Yesterday in Stuttgart, I saw Der Rosenkavalier for the first time. It was very confusing. Musically, it was my favorite Richard Strauss opera so far, but Herheim’s very psychological production was probably not the best choice for the previously uninitiated. I’m not even going to try to make this a proper review—that would imply that I had some clue what was going on. I didn’t. Even the (in retrospect) most obvious part of the conceit—that the entire opera was happening inside the Marschallin’s dress—wasn’t clear to me until some kind Twitter opera-goers answered my plea for help. Intermezzo has the best description and analysis of the production I could find, so read that post if you want an understandable account of what I saw. (And go there regardless for more photos!) What follows will be extremely speculative.
As the dress setting (which we were really hit over the head with; I’m kind of embarrassed not have grasped that sooner, on my own) implies, this whole production is a sensual fantasy of the Marschallin’s. You get the sense that it’s a regretful fantasy—Sophie (whose costumes match hers) is her younger self, whom she wishes an Octavian had rescued from a marriage of convenience, just as he ultimately rescues Sophie. And “rescue” is the right word: to emphasize the drama of salvation, Octavian fights off a herd of lustful satyrs who attack the Marschallin in the overture. The satyrs will be back, though, as the attendants of Baron Ochs (and sometimes also the Marschallin). I’m still fuzzy about exactly what function they’re fulfilling; traditionally, satyrs onstage underscored (and allowed for) the nobility of the other characters because they were the separately embodied base aspects of human nature. Here, they (with in-your-face rubber genitals always hanging out) seem to merely contribute to a world that is full of debauchery and cupidity wherever you look.
Other animals appear, too, as predictable instantiations of various characters’ personalities. There’s even an ostrich (Strauss) to represent the composer. Ochs nearly strangles him, trying to prevent the end of the opera in which youth and innocence triumph (and the satyrs retreat). But, of course, the opera must end. The Marschallin (who is also Europe) descends from the skies, wielding the opera’s famed silver rose as a magic wand with which she sets all to rights. At one point, Pan (who is on the also-horned-like-an-ox Baron Ochs’s side) steals the rose, replaces it with a version he has made from the shards of the Marschallin’s smashed mirror, and hands it to Ochs. It seems like debauchery might triumph. But Ochs has been discouraged by his recent humiliation. He smashes the rose and shoots off the stage in a shower of sparks. Octavian and Sophie help the crying Pan gather up the pieces of the rose, and Octavian tosses them into the skies to form the stars. He and Sophie sing their final duet in a beautiful, starry dreamscape, while the Marschallin and Faninal comment from the side boxes of the opera house (where they sit wearing modern opera-going outfits) that youth is thus. Pan upstages the ending by eating a remaining shard of broken glass and dying bloodily. Presumably, this is Herheim’s rather tasteless comment on the opera’s outcome. Continue reading A Strauss opera in a dress?