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La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

No rose without a thorn

Der Rosenkavalier in 8 challenges

Jasper Croonen & Pieter Baert
Reading time
7 min.

However lovely, elegant and, dare we say, rosy Richard Strauss’s most popular opera may be, as an opera house, you can soon find yourself in a thorny situation. Our colleagues reveal the biggest challenges for this production… and how they are trying to overcome them.

1. A perfect blend of three women’s voices

An opera carried primarily by three female voices isn’t very common. In Der Rosenkavalier, you have the mature dramatic soprano of the aristocratic Marschallin, the ‘pants role’ of Octavian for mezzo, and then Sophie’s bright, lyrical soprano. As Artistic Director, the main challenge then is not only to cast the individual roles well, but also not to lose sight of their collective harmony. “That’s why I cast them as a trio from the start,” says Peter de Caluwe, “and the singers in our dual casts are never interchanged  – except for one date, for practical reasons. Moreover, when casting, I always take Mozart roles as a starting point because there are obvious stylistic and thematic parallels to be drawn. Take the character of Octavian, for example; I’d look for a singer who would also fit as Cherubino. Everything starts with Wolfgang.”

2. The Italian tenor

The strength of Strauss’s love for the soprano voice equalled his disinterest in tenors. Did he just not get the flamboyant machismo or capsones of the ‘divos’ of his time? His arias for the high male voice are notoriously difficult, including those in Der Rosenkavalier. Here, a tenor comes to perform a short, Italian aria, ‘Di rigori armato il seno’, during the Marschallin’s Grand lever in the first act. A gem of barely two minutes, but as a tenor you need just about everything for it: a beautiful lyrical line, a wonderful tone, a high range, and – above all – considerable guts to attack the high notes with the utmost conviction and self-assurance without having had much preparation. A musicologist once described it as the vocal equivalent of racing a 100-metre sprint while everyone around you is jogging a marathon. It is therefore a role occasionally filled, by way of surprising cameo, by big stars like Luciano Pavarotti or Jonas Kaufmann.

The Italian tenor presents the casting department with a separate challenge: finding a singer who can handle the role and who is also content with a fraction of stage time. That search is easy in practice; according to our Artistic Director: “It is certainly a challenge, but there are more than enough tenors today who can handle this passage. In a way, it is also easy for a singer: they hardly have to rehearse, but they’re still paid equally for that minute passage. If you can free up your schedule, it’s actually a no-brainer.” And so, in the end, it is again the tenors who have the last laugh.

3. Everyone’s a soloist

The Italian singer is by no means the only one to populate the Marschallin’s Grand lever. The libretto further mentions – brace yourselves – a notary, a cook, a galley boy, a fashion salesman, a scholar, an animal dealer with twenty dogs and a monkey, a hairdresser, two Italian schemers (Valzacchi and Annina), a flautist, and three impoverished noble daughters with their mother. Add to that the police commissioner, the innkeeper, and the coachmen, lackeys, and waiters from the other companies, and you know that casting the minor roles in Der Rosenkavalier is also a tough job. Some of these are mute roles filled by extras, but for the bulk, we rely on the young talent from our MM Academy and especially the soloists of the opera choir.

Choir manager ad interim Candice Bibauw explains, “That casting happened more than two years ago and we organised it in close consultation between the chorus master (who does the preparatory work and knows our voices best) and the chorus manager (responsible for scheduling). We then took our proposal to Peter de Caluwe, who eventually made some counterproposals of his own.” So that isn’t the major complexity in itself. What makes it more difficult is the choir soloists’ busy schedules. “Many choir members are currently still singing in Pikovaya Dama, but in the meantime, they also have to rehearse their parts for Der Rosenkavalier; in fact, those rehearsals are starting now, too. They are often at La Monnaie from early morning until late at night, with two scores criss-crossing in their heads. It’s quite a puzzle to bring it all to fruition.”

4. The Baron Ochs: falling low, singing even lower

What's in a name? The Baron Ochs (literally: Baron Ox) auf Lerchenau, the Marschallin's cousin, is not the most refined among aristocrats. The coarseness and self-righteousness of this filister and womaniser, who even before his actual marriage proposal to Sophie (prompted by financial considerations) tries to arrange a rendezvous with "Mariandel", is in direct contrast to the pure love that develops throughout the opera between Sophie and Octavian. In the good tradition of the commedia dell'arte, Ochs therefore draws the short straw after a lot of intrigue. But what a delightful character to perform and sing as a bass! You do have to be able to take on some notoriously low notes - some of the lowest in the entire opera repertoire!: the low E2s and D2 from the finale of the second act, 'Da lieg ich', and in 'Mein lieber Hippolyte' even a C2.

