Coda: Waltz Lessons

by DAVID J. BAKER

Coda Waltz Lessons hdl 815
Drive and urgency: Carlos Kleiber
© Christina Burton/ArenaPAL 2015

Is Der Rosenkavalier really, as it has sometimes been described, a “conductor’s opera”? The term itself is troubling. One thing that could justify this label is the complex use of the orchestra. Not insignificantly, the French term for “conductor’s opera” is opéra de chef d’orchestreor “orchestra-conductor’s opera.” Certainly the mercurial prelude requires a symphonic master, as much at home in the concert hall as in the opera house. Like the orchestra interlude in Strauss’s earlier Feuersnot, it offers the act of sex as a sound-picture. Urgency, excitement, aggression, capitulation, entanglement, exultation, warmth, charm, affection and afterglow are all vividly, unmistakably evoked in this three-minute virtuoso display ranging from dissonance to dulcet lyricism. At the same time, the prelude reflects character traits. Octavian’s youthful Sturm und Drang meets the Marschallin’s gracious serenity, impatience meets acceptance, in a microcosm of the coming-of-age theme of the opera and its serious aspect — the inexorable power of time. The need to extract ribald as well as deeper themes from this hectic orchestra piece, and to maintain balance between aggression and grace, poses a technical and interpretive challenge for conductors.

Often the musicians offer a more superficial display — as in the frantic, complex fugal prelude to Act III — but for the most part Strauss uses the orchestra to support drama and characterization. This is especially true in the famous waltz sequences. 

The first waltz tune heard, the lovers’ “breakfast” theme in Act I, is usually played straight. After Octavian’s petulant outburst, which scuttles harmony and regular meter, the Marschallin reminds him that breakfast is served: “There’s a time for everything.” In the waltz tune, which immediately follows, the orchestra responds to her, seeming to interpret “Zeit” to mean “tempo” — regular tempo — rather than just plain “time.” 

Subsequent waltzes are more skewed. In the “Mariandel” tune based on the normally martial “Octavian” theme, you hear a certain smirk (emphasized by some conductors), a reminder of masquerade and drag. As for the real waltz king in this comedy, Baron Ochs, his dance tunes sound like dirty jokes. Pauses, hesitations and inserted chromatic notes in his waltz act like an insinuating wink or an elbow to the ribs to signal double entendre. In live recordings, some conductors (especially Carlos Kleiber and Andrew Davis) also twist and smudge the instrumental color in the Act III waltz segments, in a manner befitting a louche roadhouse. A conductor can let you hear Sophie’s disappointed romantic dreams in the waltz near the end of the opera. And in the final exit of Ochs and company, especially in live performances I recall under Karl Böhm, the dance tune had a thrust like a retreating barbarian horde.

The most intriguing use of triple time may be the dialogue in Act I with the Marschallin’s comments about time. Here, as earlier at breakfast, her reminder, “Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” (Time, it’s a curious thing), might almost sum up the opera itself, including its uses of tempo. As much as I admire the seamless shaping of this music in studio recordings by Solti and Karajan (both daunting technical experts), their performances feel a little like a beautiful concert, whereas in his live recordings Kleiber makes it a sharper dispute. His descending woodwind scales (especially around the word “Sanduhr,” hourglass) are repeated with a drive and urgency that seem to spring straight from the Marschallin’s worst fears. 

A greater challenge in live performance, for all parties, is the treacherous rhythmic irregularity. For periods in Act I, Octavian has to alternate between 3/4 and 4/4 meter, switching after every bar (suggesting impetuosity and instability). Harder yet for a conductor than that seesaw pattern is the simultaneous use of different meters; often, in Act II, while some singers continue in 3/4 meter, others or the chorus may have to sing against them in 2/4 time, obliging the conductor to beat a different meter with each arm. 

But few of us walk out of the theater after Der Rosenkavalier congratulating the conductor — even if it were Kleiber himself — on his ability to coordinate two conflicting meters. We come here to be transported by textures, colors and rhythms to a sphere of heightened sensation, a created world with just enough reality to set off its charms. One truly indispensable charm is vocal beauty and expressiveness in the transcendent ensembles, where the conductor has to be catalyst, support and alchemist. The conductor can push and pull the singers every which way for most of three acts. But at the end “his” or “her” opera must also belong to the singers. spacer

DAVID J. BAKER is a writer and translator based in Connecticut.

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Current Issue: August 2015 — VOL. 80, NO. 2