Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Count Octavian Rofrano: Youth, Lust, and Pride
Octavian is a young man on the precipice of adulthood; lacking much practical life experience, he believes that he knows much more than he does. In his own mind, all of his experiences are “huge”; he experiences emotions on a very heightened level.
The role of Octavian is a “pants role” (also known as a “breeches” or “trousers” role and travesti in Italian), meaning that it is sung by a female mezzo soprano. This is just one example of transvestism in theater, which was also used in Shakespeare’s time. The audience reads and accepts the character as male, although the actor is female.
Octavian’s nobility is certain, but he is not quite as high on the social scale as his lover, the Marschallin. In addition to being enraptured with her body, Octavian may see his relationship with the Marschallin as a means of proving the “blueness” of his blood.
By nature, Octavian quickly falls into deep passions, and is quick to anger. The Marschallin understands this, and does not take his childish temper very seriously. She recognizes the differences between herself and him, and cites his youthful spirit as the reason that she believes he will one day leave her for a younger woman.
Octavian’s deeply emotional nature is put on display when he meets Sophie, who he falls in love with immediately. His passion is reflected in her; she returns his feelings.
Der Rosenkavalier: Love, Loss, and the Passage of Time
An instant success following its premiere in 1911, Der Rosenkavalier is Richard Strauss’s (1864–1849) fifth opera. The opera, which explores the themes of aging and the fleeting nature of love, showcases Strauss’s fascination with the female voice. Three of the four main characters, including one male character, are sung by sopranos and mezzo-sopranos.
The opera begins in the Marchallin’s bedroom after her and Octavian have spent the night together while the Marchallin’s husband is away. We are soon introduced to Baron Ochs, who shows up unannounced, forcing Octavian to hide himself.
Although the Marchallin’s marriage was not based on love, it was based on social status and economic issues; affairs were very common in that time.
When it is revealed that Ochs has become engaged to the young and beautiful Sophie, the Marschallin convinces Ochs to use Octavian as his Rosenkavalier, knowing full well that Octavian will fall in love with Sophie. She tells Octavian that he will one day leave her for a younger woman.
She is right – the pair fall in love at first sight. Alone, the Marschallin contemplates the passage of time and the inconsistency of men.
The Morning After...
At the beginning of the opera, the stage opens up to the Marschallin’s bedroom. We meet Octavian and the Marschallin in the wee hours of the morning after what we can only assume has been a romantic and lust-filled evening. Octavian begins his first aria, singing “how you were, how you are…”
The aria ends with the contemplation of the philosophical nature of the self. Having just experienced such intimacy for what may have been the first time, Octavian wonders where his “self” ends and the Marschallin begins. The Marschallin, who is a much older, more experienced woman, smiles at his youthful philosophizing. When Octavian asks her who he is, she replies: “you are my boy, you are my sweetheart”.
Their intimacy is interrupted by the approaching daylight. Octavian grows irritable; the Marschallin laughs at him. When she realizes that her servants are approaching, she urges Octavian to hide under her bed.
Octavian eventually emerges and the two enjoy breakfast together. Suddenly, they are interrupted by men’s voices outside the Marschallin’s door. Could it be her husband?
Text: Rachel McIntosh