5. Hofmannsthal: literary librettist

However sublime Strauss’s music may be, a great deal of the success of Der Rosenkavalier can be contributed to its librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. His text is of a literary value rarely found among opera libretti. “Behind it was the secret desire to create a half-imaginary, half-realistic whole, this Vienna of 1740, an entire city with its classes contrasting, on the one hand, and mingling on the other, with its ceremonies, its social gradation, its way of speaking, or rather, its different ways of speaking.” Hofmannsthal fulfils this ambition. To attend Der Rosenkavalier is to be transported into a universe on its own, in which the psychology and sociology of the characters are linguistically worked out in minute detail. The noble characters speak a sophisticated and courteous German, but allow themselves to be caught in more spontaneous language at moments of great emotion. The exception is the provincial Baron Ochs (and Octavian, when he plays Mariandel) who takes on an Austrian dialect, whereby the idiomatic subtleties are often lost in translation, while the Italian schemers Anina and Valzacchi do try to use Standard German, but do so with a heavy accent. Conversely, Ochs is already trying to unpack Italian proverbs, missing the ball more often than not.

It poses a challenge not only to the singers on stage, but also to our dramaturges, who want to impart as much as possible of the richness of Hofmannsthal’s text in the libretto and surtitle translations. "We do indeed try to reproduce the richness of a literary language as accurately as possible in our libretto translations, but it is an illusion to think that you can grasp all the nuances through the written language alone. For the surtitles, this is even more pronounced: here, giving the audience the essential to follow the storyline without being too distracted from the scene takes precedence. For Der Rosenkavalier it is perhaps more true than for any other opera that the centre of gravity and all the nuances can only come to the fore in the scenic interpretation, and that translation and surtitles are only an aid..."

6. Quinquin, Rofrano, Octavian, Mariandel?

Another result of Hofmannsthal’s eye for detail is that, depending on the context and their social relationship to the other characters, his characters not only speak differently but are also addressed differently. It’s best to pay attention here if you’re an unprepared opera neophyte. For instance, the Marschallin, Princess von Werdenberg, is sometimes called by her first name, Marie Thérèse, she muses about her childhood as ‘die kleine Resi’ (Little Resi), and her pet name is ‘Bichette’. Even more telling is the example of the Knight of the Rose himself; when the curtain opens, we find him in the Marschallin’s arms as ‘Quinquin’, her pet name for him, but in that same scene, she also calls him by his first name, ‘Octavian’. It is the first of six first names by the way – Octavian Maria Ehrenreich Bonaventura Fernand Hyacinth – all paired with one and the same surname: Rofrano. And it is as ‘Count Rofrano’ that he is announced when he comes to hand over the silver rose as the ‘Rosenkavalier’. To confuse things even more, he diligently disguises himself as a chambermaid in the first act to get out of the Marschallin’s room unnoticed. As a result, this ‘Mariandel’ is a fully gender-bended role: a woman singing the part of a man pretending to be a woman. Do you follow?

7. Everyone’s a soloist (II)

Strauss is known as a composer who can paint with orchestral colours like few others. His symphonic poems often require huge line-ups, and for the concert on 9 October, including the ‘Tanz der sieben Schleier’ and the final monologue from Salome, the stage will be packed. As many as 45 freelance musicians will have to be recruited for this. Doesn’t that pose problems for Der Rosenkavalier in the orchestra pit, where space is extremely limited? “It’s really not that bad for this opera,” says our orchestral stage manager Dominic Jacobs. “Strauss’s cast isn’t any bigger than, say, that for an opera by Verdi.” The exception to this is the so-called banda, an extra, onstage music ensemble that plays the music that is also heard, as it were, by the characters in the opera. “That banda is quite large in this case, so we faced a serious challenge there.” In addition to the symphony orchestra – brace yourself again – Strauss calls for two flutes, an oboe, three clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, a trumpet, a percussionist, a harmonium, a piano, a string quartet, plus a double bass. “We obviously can’t fit all of those into the orchestra pit. So we decided to record that banda with our own musicians beforehand. That way, we don’t have to deal with a lack of space, and our own musicians can work in the orchestra during the opera.”

8. No Viennese Sachertorte

A final challenge falls to the director. How do you make sure this opera isn’t too sweet? How do you avoid the trap of too much Viennese folklorism, of being too kitschy? “Der Rosenkavalier is a world that fascinates me and gives me a lot of freedom,” explains director Damiano Michieletto. “Freedom of imagination, freedom to create visions. I want this production to be fun and lively – after all, it’s a comedy with funny, almost cartoonish characters. (…) But to create a comedy, you have to understand the drama they go through. Spectators are always most entertained by the humour that comes from the characters’ inner drama. I will not try to emphasise the expressionist side that the music dictates, but I will treat the characters very humanly, even when I create surreal situations.”