If a listener manages to bracket its story and (re)create Der Rosenkavalier (prem. 1911) in purely musical terms, Richard Strauss’ “comedy for music” can turn into an intoxicating experience. Its plot is then constituted not by Hofmannsthal’s imperial nostalgia for the 1740s but by interconnections between over three hours of virtuosic variations on the Viennese waltz; an unabashedly luxuriating orchestration; and three leading female voices which you imagine addressing you — undressing you too.
Reviewing a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, Alan Rich began: “A night at Der Rosenkavalier is like a visit to the most elegant, sumptuous brothel of one’s imagining. You go with no delusions. You expect to be seduced, and you know exactly how and when it’s going to happen.” After documenting convincingly why he despises the work, he concluded that he loves every note of it.
Most listeners’ classically conditioned desires and the sumptuous music played in the gilded opera house come together in the opulent scene 2 of Act II, one of the great moments of audience seduction. A 17-year old Count who has been sleeping with a 32-year old Princess delivers ceremoniously a Baron’s formal marriage proposal to a 15-year old nouveau riche girl (who is Butterfly’s age), and the two promptly fall in love. A mezzo and a soprano pour their spontaneous emotions in the rapt duet “Mir ist die Ehre widerfahren” but nobody is surprised by their gender (furthermore, mezzos are used to living as men) since this is neither life nor art but a well-rehearsed performance on the world’s stage of illusion (as is our going to the opera itself). The “Knight of the Rose” arrives with all the required pomp at a palatial house as the bearer of the traditional silver rose and gives a set speech to the fiancée: “I have the honor to present to you…” It all follows the rules of the ceremonial “noble custom,” as celebrated by the glittering dissonance in the solo violins, flutes, harps, and celesta playing the famous theme of the rose. Pantelis Polychronidis smiles and sighs.