Monday, February 15, 2016

February Masterworks: The Knight of the Rose

It WILL be warmer this weekend – and presumably snow- and ice-free – even though the sound-spectacular the orchestra has planned for you should warm up the coldest winter. Fittingly, following one of the coldest Valentine's Days in recent memory, two of the three works are love stories and in the middle, a romantic get-away to a festive night in Spain.

Stuart Malina conducts the Harrisburg Symphony in the ballet Petrushka by Igor Stravinsky, Maurice Ravel's Rapsodie espagnole, and an instrumental concert suite from one of the great operas by Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier.

The performances are this Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. There's a pre-concert talk an hour before each concert.

Incidentally, Stravinsky's ballet (you can read about it here and see a complete performance of the ballet) was premiered in 1911 in Paris, though he'd started work on it the year before.

Ravel wrote his rhapsody between 1907 and 1908 when it was premiered in Paris.

Strauss began working on his opera in 1909 and finished it in 1911 in time for its premiere in Dresden.

Stravinsky's ballet depicts a moment-in-time in the lives of three puppets during a mid-winter fair in Old Russia, the equivalent of a Carnaval celebration (think Mardi Gras with snow).

Ravel expanded a piano piece based on a Spanish dance he'd composed in 1895 to create his orchestral rhapsody in four movements, ending with the celebration of a fair.

Strauss's comic opera - the title, btw, means literally The Knight of the Rose - is set in the world of 18th Century Viennese aristocratic splendor back in the days of Mozart's childhood when Maria Therese was Empress) and celebrates the impending marriage of a young woman named Sophie to the lecherous old Baron Ochs – but wait, there's more!

In this post, let's begin with the last piece on the program.

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

(The Mahler Youth Orchestra conducted by Danielle Gatti, recorded at the BBC Proms in 2012)

It's not uncommon for composers to craft “suites” of excerpts from their operas and there might be several reasons for them to do so.

Mozart, arranging wind octet suites from his operas, wanted to make sure he did it himself before someone else got to it in the centuries before there were copyright laws, otherwise he'd lose out on any money that could be gained from having it published.

Others did it so their music could be heard in a variety of “formats” – both in the concert hall as well as the opera house. In many cases, it was a kind of marketing ploy that, hearing it in a concert, might entice a listener to buy a ticket to see the opera.

Franz Liszt wrote and improvised variations and “paraphrases” for solo piano of some of the current operatic hits because his audiences would recognize the tunes.

Richard Strauss, 1910
For Strauss, it was primarily about the money, at least in this case. In 1925, years after Rosenkavalier had become an international hit, he was asked to “be involved in” creating a suite to accompany a silent film of the opera (there's an interesting concept, in itself). They paid him $10,000 – think about it in 1920s terms, not today's monetary values – even though he felt a certain trepidation about the venture's success which turned out to be very real.

Later, in 1944, conductor Artur Rodzinski, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic, “presumably” arranged a suite which, because of the war, didn't have to pay Strauss anything – with World War II curtailing any income from his foreign publications and performances, Strauss was in a financial bind and, after the war ended, sanctioned the publication of the suite to bring in much needed money.

While much of the music will be familiar to fans of the original opera, following the story-line is kind of pointless, especially in the middle of the suite where things tend to jump around between the three acts. But it helps, I think, to know the gist of the plot. Hang on to your powdered wig...

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

The curtain rises on the palace of a powerful Field Marshal – to be more accurate, it rises on the bedroom of his wife, known by her title as the Marschallin. To be even more accurate, it rises on the Marschallin's bedroom after she has awakened from a night of love-making with someone who is not the Field Marshal. The young man in question is the 17-year-old Count Octavian. The Marschallin is a woman in her late-40s.

To make it more confusing, as was common in the previous centuries, in order for a young male character to sound like a young man and not a more mature one, women often took these roles which were called “pants roles.” Another horny teen-ager, Cherubino, in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is one famous example. Octavian is probably the most substantial of these roles. Now, yes, a 17-year-old boy's voice would certainly have changed, but a mezzo is more believable in sound than a full-grown tenor. So bear with it – it has some interesting consequences, too, which I think were all part of the comedic plan.

