Lotte Lehmann on Der Rosenkavalier: Perspectives from Her Spoken Interpretation by Dr. Daniel Jacobson Professor of Music, Western Michigan University.
Lotte Lehmann enjoyed a long and illustrious association with Der Rosenkavalier. She was the first singer to perform, in succession, all three of the opera’s principal soprano roles, and she was the composer’s favorite Marschallin. Lehmann was fascinated with the interpretative complexities of Rosenkavalier, and through her own diverse experiences and a unique perspective derived from her many conversations about the work with both Strauss and Hofmannsthal, she became one of the great authorities on the subject. Although her books and other published writings devote considerable space to her views on this opera, the following—excerpted from an operalogue presented by Mme Lehmann in August1958 to preview a production of Rosenkavalier at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California, where she taught—contains her distilled insights into this work. Even though the informal nature of the remarks, coupled with the speaker’s occasionally irregular English, renders a verbatim transcript somewhat inappropriate for a final-form written context, the original format and content of Mme Lehmann’s text has been carefully preserved. The reel-to-reel tapes that were the source of this lecture are housed in the Lotte Lehmann Archives of the Library of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The publication of written and visual Lehmann materials is by kind permission of Dr. Frances Holden and the Lotte Lehmann Archives of the Library of the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Lehmann Speaks: Der Rosenkavalier is an opera which has played a substantial part in my life as an artist. I think you know that the Marschallin is one of my favorite roles and was also the favorite of my audiences all over the world. I worked my way up to the Marschallin, so to speak. I started with the role of Sophie and then sang Octavian for quite a while until I took over the Marschallin, which I sang many times and which in fact was the very last role I performed in my career as an opera singer. But I don’t want to talk about myself tonight at all. I want to tell you the story of Rosenkavalier.
You may say: “But we know Rosenkavalier. We have seen it.” But I had a very revealing experience after my book My Many Lives came out—a book on opera, in which I analyze several of my roles and in which I devote considerable time to the role of the Marschallin. In response to my commentary, I received many letters from people who had seen Rosenkavalier numerous times and had thought that they had known it precisely, yet they explained that my insights helped them understand the opera much better. (By the way, this book is out of print, so this is not a commercial.) I want you to know this opera as well as I do. I have lived with these parts. I have lived in these parts. They were such a large part of my life, and therefore it is my desire to help you understand this opera better than any public that has ever listened to Rosenkavalier.
The story takes place in the early years of the reign of the Empress Maria Theresa in Austria. She was a very highly moral woman, and she had a strict eye on the people at the court. But the people had a strict eye on the French court, where the life was a rather frivolous one. They were very successful in imitating this frivolity, and the empress could not do a thing about it. So, it may not surprise you when I tell you that Marie Therese, the wife of the great field marshal Prince von Werdenberg, had several lovers in her married life —all of the others did it, so why shouldn’t she?!
The Marschallin is a woman between the ages. By the way, I have often been asked, “How old is the Marschallin really?” Strauss and Hofmannsthal said this is a woman in her thirties, because in this eighteenth-century setting a woman in her late thirties was considered already an old woman. But I always have felt her older—in her forties. It goes more with our times, because today a woman of thirty would probably never fall in love with such a young boy—it sounds highly improbable to me. Being at this critical age, the Marschallin has been attracted by a seventeen-year-old boy, the enchantingly handsome Count Octavian Rofrano. She has an affair with him, and after we recover from our shock in this realization, we have to excuse her. She has always been surrounded by overly sophisticated men, by men who flirt and who play the game of love to the utmost, and she is a little tired of such men. Then this young impetuous boy comes into her life, full of fire and adoration for her, and thus it is understandable that she takes him as her lover.
