Friday, October 23, 2009

That Strauss alchemy

Call me a Philistine, but I love Richard Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier." I saw a performance of it for the first time tonight (well, last night - it started at 7:30 but ended past midnight) at the Met, with a great cast - Susan Graham as Octavian, Renée Fleming as the Marschallin, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Ochs, with Edo de Waart taking James Levine's place as conductor. Robert O'Hearn and Nathaniel Merrill's opulently staged production is forty years old, which is all to the good: nostalgia for the days of unironically grand opera mixes well with the "Rosenkavalier"'s games with nostalgia. It all made for a glorious night at the opera!
Almost as entertaining was watching the opera's differing effects on my friend D and on me. After the first act (which left me blissed out with weeping) he was dismissive - the music was so predictable that it was impossible to have an honest emotion: you always knew what note would fall before it fell. In vain did I try to describe this as Strauss' intent, even as in fact I find the music's melodic and rhythmic swoops satisfying precisely for their unpredictability. After the second act, with the mythical meeting of true teenaged hearts and the comedy of Ochs' vulgarity, I was sure he'd want to go home, but no: he had warmed to the opera and accepted its artifice more than me, whose turn it was to be the skeptic, convinced that Sophie would end up like the Marschallin and what about Octavian and Ochs? Exhausted after the final act, we were both reduced to the same awed but grateful murmur: "Wagner."

How does Strauss do it, mixing farce so expertly with pathos that you're surprised at the end to be overwhelmed with unmixed feeling?

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