Opera North Blog

Der Rosenkavalier in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about Der Rosenkavalier in one place — right here. 

What is the story about?

Der Rosenkavalier or ‘The Knight of the Rose’ is set in Vienna c.1740 among the revels of the aristocracy. It centres on four main characters: the Marschallin, a 30-something aristocrat trapped in an unhappy marriage, the 17-year-old Count Octavian with whom she is having a secret affair, her dim-witted cousin Baron Ochs, and Ochs’ fiancée, the young and beautiful Sophie.

In the world of the opera, it is the (invented) tradition for a suitor to employ a young man to present a silver engagement rose to a young lady on his behalf. To this end, Count Octavian finds himself in Ochs' employ. Inevitably falling head-over-heels for Sophie, and her for him, together they must find a way to outwit the baron. Will they succeed, and will the Marschallin be able to yield Octavian to the younger woman?

Der Rosenkavalier was deliberately designed as a pastiche on Mozartian comedy, (think The Marriage of Figaro), so expect plenty of disguises, theatrical gender bending and comic intrigue...

Who are the characters?

Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg or ‘the Marschallin’ (soprano)
Count Octavian — her much younger lover (mezzo-soprano)
Baron Ochs — the Marschallin’s cousin (bass)
Sophie von Faninal — Ochs’ prospective fiancée (soprano)
Herr von Faninal — her father, a rich bourgeois (baritone)

Plus a bevvy of other smaller roles from intriguers to hairdressers, making for a quite busy stage!

What is this production like?

This production of Der Rosenkavalier was conceived and designed by David McVicar back in 1999. It is a sumptuously designed affair, with both set and costumes evoking the glamour of 18th Century Vienna. The set glints with gold, drips with chandeliers, and the dresses are traditional and of the period. 

The design also cleverly explores themes in the opera. The set is essentially the same room dressed differently for each of the acts, which allows the lovers at the close of the opera (Octavian and Sophie) to mirror those at the opening (Octavian and the Marschallin). This 'mirror' idea is also expressed by the wigs: Sophie’s hairstyle echoes the Marschallin’s, but is blonder and younger. 

What is the music like?

Richard Strauss’ score for Der Rosenkavalier is as sumptuous as the opera’s setting and uses a large orchestra, but with incredible subtleties in orchestral colour and tone.

Listen out for the instantly recognizable Viennese waltz, a re-occurring theme throughout the opera. This was criticized by some in the early days of the piece, as in the 18th Century (when Der Rosenkavalier is set), the ‘waltz’ did not yet exist!  However, this is a deliberate, and clever, anachronism, and you can be sure that every time you hear the waltz, someone on stage is lying or disguising their identity… Strauss was definitely a fan of musical symbolism — see if you can spot the whooping horns in the prelude, which vividly depict the Marschallin and Octavian’s night of passion, shared just before the curtain rises (blushes)! 

The opera is also famed for its breathtakingly beautiful writing for female voices. This culminates in the final trio at the close of the opera (featuring the Marschallin, Octavian and Sophie) whose soaring and interweaving lines express Strauss’ adoration for the soprano voice. Hear it below sung by our own Rosenkavalier cast: 

Who was the composer?

Der Rosenkavalier was written by Richard Strauss (born 1864) with a libretto by his main collaborater, Hugo von Hoffmansthal. 

Although heavily influenced by compatriot Richard Wagner, Strauss became famous (or infamous!) for pushing musical boundaries further than they had ever been pushed before. His first operatic success, the modernist Salome based on the play by Oscar Wilde, caused a furore and made Strauss the most talked about composer of his day — even more so than Puccini. His audiences and his peers were fascinated, with Mahler describing the piece as ‘a live volcano, a subterranean fire’. His opera Elektra followed, a piece so dissonant that one critic wrote ‘after hearing the opera, I had to rush home to play the chord of C major, to remind myself that it existed’! 

However, the piece that Strauss loved best, and which he felt defined him as a composer, was Der Rosenkavalier. Free of the need to prove that he was ‘modern’, his melodic gift shone through and virtuosity in orchestral writing came to the fore. Decades later, at the age of 81, Strauss was to identify himself to US army officials sent to requisition his house with ‘I am Richard Strauss, I am the composer of Der Rosenkavalier’.

A little history

Der Rosenkavalier premiered in Dresden in 1911. The piece was a deliberate attempt by Strauss and von Hoffmansthal to re-invent Mozartian comedy — Strauss even referred to von Hoffmanthal as his ‘da Ponte’, a reference to Mozart’s librettist! Von Hoffmansthal borrowed from many sources for the opera’s text including a 1744 painting by William Hogarth (below), which inspired the Marschallin’s reception scene in Act I, and both he and Strauss were determined that this was to be a true comedy — the audience was to ‘guffaw’, not just chuckle politely

The premiere was hotly anticipated. Tickets were completely sold out, and extra ‘Rosenkavalier’ trains were laid on in order to transport whole audiences from Berlin. It was, thankfully, a roaring success, giving the opera house a financial boon as well as generating a fair bit of cash for the opera’s creators  — (von Hoffmansthal, it is reported, treated himself to a Picasso with the royalties!) And it didn’t stop there. Enthusiasm for Der Rosenkavalier spread, and within two years, the opera had received its premiere in Milan, Vienna, London and New York.

The opera remained popular throughout Strauss’ lifetime, and the beautiful final trio was performed 38 years later at his funeral in 1949, with a young George Solti conducting. With the devastation of WW2 still evident everywhere, the trio’s soaring soprano lines and words of valediction and hope made for an intensely emotional occasion.

Did you know?

The choice of the name Ochs for the Baron is intentional. ‘Ochs’ in German means (no prizes for guessing) ox, which depicts his character in the opera.

Octavian is a 'trouser-role' (a male role sung by a woman), making his relationship to the Marschallin a direct parallel to that of the Countess and page boy Cherubino (another 'trouser role'!) in The Marriage of Figaro. 

Der Rosenkavalier offers plenty of scope for role progression, due to the three female leads. Some singers have sung all three roles: Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin, during their careers!

Hofmannsthal's libretto is incredibly witty, but many details are lost in translation. For example, Baron Ochs makes clumsy attempts at using refined or flamboyant language, using non-German words and phrases such as ‘corpo di Bacco!’ (‘by Bacchus' body!’ in Italian), some of which he mispronounces. The language used by Octavian when impersonating Mariandel, and by other non-noble characters, is an Austrian dialect, and the German used by the Italians, Valzacchi and Annina, is very broken and marked by Italian accentuations.  

Strauss and Hofmannsthal were indecisive about the title for their opera. Until the premiere, the working title was Ochs von Lerchenaum, with other candidates being The Amorous Adventures of Milord Ochs and The Country Cousin. It was Strauss's wife, always a great inspiration to him, who suggested the final, memorable title.​

Der Rosenkavalier is sung in German with English titles and lasts approximately four hours, including two intervals. For more info or to book tickets, visit the Der Rosenkavalier webpage.

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North.

Der Rosenkavalier at Opera North, 2016. Photo: Robert Workman
Richard Strauss (1914) and Hugo von Hoffmansthal
'The Countess's Morning Levee' by William Hogarth, 1744

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