Richard Strauss (11.02.1864 – 08.09.1949) was a leading German composer of the late Romantic and early modern eras. Strauss is known for his operas, which include Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Salome; his Lieder, especially his Four Last Songs and his tone poems. Strauss’s first piece to show his mature personality was the tone poem Don Juan, written in 1888. He went on to compose a series of increasingly ambitious tone poems including Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Ein Heldenleben and Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Der Rosenkavalier, Op. 59 (The Knight of the Rose), is a comic opera in three acts by Richard Strauss to an original German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Der Rosenkavalier was Richard Strauss’ first original collaboration with the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal and it marked the start of one of opera’s most important artistic partnerships. In his libretto for Der Rosenkavalier Hofmannsthal produced a text of astonishing beauty and sophistication( as he did in later collaborations). The opera’s Dresden premiere in 1911 was a triumph. Der Rosenkavalier has since become a core part of the international repertory.
The main characters in Der Rosenkavalier are the Marschallin, the field marshall’s wife (soprano), Octavian, Count Rofrano (mezzo-soprano), Sophie von Faninal (soprano), Baron Ochs (bass), Herr von Faninal, Sophie’s father (baritone) and an Italian Singer (tenor).
Der Rosenkavalier is set in Vienna in the mid-1700s and the plot goes somewhat like this: The Marschallin has a young lover, Octavian – but she knows that their love will end. Together with Octavian, she plots to save the beautiful young Sophie von Faninal from a loveless marriage to the boorish Baron Ochs. By disguising himself as a serving wench, Octavian manages to pique the lecherous Ochs’s attentions. At a tavern he carefully arranges it so that Sophie’s father discovers Ochs’s philandering ways – leaving her free to marry Octavian. The Marschallin graciously gives her blessing to the match.
There are a number of fine options regarding recordings of this opera that is dominated by its female vocal parts (although the music for the men is certainly effective) so the quality of the female soloists and the conductor is of vital importance in an outstanding performance. There is a most appealing 1954 recording on Decca with Erich Kleiber and Maria Reining, Sena Jurinac and Hilde Gueden in key roles that really should be on anyone’s listening list. However there is one version which stands above all others and that is Herbert von Karajan’s 1957 recording, now available on Warner Classics, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin), Christa Ludwig (Octavian), Teresa Stich-Randall (Sophie), Otto Edelmann (Ochs) and Nicolai Gedda (Italian Singer).
Schwarzkopf is unmatched in terms of tonal beauty and understanding of the role, Otto Edelman is really funny, without resorting to buffoonery, Teresa Stich-Randall is simply scrumptious, Christa Ludwig is suitably impetuous without resorting to silliness and the whole star-studded cast come together as a whole and Karajan supports the singers and drama with absolutely consummate style and a sense of class that avoids any show-boating. Simply wonderful!
For those readers looking for a video performance of this opera we can thoroughly recommend Carlos Kleiber’s 1994 recording with Felicity Lott (Marschallin), Anne Sofie von Otter (Octavian) and Barbara Bonney (Sophie).