Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Rosenkavalier trio


Elina Garanča as Octavian, Wiener Staatsoper, 2007. Photo: Wiener Staatsoper/Axel Zeininger

At the heart of the opera Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) is a love triangle involving Octavian, an impetuous and ardent 17-year-old, his older married lover the Marschallin, and the beautiful 16-year-old Sophie von Faninal, who has been engaged against her will by her father to a loutish country baron.

The curtain rises in Act I on the boudoir of the Marschallin, who, it is clear, has just spent the night with Octavian (a role sung by a mezzo-soprano).


The Marschallin (Renée Fleming) and Octavian (Susan Graham) in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier.
Photo: Metropolitan Opera, 2010

In Act II Octavian meets Sophie, and it is love at first sight for both.


Sophie (Julianne Gearhart) and Octavian (Alice Coote) in Act II of Der Rosenkavalier.
Photo: Seattle Opera, 2006

In the final act the triangle is resolved in a trio in which Octavian is torn between his sensual connection with the Marschallin and his love for Sophie, Sophie recognizes the disturbing intimacy between Octavian and the older woman, and the Marschallin realizes that the time has come for her to give up Octavian. This trio and the love duet for Octavian and Sophie that follows are among the most sublime moments in all opera; they suspend time.


Sophie (Anneliese Rothenberger), Octavian (Sena Jurinac), and the Marschallin (Elizabeth Schwarzkopf)
in the trio from the 1960 film directed by Paul Czinner.

In Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier (Boydell Press, 2016), Michael Reynolds describes a little-known French operetta, L'ingénu libertin (The young libertine, 1907). Composed by Claude Terrasse with a libretto by Louis Artus, L'ingénu libertin was based on Jean-Baptiste Louvet de Couvray's risqué eighteenth-century novels about the amorous adventures of the youthful Chevalier de Faublas.


Robert Hasti as La Jeunesse and Arlette Dorgère as La Marquise de Bay, caricature by Yves Marevéry from Le Radical, 12 December 1907.
Source: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b53049799z

In Act III of L'ingénu libertin the curtain rises on the boudoir of the Marquise de Bay, who, it is clear, has just spent the night with the 17-year-old Faublas. The rapturous half-dressed Chevalier kneeling at the bedside of the Marquise was sung by a woman, Jeanne Alba:


Jeanne Alba as the Chevalier de Faublas in L'ingénu libertin

Faublas' childhood sweetheart, Sophie de Pontis, has been engaged against her will by her father to a rakish Count. She makes her way to the home of the Marquise, where she encounters Faublas and the Marquise together.


Arlette Dorgère as the Marquise de Bay from Act II of L'ingénu libertin, 1907

Faublas is torn between his sensual connection with the Marquise and his love for Sophie, Sophie recognizes the disturbing intimacy between Faublas and the older woman, and the Marquise realizes that the time has come for her to give up Faublas. The love triangle is resolved in a trio: "two youngsters, reunited and looking forward to their wedding day, the older woman, abandoned and hurt but with elegance and dignity intact, blessing their union. Curtain." [1]


Sophie (Jeanne Petit), Faublas (Jeanne Alba) and the Marquise de Bay (Arlette Dorgère) in Act III of L'ingenu libertin (detail)
Source: Creating Der Rosenkavalier

The parallels between Der Rosenkavalier and L'ingénu libertin are too direct, surely, to be coincidence. But although L'ingénu libertin had a highly successful run at the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens between 11 December 1907 and 2 February 1908, it closed after its 66th performance and, curiously, was never revived in France or elsewhere. How did the French operetta come to be known to Der Rosenkavalier's German creators, the librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and composer Richard Strauss?


Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss around the time of the composition of Der Rosenkavalier
The answer points to the key role played in the creation of Der Rosenkavalier by a third man, Count Harry Kessler. Kessler was an avid connoisseur of art, literature, theater and music. While the friendship between Kessler and Hofmannsthal has long been known, it is only with the relatively recent publication of Kessler's diary for the years 1908-1909 and some archival detective work by Michael Reynolds that the full significance of his role has become apparent. Without Kessler, it's now clear, there would be no Rosenkavalier.


Count Harry Kessler in 1909. Source: Creating Der Rosenkavalier

We know from his diary that on 18 January 1908 Kessler had attended L'ingénu libertin. During a visit by Hofmannsthal to his Weimar home in February 1909, Kessler recounted the operetta in detail. That night Hofmannsthal went to bed with a copy of one of Couvray's Faublas novels from Kessler's library; the next day, the two men began to develop the scenario for what became Der Rosenkavalier.

The characters and situations combined elements from a number of sources. The loutish Baron Ochs, to whom Sophie is unwillingly engaged, was derived from Molière's Monsieur de Pourceaugnac (1669)—in fact, in early drafts of the scenario the character was referred to as Pourceaugnac. Sophie's name comes from the heroine of Couvray's novels and L'ingénu libertin. In early drafts Octavian was called Faublas, also after Couvray and L'ingénu libertin; of course, in addition to Faublas Octavian was based in part on Cherubino, the 16-year-old page (also sung by a woman) in Mozart and Da Ponte's The Marriage of Figaro (1786). The Marriage of Figaro also provided, in the character of the unhappy Countess Almaviva, a model for the Marschallin. Further inspiration was derived from William Hogarth's series of paintings (and later engravings) Marriage à la Mode (1743-1745).


The Countess's Levée, by William Hogarth, ca 1743
Source: National Gallery of London: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/william-hogarth-marriage-a-la-mode-4-the-toilette


Act I of Der Rosenkavalier 
(Eric Cutler as the Italian Singer, Martina Serafin as the Marschallin, Sam Meredith as the hairdresser Hippolyte, Peter Rose as Baron Ochs)
Source: Metropolitan Opera/John Elbers, 2014

Kessler owned the Couvray Faublas novels, had seen productions of Figaro, had visited London exhibitions of Hogarth's work (and may have owned a volume of his engravings), and was the only one of Der Rosenkavalier's creators to have attended L'ingénu libertin. It seems clear that Kessler supplied most of the sources for Der Rosenkavalier.

But he did more than point Hofmannsthal to theatrical, literary and artistic precedents that could be borrowed; he actively helped to reshape the material. On 12 February 1909, after Hofmannsthal had been staying with him for three days, Kessler recorded in his diary:
In conversation the work done by Hofmannsthal and by me is so intertwined that it becomes impossible to separate out our respective contributions. One of us has an idea, a train of thought, the other criticises and as ideas pass to and fro, something quite different emerges; it is often the case that ten minutes later neither he nor I can say who actually thought up a given scene. [2]
This is not, however, the way that Hofmannsthal described their work together to Strauss. In a letter dated 11 February he wrote,
I have spent three quiet afternoons here drafting the full and entirely original scenario for an opera, full of burlesque situations and characters, with lively action, pellucid almost like a pantomime. There are opportunities in it for lyrical passages, for fun and humour, even for a small ballet. I find the scenario enchanting and Count Kessler with whom I discussed it is delighted with it. [3]
This is misleading in several ways: it was not Hofmannsthal alone who drafted the scenario, it was hardly "entirely original" (see the list of sources above), and Kessler might well have been delighted because he made major contributions to it.

We know, for example, that it was Kessler who came up with several key elements. At one point the opera was set to begin at the house of Sophie's father, with characters awaiting the arrival of the Pourceaugnac/Ochs character. Kessler realized that the order of the first two acts should be reversed; it would be more effective to introduce Ochs by having him burst into the Marquise/Marschallin's boudoir as Faublas/Octavian scrambles to disguise himself as a chambermaid.  (Faublas cross-dresses in L'ingénu libertin, as does Cherubino in Figaro.)