When the curtain rises, we see the very peccant situation of the morning after Octavian and the Marschallin have spent the night together. Hofmannsthal’s libretto specifies that the Marschallin lies in bed and Octavian kneels beside her; however, at the time of the premiere, the German empress would have been carried away in an ambulance if she had seen a bed on the stage, so this item was strictly forbidden. But today, the bed is always used. Perhaps I am a terrible prude, but I don’t like it. I saw such a scenario at the Metropolitan, and it was very embarrassing to me. The Marschallin was lying in bed, but one did not see her—only her knees. Octavian was kneeling beside the bed, and really there was not much which was left to the imagination. Our performance at the Music Academy will do it in the good old Vienna tradition —with both of them sitting on a sofa.
Octavian and the Marschallin have a very tender conversation which is interrupted by the arrival of breakfast, which is brought to the bedside by a little page boy. In fear of being discovered, Octavian has quickly hidden, but he is mortified in realizing that he has left his sword out in full view. When the page boy disappears, the Marschallin reproaches Octavian for this oversight and reminds him that in the bedroom of a lady a gentleman never leaves his sword! Octavian is very embarrassed. He already suffers from an inferiority complex. He is intimidated by all the very mature and sophisticated people who surround the Marschallin, and he is disturbed by how boyish they make him feel. Affectionately, the Marschallin restores him to good spirits.
This intimate mood is suddenly disrupted by a loud noise, which is thought to be the sound of the Marschallin’s husband returning earlier than expected from a hunt. Octavian, in chivalrous exuberance, wants to defend her and expose this tryst to her husband. She is very frightened that Octavian might do so, for that is the last thing she wants! She wants him to hide. But you must know she is not frightened of her husband. She has learned to respect and to admire him, for he has made a great career in his life. He is one of the most important personalities in Austria—a great field marshal—and she is proud of him and his position. But her heart has never trembled when he draws her near, and this is why she searched for the delights of love in the arms of other men. The discovery of such a lady with a lover would in itself be a somewhat ordinary occurrence at the court—as I said, all the married ladies had secret lovers. But if she was found with Octavian it would be especially embarrassing for one reason: she feared that her husband would look at her scornfully and say, “Oh, you are growing old. . . a seventeen-year-old! . . . that’s now your lover?” This particular humiliation she would find difficult to withstand.
Fortunately, it is not her husband. She recognizes it as quite another voice, that of her cousin Baron Ochs of Lerchenau. He is a middle-aged, ill-mannered country bachelor who has spent most of his life in unrefined pursuits. He is always very unsympathetic toward her, and she sorely dislikes him.
Suddenly, the Marschallin remembers receiving a letter from him several days earlier, but she does not have the faintest idea of its contents—in her preoccupation with Octavian she neglected to open it. It amuses her that the boy could confuse her life in such a way.
Meanwhile, while trying to hide, Octavian finds the dress of a chambermaid and assumes this disguise in hopes of slipping out unnoticed. Surely, with so many servants in the household he would not attract much attention. As he tries to exit he bumps up against the Baron, who thinks he is a very attractive young girl. In an attempt to strike up a conversation, the Baron says to “her,” “I hope I have not hurt you.” Octavian acts very shy and embarrassed. As the Baron turns to speak to the Marschallin, Octavian tries again to escape; however, he runs into two servants who are bewildered by their inability to recognize him. To avoid a scene, Octavian is forced back into the room.
By the way, I am also often asked, “Why has Strauss written the role of Octavian for a woman and not for a man?” I asked this of Strauss himself, and he gave me two reasons: one artistic and one practical, which is very typical for Strauss. The artistic reason is that he was intrigued by the idea of writing something for three soprano voices. The practical reason is: who can find a tenor who looks beautiful, who looks seventeen, and yet is mature enough to sing and play this role? Even if such a man does exist, Strauss jokingly argued that we could only perform Rosenkavalier in that one town where this beautiful tenor lives! I must say that Strauss liked his operas to be widely performed, not only because he wanted to expand his musical reputation, but also because he liked to get the royalties.
