METROPOLITAN OPERA | Rush-Tix Rosenkavalier

Richard Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier
Wednesday, January 6, 2010, 7:30 PM

Conductor: Edo de Waart
Production: Nathaniel Merrill
Stage Director: Robin Guarino
Main Cast: Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Baron Ochs), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Eric Cutler (Italian tenor).

The first twenty people or so who make it into line for the Met’s $20 Varis Rush Tickets—a precious pool of 150 $100-value orchestra seats offered the day of most weeknight performances—begin waiting beneath the opera house, against a wall, in a dim pocket of the elegantly named “concourse level.” (After that the line starts snaking past doors and into back lobbies. The tickets start selling two hours before curtain, but those lining up less than three hours before that are often already too late.) For last night’s Der Rosenkavalier I made it to the front-most ten. In this space for the earliest, steeliest of arrivals—a sort of mezzanine above the Lincoln Center subway—the air-flow in winter gets very, very cold, thanks to an open door to the garage that in turn leads to a pedestrian walkway to the outside. This drafty back-end to that most laboriously, opulently contained of Gesamtkunstwerk spaces becomes a small site where opera unexpectedly becomes quite porous to the world, not only a simulation of or sanctuary from it.

The human flow here keeps things interesting: workers in hard-hats going on lunch break, security guards pausing for casual monitoring and friendly chat, dancers with duffels and alert faces rushing to their auditions, Met patrons who’ve just bought their (face-value) tickets from the box office and can already get on with their day, tour groups of adorable school-kids, a few of whom will generously guess at still grander rewards for this scarf-swaddled group hardily slumped along the wall. “No, they’re not here to audition,” the tour-guide brightly answers, summing up the rush-ticket system: “They’re going to be waiting for five hours. These are dedicated opera lovers.” (Quiet wows, curious stares, good-luck waves.)

In line there’s plenty of conversation to join in or eavesdrop on. These early pros bring not only snacks and reading—not one but two books—to pass the five, six hours, but fleece blankets and astonishingly compact folding chairs. (For these latter comforts I had no such foresight.) Before long one finds oneself negotiating coffee runs for place-holding, offering insider ticketing tales of triumph and dejection, policing would-be line-cheaters (this gets to be a real problem by mid-afternoon, when the 75th in line has a sure ticket while the 76th might already be out of luck), and of course trading invective, adulatory, or still receptively undecided thoughts on singers and stagings with the newbies, gossips, and walking Grove dictionaries that populate one’s line-neighborhood. It might be nice to generalize this crowd as composed of a special, honorable demographic—diehard opera fans whose passion exceed their means—but happily in this city it’s hard to tell. Some simply want a better seat than what’s left for sale at the box-office, or can’t pass up a good bargain, or don’t at all mind waiting when friends—or strangers for that matter—are there to keep them company and talk up a marathon storm about opera (such talk being a luxury in itself). A most illustrious-looking elderly lady in the most luxuriously fuchsia of wool coats was reading, of all things, a dog-eared paperback of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row—a curious image only if one forgets the Great Depression, or the elementary and persistent appeal of communal fortitude, or Doc’s love in that novel of Monteverdi.

marschallin-octavian
[Fleming’s Marschallin, Graham’s Octavian]

Der Rosenkavalier ends with a perfect dyad: Octavian and Sophie, young lovers of commensurate age, have eyes now only for each other and a self-fulfilling sense of their union as dreamiest gift, “through all time and forever.” The 17-year-old youth has been relinquished by his 32-year-old mistress the Marschallin; his 15-year-old bride has just wrested free of her arranged marriage to 35-year-old Baron Ochs. Strauss famously stated that the Marschallin, who has done the most giving up, is not a tragic figure, in part as we’re meant to know that Octavian is neither her first lover nor her last. (And during the night with Octavian she even dreamt of her husband, the much-absent Feldmarschall whom we, too, never get to meet.) Presumably we are merely seeing, then, one rich episode from her history of passions. All’s well, surely, that ends so well. Yet this opera is among the saddest I know. If the singing is at all better than competent, as it was last night, one’s bones can be left aching with misery.

