considers the Howitzers on stage crude, the underlying justification for their presence she regards as sound. Overall, she seems to like it, with some quibbles.

David said...

Nothing especially enlightening there, then. The 'weapons of war' add a layer of confusion - ie are we in the thick of WW1 already, since they're fired in Act Two? Too much money for the production is the underlying fault - it wasn't laid on so thickly in Carsen's Salzburg original (with different designs). Shame he didn't ditch Salzburg's worst fault - the inept curtain subsituting the hanky business with Mohammed drunk and soldiers falling like ninepins behind him. Naff and uncharacteristic of Carsen's usual good taste.

There are two reviews on The Arts Desk, you know, one of them certifiably good (since I can't speak for mine about Cast Two, which doesn't discuss the mise en scnene much since my colleague Alexandra dealt with it in the first review).

Anonymous said...

Yes, I note that Picard doesn't like that ending.