But back to the story. When Octavian finds no means of escape, the Marschalhn becomes rather embarrassed and uncertain of what to do. She gives him a sign that he had better stay and act as a servant girl, who is quickly given the name of Mariandel. Baron Ochs tells the Marschallin why he has come, as explained in his letter: He is in the process of marrying a very young girl who is fresh out of the convent. Her father has been newly ennobled by the empress, but more importantly he owns half of Vienna and is in ill health. So, of course, Baron Ochs believes these are the makings of a wonderful marriage.
The Marschallin is initially amused at the thought of the Baron taking a bride, but when she hears who he will marry, she becomes disgusted. She recalls how she similarly left the convent to marry a man that she did not love. She knows too well what this girl will go through; except for her, fate will be even worse, for at least the Marschallin had the good fortune to marry a decent man. There is no conversation about this—this is only her inner reaction to the Baron. The Baron has come to ask her if she can recommend a young cavalier who can present the ceremonial silver rose to the bride on his behalf. It was customary that the fiancée send such a messenger as a sign of love to precede his proposal. The Baron knows no one of such refinement, and thus he asks the Marschallin for her counsel.
Now the shrewd Marschallin conceives a wonderful idea: She has said to herself: “One day soon Baron Ochs will meet Octavian, and he will remember this girl whom he has seen in my bedroom. He is too knowledgeable in the ways of intrigue not to put two and two together and discover my affair, and certainly he will broadcast it to all Vienna.” So she reasons that if she shows him a picture of Octavian as her candidate to bear the silver rose, the Baron will see the resemblance with this servant girl, who can be explained as the illegitimate child of Octavian’s father. The Marschallin flawlessly executes her plan and then provides an exit for Octavian by commanding him to usher in those who are waiting outside to see her.
Now comes the so-called levée. It was customary that prominent ladies of society would be attended to every morning—have their hair and hands done, be made up, etcetera—an event which took considerable time. To help pass the hours, merchants and various advisers would come to consult the lady. For instance, during the Marschallin’s levée she is met by a milliner showing his hats, and then by an animal vendor. Once in Vienna this collection of animals included a little monkey, because the libretto says “he has dogs, birds, and a monkey.” So the man came in with the monkey, but this was eliminated in subsequent performances because the audience didn’t listen to the music or the action—they just watched the monkey.
Next, a writer comes to show the Marschallin his newest book. Then the chef brings in his menu for her approval. During my performances in Vienna they always tried to make me laugh, so they came up with the craziest menus —”salad of worms,” “snakeskin fries”—oh, terrible things and I always had to look at it. Finally, the hairdresser comes, but seeing that she looks unusually tired he decides to do something special. He tries very hard but without success, for she takes one look into the mirror and says to him, “My dear Hippolyte, today you have made an old woman out of me,” which greatly saddens her. She is not furious—she says it quite kindly—but she is depressed in realizing that her days are numbered and she must be more reasonable from now on. This is the critical moment in which she first really sees the lines in her face and the tiredness of her eyes. Yes, she did have a rather tiring night I suppose, but she should have been accustomed to that by now.
During all this, Baron Ochs has been intensely negotiating with an attorney in an effort to increase his compensation from Faninal, the father of his bride-to-be. In addition to the dowry, the Baron insists on receiving a castle and several other things. When the attorney will not accommodate his demands, he becomes furious, shouting, “I want it!” This moment is especially awkward because the Baron has disturbed the lovely aria of an Italian court singer, whose dismay is calmed by a gentle gesture from the Marschallin. She calls for all to vacate her chambers, and, with some difficulty, even the Baron is convinced to leave.
Alone now, the Marschallin sings her wonderful and very famous monologue, in which she recalls her own youth and her life in the world of the field marshal. She recalls: “I was such a lovely young girl, but where is that girl now? And where is the snow from years past—it is gone, gone forever. I used to be a young girl, but soon I’ll be old. And when I pass people on the street they will look at me and say, ‘There goes the marshal’s old princess’. Oh, how can this possibly happen? Why does God make us look at this with open eyes? It would be so much better if He would conceal it from us so that we are suddenly old without feeling the change”. It is humorous, but in a painful sort of way. Yet she realizes that this is something that we all have to endure, and it is how we endure it that makes all the difference.