I last saw Der Rosenkavalier at the Met in March 2005, starring Angela Denoke and Susan Graham, in this same Nathaniel Merrill production that’s been going for four decades. In a good way, last night’s felt sadder. There was a certain quietness to the Marschallin as played by Renée Fleming, who gave tender, supple voice to the role, her bearing all graceful restraining of self and enlightened relenting to others. Susan Graham as Octavian was a believable boy, chivalrously brash (ready to duel Sophie’s whole household) and domestically bumbling: once disguised as maid Mariandel he’s woefully incompetent at making up a simple bed—pitching pillows at the headboard like a game of ring toss. (Indeed, Octavian might be fit for little more than the socially respectable, servant-propped marriage he gets, with Sophie managing those servants.) Kristinn Sigmundsson played a Baron Ochs who, while looking rather older than the 35-year-old “rustic beau” Strauss imagined, was just obnoxious enough to dominate his scenes, jolly enough to be forgiven long before the end. The character of Sophie did not gain so much by Christine Schäfer’s clear yet slightly fragile voice, but as the Marschallin tells the character with proper condescension: “You don’t need to talk so much; you’re pretty enough.”

Octavian’s incessant, bored work at those pillows may not be without its point. It is precisely for the opening scene of the Marschallin and Octavian draped across and rolling around each other—amid that abundance of pillows in wonderful disarray—that we might soon grow nostalgic. Back then to the misery. No other lover of the Marschallin gets braided into this story, after all, for symmetry or fugal continuity. Having married the Feldmarschall at a tender age herself—presumably having missed out on consorting with her peers—she is quite justified in taking on tender Octavian, if justification is needed, but this cycle of inexorable asymmetry is just what she puts an end to when she delivers Octavian to Sophie. Here, as everywhere, (a kind of) death mars the picture: whatever Strauss’s lighter intent, there is the sense that her own life of desire has come to dusk, that her sacrifice is a too final one, and if what has dawned is a maturity able to offer to and demand from love more than possession: So what? So what if there is an art of losing and she has mastered it—losing farther, losing faster? So what if the role-shift from mistress to benefactress amounts to a moral self-surpassing? So what, even, if her sacrifice empowers her with agency, when such agency knows itself merely to be expediting the inevitable? Her renunciation is still a resignation that gains little comfort from its wisdom—the knowledge that this, too, shall pass; he will tire of her, she sings, “Today or tomorrow or the next day.” For all that wisdom avails of is a second-best way to live. The only way to rescue resignation from becoming passive and terminally inconsolable is by turning it into an act of generous, purposive orchestration—here, the timely chaperoning of Octavian to his age-appropriate fate. She cannot turn back time; this is how she refuses to be its casualty. Through the much-acknowledged tedium of the intervening comic scenes, the Marschallin as if by this sheer temporal protraction of the drama already attenuates, and in effect, true to her own fast-forwarded future-gazing, superannuates.

Given this subdued sacrifice, this adjustment of social cycles, which is also the Marschallin’s willful counteracting of her own earlier approach to time—the adjustment of the clocks in her house to standstill—Der Rosenkavalier feels like an aubade to an entire age. The Marschallin and Baron Ochs present, after all, two ways older, established powers can deploy their privileged role: ensuring the happiness of those with still the most to live, or, draining those young of their youth to maintain one’s own (admittedly undiminished) appetites. (It is fitting that everywhere he looks—Octavian, Mariandel—Ochs sees always the same face; what his all-you-can-score approach to love experiences is not addictive diversity but iterations of the same. But this precisely has kept him going as the perpetually turned-on and, when he, too, relents in Act III, the likably easy-going personality.) Indeed, when Sophie nearly loses heart in the final trio, seeing the final wistful gazes between her superior and her beloved, she wonders whether Octavian, too, had been a benefactor all along, extending nothing more than “friendship and assistance.”

