<< -- 2 -- Rex Harley DEEPLY AFFECTING
The second break-through came with my introduction to Der Rosenkavalier and hit my objection to the absurdity of opera head on. The Marschallin is in love with Octavian who is, in turn, in love with Sophie. No problem there except that, for heaven's sake, Octavian is another woman! Dressing as a man doesn't make you a man, even if you've got a slightly lower voice than the other two women. And yet, far from fussing and fretting, I was swept into immediate acceptance of the apparent absurdity of the 'trouser role', simply because I knew instinctively that the human passions of love, and fear, rejection, resignation, loss and loneliness which fill Der Rosenkavalier, could be expressed with such aching intensity only with that particular combination of voices. What had seemed absurd, when judged literally, became supra-real when touched by the combined alchemy of Strauss's music and von Hofmannstal's libretto. Suddenly I'd discovered how to listen with my heart.
When I subsequently saw both these operas it was Der Rosenkavalier which retained its spell the more strongly. Salome, like Elektra, is powerful stuff: after a good performance one will probably feel almost as exhausted as the performers. Both operas certainly make for effective theatre. But it's the sheer humanity of Der Rosenkavalier, the deftness and understatement, the poignancy of music and plot combined which I regard as inexhaustible. The more I listen to it, the more it reveals.
The same is true of Ariadne auf Naxos, but it's even more multi-layered and ambitious. Written directly after Elektra, the darkest and most overtly 'modernist' of all Strauss's works, it seems almost offered as a kind of antidote. If human love can be obsessive, destructive, even murderous, it can also be the hidden force which lifts individuals into a whole new realm of feeling and understanding. It can be transcendent and transformative. And, what is most wonderful, it is enabled to do this only by the coming together of seemingly irreconcilable elements, and entering into the realm of the absurd.
A rich patron insists that two sets of actors and singers, offering extremely different kinds of entertainment, combine their performances in a single show, purely because the fireworks start promptly at nine! As a result, the commedia troupe have to find a way of being involved in the opera serie of the title, something which almost breaks the heart of the young composer, for whom any kind of compromise is a betrayal of his artistic ideals. This first act is a wonderful pricking of artistic pretensions, whether of the singers who regard themselves as superior to the buffo characters, yet whose tantrums are themselves clownish, or the ardent composer who is, in a way, Strauss's alter ego. Act II shows the results of the compromise, and is one of the most audacious pieces of tight-rope walking in musical theatre.
Copyright © 5 October 2004
Rex Harley, Cardiff UK