At this moment Octavian returns. She had almost forgotten that he is yet with her. With boyish egotism, Octavian asks if he is the reason for her sadness, or if she is still fearing her husband’s return? The Marschallin says with a smile, “Maybe a little bit, but I’ll know what to do.” Octavian, in his youthful exuberance, wants to embrace her and renew their previous bliss, but she rejects him, saying: “Don’t be as every man is! I thought you were different, but now I see that you are thoughtless and cruel like all other men!” Octavian says: “I don’t know how they are. I only know one thing, that I love you, I adore you, and I want to be yours forever.” She replies, “Octavian, very soon there will come a time when we will separate, for you will find a girl who is younger and lovelier than I.”
It disturbs her a bit that she has to say lovelier because she herself is a very famous beauty; thus, in her heart she hopes that this younger one would not really be more beautiful than she. Octavian says: “Never! Not today and not tomorrow!” She says: “Beware, sooner or later that time is coming. And what is time? It is something intangible, but it is always around us. First, we live through time without fearing it, without realizing its presence, but then suddenly there comes a day when time is overwhelmingly there—when you feel time. You feel it going through your forehead, you feel it in your hands, you see it in the mirror. You feel the time between us drifting slowly away like sand in an hourglass, and you cannot stop it. Sometimes I am so afraid of time that I get up in the middle of the night, and I go from one clock to the other and make it stop. But that’s so silly. It doesn’t help. One shouldn’t be afraid of time. Time is something which God has given to us, and we have to live through it, and with it, and in dignity.”
Octavian does not want to listen to all this. He says: “How can you be so philosophical when I am here—when I tell you how I adore you? I am near you and you talk so much!” She just reiterates to him that he will leave her one day and then admits: “It is as difficult for you as it is for me—don’t think that this is easy. Yet, there is one great wisdom that I have learned in my life: one must have humor, one must have lightness of spirit, one cannot go to pieces about things which you cannot alter, which you cannot change. Because if you do, God will not help you. God has given you time to live, and you must find the strength to be worthy of this gift.”
Octavian has not understood a word she has said. He has only heard her talk of God so much as to sound like a preacher. He cries, “It is inconceivable that I should not be near you nor ever kiss you again,” but the Marschallin responds by asking him to leave. At this moment he realizes that she is sincere in this request, and he turns to go. As he takes one final gaze at her, she adds, “I will now go to church.” This is too much for him. He puts on his sword, and is very, very hurt. She says, “When I have made my confession, and when all my sins are forgiven, then I will visit my Uncle Greisenklau,” who is an old and paralyzed man—and very boring, I might add—”and I will dine with him, since that will serve as a kind of punishment which I must bear in repentance for our encounter last night.” She tells Octavian that later she will have a message for him if he takes his horse and meets her carriage in the Prater. “There I will sit in the carriage looking very beautiful”—she doesn’t say that, but she thinks it—”and I will be proud to have you escorting my chariot because you are so young and handsome. And you will be very proud of me, that I, the great wife of the field marshal, allow you to ride beside my carriage.” He thanks her and kisses her hand and attempts a kiss on the lips, which she refuses, saying, “You’d better go.” Now he is very hurt, and he departs.