When the Marschallin's relative, Baron Ochs von Lerchenau, arrives unexpectedly, she was afraid it was her husband; Octavian hides himself, then returns disguised as a maid called Mariandel (get it? – a woman singing the role of a young boy now disguised as a woman?). It seems the Baron, a pompous old bore who takes the opportunity to flirt with Mariandel, is getting engaged to Sophie von Faninal, a young woman of a wealthy merchant family. The Baron needs someone to present his symbolic silver rose to his bride-to-be. The Marschallin has just the candidate – her young friend, Count Octavian.

They are in turn interrupted by the traditional “morning levée” in which various elements of the day are planned, from menus to auditioning an Italian singer for the evening's entertainment, while Ochs works out details with the Marschallin's lawyer. Among the suppliants, looking for a financial donation, are two Italian scandal-mongers, Valzacchi and Annina who then latch onto Ochs. And, last but not least, her hairdresser. When everybody leaves, the Marschallin is looking in her mirror and, thinking about her own early marriage and Ochs marrying the young Sophie, realizes that, as she gets older, it won't be long before her lover Octavian will leave for somebody younger.

Octavian, now in his own clothes, returns but leaves without her giving him the silver rose: the Marschallin sends her page, Mohammet (a young African boy), after him.

Act II - Presentation of the Rose

In the second act, we are in the magnificent main hall of Sophie's father's splendid new home, suitably ostentatious for a successful merchant who's just been elevated to the nobility. There is a great deal of excitement because Sophie's husband-to-be is sending over a silver rose to formalize their engagement. Octavian, dressed all in silver, arrives to present the rose and the two young people immediately fall in love. The Baron arrives in conversation with Herr von Faninal, discussing terms of the engagement, when the old man, overweight and smug, examines his future bride as if he were buying a prize cow.

Octavian is incensed, the scene becomes more chaotic (the Baron's servants chasing after the Faninal maids), and when the Baron accuses Octavian's family of having an illegitimate child (he's noted the family resemblance between Octavian and Mariandel), Octavian threatens the blustering old fool to a duel. Receiving a very slight wound on his arm, the Baron cries bloody murder and collapses onto the sofa as Octavian is thrown out of the house.

Left alone, Ochs meditates on his wound, finds Faninal's port of excellent quality which revives him sufficiently when the Italian schemers arrive – Valzacchi and Annina – with a letter that “Mariandel” has agreed to meet the Baron for dinner. Now fully revived, Ochs dances a lively waltz – but forgets to tip Annina for her efforts.

In the third act, we are in a seedy hotel where Valzacchi and Annina have arranged the Baron's tryst. Only by now they've switched sides, out for revenge on the odious Ochs who shortly arrives with “Mariandel” on his arm. Annina, disguised, rushes in with a barrage of children, claiming Ochs is her husband and the father of her children. When the police arrive, Ochs, to avoid a scandal, introduces “Mariandel” as his fiance, Sophie, when, of course, Faninal and Sophie arrive, shortly followed by the Marschallin. The engagement is broken off and Ochs, trying to save face, escapes pursued by a bevy of bill collectors.

This leaves Sophie, Octavian (now changed back into his own clothes) and the Marschallin alone. The day has come, the one the Marschallin has feared, as she realizes Octavian's true love is for Sophie.
Sophie, Octavian & the Marschallin in Act III's seedy hotel

This is the emotional climax (especially from 1:00-1:45) of the entire 3½-hour opera (not counting two intermissions), as depicted in the 20-minute orchestral suite:

= = = = = =

(the Berlin Philharmonic with Andris Nelsons, the new music director of the Boston Symphony, not known for his introverted style of conducting)
= = = = = =

Releasing Octavian so he can follow his heart, the Marschallin leaves with Faninal, leaving the two young lovers to sing another glorious moment, the final duet, “Is this a dream?” As they leave arm-in-arm and you think “what a gorgeous ending!”, little Mohammet rushes in, sent to retrieve the handkerchief Sophie dropped during the duet, and, waving it aloft, prances out to a decidedly spritely conclusion.

That's not quite how the Suite ends, though – and since Strauss had nothing to do with arranging it, one could assume it was a conductor with an eye to a concert's satisfying conclusion – the old adage, to generate more applause, a concert should end with music that is “faster and louder.” So, after a nod at the final duet, we find ourselves swirling away in one of the great waltz tunes from earlier in Act III.

But, wait - there's more!

- Dick Strawser

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