Kessler's second inspiration was that, unlike L'ingénu libertin, in which Faublas and Sophie de Pontis are childhood sweethearts, Octavian and Sophie von Faninal should first meet during the Presentation of the Rose—and fall in love at first sight:
As I got dressed the solution came to me, and I told it to Hofmannsthal in the carriage:. . .Faublas does not yet know Sophie at all, but is sent to her by the Marquise on Pourceaugnac’s behalf, to announce P. to her. This is where the fun begins with 1) Faublas falling in love with Sophie, 2) Sophie meeting Pourceaugnac and loathing him on sight. . .These changes will turn Pourceaugnac from an almost passive figure into the main driving force of the work; he is the cause of all his own misfortune and he is even responsible for Sophie and Faublas getting to know each other. . .Hofmannsthal accepted all this immediately [4].
Finally, several months later when Kessler was reviewing Hofmannsthal's libretto-in-progress, he pointed out that all three acts ended quietly. Kessler suggested that it would be more effective if the second act had a boisterous comic ending that provided a contrast (Hofmannsthal and Strauss reworked the ending of Act II precisely along those lines).

It's unclear who suggested developing the character of the Marschallin along the lines of the Countess in Figaro. While Baron Ochs may drive the plot, the Marschallin is the emotional center of the opera. In her great Act I monologue we learn that as a young woman she was brought from a covent to marry the Feldmarchal, whom she had never met; marriage to a much older and emotionally incompatible man is also the fate intended for Sophie von Faninal before Octavian intervenes. It is also what awaits Sophie de Pontis in L'ingénu libertin: when the operetta begins, Sophie is in a convent and is intended to marry the disreputable (and much older) Count Rosambert. The L'ingénu libertin connection may indicate that Kessler made a contribution here as well.

And again deriving from L'ingénu libertin is the idea that the opera should conclude with a trio for Octavian, Sophie and the Marschallin. Here is the trio from the 1984 Salzburg Festival, with Anna Tomowa-Sintow as the Marschallin, Agnes Baltsa as Octavian, and Janet Perry as Sophie:



(If you click on the link, the trio ends at 5:05...but why stop there?)

It seems appropriate that Der Rosenkavalier, a work structured by threes (Octavian/the Marschallin/the absent Feldmarschal, Octavian/Sophie/Ochs, Octavian/the Marschallin/Sophie), should end with a trio. How fitting as well that Reynolds' detective work has shown that the opera itself owes its existence to a creative trio: Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and the collaborator who has finally gained some recognition for the extent of his contributions, Count Harry Kessler.

Now, where is that revival of L'ingénu libertin?


Cover image source: Boydell & Brewer

Creating Der Rosenkavalier is a revised version of Reynold's doctoral thesis, and sometimes it shows. There are repetitions that weren't caught in the editing, for example, and material that is peripheral to the book's main argument that was probably included to satisfy a thesis committee's expectations of scholarly thoroughness. But these are minor issues. Reynolds has uncovered a treasure trove of production photos, programs, scores, and other materials, and has thoroughly investigated the myriad sources of both Der Rosenkavalier and the work that it was largely modelled on, L'ingénu libertin. (The Artus-Terrasse operetta does not appear in any of the other books I've seen about Der Rosenkavalier, including Alan Jefferson's excellent Cambridge Opera Handbook (1985)). If you love Der Rosenkavalier, Reynolds' book is essential—and fascinating—reading.

For more on the Strauss/Hofmannsthal/Kessler opera, see Opera Guide 3: Der Rosenkavalier.



  1. Michael Reynolds, Creating Der Rosenkavalier: From Chevalier to Cavalier, Boydell Press, 2016, p. 1.
  2. Quoted in Reynolds, p. 137.
  3. A Working Friendship: The Correspondence Between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, translated by Hanns Hammelmann and Ewald Osers, Random House, 1961, p. 27.
  4. Quoted in Reynolds, p.142.

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