Sometimes we want something, and yet at the same time we don’t want it. The Marschallin wanted Octavian to go away, but still his departure was quite unpleasant for her. She felt that he left in anger and that perhaps she should not have made him leave without a kiss. She considers calling him back but realizes it is better not to. She sends for her little page and gives him the box containing the silver rose, saying: “Take this to Count Octavian. He already knows what he must do with it.” When the page leaves, the Marschallin has a strange premonition. She gets the distinct feeling that she has done something very foolish. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have sent the rose to Octavian. Oh, what am I saying? I am very nervous and tired and I have to sit down.” She sits down and accidentally her glance gazes upon the mirror. She sees how drawn her face looks. She takes a little hand mirror, and she looks at the lines in her face, saying, “Oh, this is a face I never want to see again.” And she is in great desperation for a moment. But soon her positive philosophy comes forth again, and she thinks to herself, “I knew this would happen, and I want to endure it with a smile. I am the Marschallin. I am not an average woman who goes to pieces over such things. I have to live up to this.” And as she smiles, the curtain closes, signaling the end of the first act.
The second act gave both Strauss and Hofmannsthal tremendous headaches. At one point in their correspondence concerning Rosenkevalier, Strauss expresses his feeling that the whole second act must be redone. He says, “The act is lacking in spirit, and that is not what I intended.” After considerable effort, the composer and librettist together found the right way. The result is very wonderful.
The second act has a rather complicated story. Octavian comes bearing the silver rose to the young and enchanting Sophie. Naturally he falls in love with her. In the moment, he knows that this Sophie is the great love of his life, and the image of the Marschallin has faded from his view. But Sophie thinks, “If the messenger is this handsome, how much more beautiful must my bridegroom be?” However, when Baron Ochs makes his disgusting entrance, she is horrified and tells her father that she will never marry this man. The Baron behaves dreadfully. He has no idea how one should treat a decent girl because he never had the occasion. So he handles her in his accustomed way, which shocks both her and Octavian. Faninal, the father, is in an awkward position, for on the one hand he desperately wants his daughter to become a baroness and join the long line of Austrian nobility. But, at the same time, he sees that this Baron does not behave in the manner of a nobleman. Nevertheless, he is so eager to have this marriage consummated that he says: “Perhaps it is all right. Aristocrats may be like that—I don’t know—I’ve only been one for a few days.” Thus, he is not of any help to Sophie—nor is her governess, Marianne, who is overjoyed that a Baron would marry into this family. She tries to convince Sophie that marrying the Baron is the honorable thing, to do and that she should not jeopardize her position by fighting his advances. Eventually, the Baron goes to attend to the necessary legal paperwork, leaving Octavian and Sophie alone. As they come together, Octavian promises that, with her help, he will defend her. By the way, in the first act during, the levée two Italians appear, an uncle and his niece—at least that’s what they say they are. These two intriguers have offered their services to the Baron for a price–vowing to keep an eye on his bride-to-be. Here in the second act they observe Octavian and Sophie embracing each other and professing their mutual love. When informed of this, the Baron is not disturbed. In fact, he himself had encouraged the cavalier to flirt with Sophie, hoping the young lad could loosen up her inhibitions so the Baron could take full advantage of her later.
When Ochs finally confronts Sophie, she is beside herself. Octavian intercedes, explaining that she no longer intends to marry him. The Baron asks: “Oh, doesn’t she like me? Well, she will learn to,” as he beckons her towards him. A terrible confrontation commences between the Baron and Octavian, who wants to duel at that very moment. In the course of the scuffle, Octavian’s sword scratches the Baron’s arm, but the Baron, of course, makes a tremendous scene as if he is mortally wounded. There is a great uproar. The doctor comes in as well as the servants. Faninal says: “Oh, they have murdered my son-in-law. This is terrible. My daughter will marry him anyway and if he is dead she’ll just have to marry a dead man. If she refuses, she must go to the cloister and stay there for the rest of her life”
During the commotion, the two Italian intriguers, who are angered by the Baron’s refusal to pay them their due, decide that Octavian would certainly pay them much better. So when Octavian is thrown out by the father, the Italians impede his exit and offer their services to him. Octavian concocts a brilliant plan: he will show Faninal what a worthless rascal this Baron Ochs is, because if Faninal can be convinced of this, he surely must love his own daughter enough to stop her marriage to such a scoundrel. This would free the way for Octavian to take her as his own. The Count engages these two to assist in the trickery that unfolds in the final act. Meanwhile, Faninal and the others tend to the Baron, who is eventually consoled with a bottle of wine and a feather bed.