The retro-Mozartian 18th-century setting offers not only a generic template, then, but also a historical alienation-effect that can more visibly recommend a stepping aside of orthodox authorities, or better yet a caring for posterity that becomes possible when those authorities accept their own imminent obsolescence. Had Adorno been more generous toward Strauss in general perhaps he could have entertained this possibility that Der Rosenkavalier, rather than an inflection point for the composer’s decline into bourgeois decadence, may also serve as a historical-generational parable. The 1911 opera was by no means prophetic, but would perhaps resonate nonetheless in a disturbing way, however inconclusively, with the old-feuds-driven, youth-scything war soon to come.

Yet one need not speculatively abstract the tale beyond its human characters to feel the vertigo of its depths. There are darker implications, too, that haunt the Marschallin’s designs. Every passionate love may carry within itself something that propels it toward thunderous and premature termination. That the culture’s most engaging dramas of such termination pose the problem in the form of other persons, be it Karenin or King Mark, and/or in the form of values, be it the sanctity of matrimony or the interdiction of incest, suggests a short-hand surrogation. The dyad in its airless mutuality would be hard-pressed, after all, to suffice as a sole sustaining life-world. And yet the faith in its self-sustenance, in its viable, even inevitable eternity, is also its lifeblood—and that lifeblood, too, must get its chance to pulse. (The Arthurian version might have clinched the problem best: what’s jeopardized is not marital fidelity but Round Table and Grail. On the other hand, of course, Guinevere has no place in that egalitarian economy potentially of holy war.) The Marschallin would rather have the killing awareness of finitude flung across the bright path before the path itself begins to fade. What Luhmann called double contingency produces for her, at her age and stage, less the stimulations of coding and gaming than a recognition of certain despair.

Darker still: rather than the gift of life to this pair, the Marschallin leaves Octavian and Sophie to a shared death. In the simplest biological terms, they will share a commensurate lifespan. Theirs is a young love so pure, so pristinely fused, that it may never be available for knowing other loves. Their very symmetry, then, may be a form of death. And that death may offer the Marschallin the only advantage she can claim. She may die alone, but she will not be bound to die with another. She is one step ahead of Adam Phillips’s ruthless musing: “At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with. At its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.” Clearing up the confusion may not, of course, enable or necessitate a different existence; the terrors of aliveness are real, as are the gratifications of company. For its part, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s extraordinary libretto intimates that this best and this worst are quite interchangeable (and maybe interchangeably bad). Sophie’s love for Octavian has something desperately agoraphobic about it: “I want to hide with you and to know nothing more of this world.” (Phillips again: “We have couples because it is impossible to hide alone.”) Later Octavian gravely intones, “For yourself and for me you must stay—…” “Stay?” asks Sophie. “Stay as you are.” How bitter a mandate this loving wish must strike anyone who’s been paying attention. The opera’s very first words had been Octavian’s exalting of the Marschallin in her past and her present: “Wie Du warst! Wie Du bist!” From this mandate to Sophie, and from his dumbed-down version of the Marschallin’s wisdom when singing in Act III as Mariandel, it is clear that he has yet to learn anything about time. Strauss was attuned to and would musically fine-tune Hoffmannsthal’s nuances. In the opera’s final lines, Octavian declares that “I feel only you, just you, and the fact that we’re together. Everything else flees from my senses like a dream,” while Sophie half-asks, half-insists innocuously whether/that the resolution is a “dream; it can’t be real, that we two are together, for all time and eternity.” But all this declarative security is trailed in the score by descending woodwinds that evoke at once indeed the slipping into a dream and something still more open-ended, hesitant, contingent. One almost feels that in these notes the Marschallin’s presence lingers, as she alone absorbs and alone will endure the consequences (for now) of what time bears out. Auden was right that Hoffmannsthal’s libretto is “too near to real poetry.” Popular “Komödie für Musik” as it is, maybe this opera can also be understood—or at least experienced—as exquisitely near to real tragedy.

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