The third act begins in a private room of a disreputable inn, where the final preparations for the intrigue are being set into place. Several men ready themselves behind trap doors, as the Baron enters with Octavian, who is once again playing the role of the chambermaid, Mariandel. An extremely humorous situation develops as Octavian pretends to lose control through intoxication, and the enamored Baron tries to kiss him. But upon seeing Octavian’s face he is reminded of the young man who wounded him and of the rival he so despises. At this moment, the men look out of the trap doors one-by-one, making the Baron think he is going crazy. He rings for his servants, but in their place appears an Italian woman with four little children. She pretends to be his wife, as the children unceasingly cry out, “Papa, papa!” Hearing the disturbance, a police officer enters the room and begins his interrogation by asking the Baron to identify himself. He answers, “I am Baron Faninal, and this woman is Mrs. Faninal.” (Here Mme Lehmann condenses too much. The Innkeeper identifies Ochs to the Police Officer [“Das ist der Herr Baron von Lerchenau”], Ochs claims that Octavian-Mariandel is Sophie, Faninal’s daughter [“Ist die Junger Faninal, Sophia Anna Barbara, Tochter des…Herrn von Faninal”] and upon his entrance, Faninal identifies himself and sends at once for the real Sophie, who is waiting downstairs in the coach.) Octavian is infuriated that even the low and tactless Baron would dare to defame Sophie’s name and imply that she would ever make a rendezvous with him in this disgusting place.
Meanwhile, one of the conspirators has sought out Faninal, who arrives with his daughter and faints from disbelief at the sight. He has finally seen what a dreadful person the Baron is, and he withdraws his blessing of the marriage. Now the Marschallin arrives, and very few people understand why she comes. In fact, one man in particular, who should know better, has recounted to me this absolutely incorrect explanation: she comes to aid the Baron because he is her cousin. Not at all! Actually, one of the Baron’s body servants, who is known to be Och’s illegitimate son, asks the Marschallin to help get the Baron out of this predicament. He explains how the Baron has been entrapped by the Marschallin’s own maid, who she soon realizes is Octavian. She asks herself, “Why would Octavian do such a thing?” and then decides to get to the bottom of the matter by seeing it in person. She would never help the Baron, nor would she step foot in such a decadent place for any other reason. She only goes because she is consumed by curiosity.
After her arrival, the Marschallin quickly sums up the situation and demands that the Baron leave at once, for the engagement is nullified. The Baron flees and is pursued by an angry mob, leaving the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie behind. The Marschallin is not angry that Octavian has abandoned her, since she has long expected it. Perhaps it happened a little earlier than she would have liked, but she was still prepared. Yet, she is annoyed that Octavian does not have the courage to ask for her forgiveness or to even admit that he has fallen in love with Sophie. As Octavian stands there in embarrassment, the Marschallin bids him to go to Sophie and do as his heart commands. Sophie does not fully understand the situation, but she senses that there is some unspoken connection between the Marschallin and her beloved Octavian, and she, too, becomes indignant.
The Marschallin sees that Octavian cannot reconcile the situation on his own, so she takes matters into her own hands. She decides that she must do the decent thing and bring these two lovers together. Ignoring Octavian, she goes to Sophie and asks if she truly loves the young Count. Sophie pales and chattily tries to explain this as the result of concern over her father’s well-being. The Marschallin looks at her and thinks how terrible it is that Octavian has spurned her for such a girl—one who is indeed pretty but has little else to recommend her. She encourages Sophie to relax, for her father will be invited to join the three of them for a carriage trip to the field marshal’s castle, where they can talk things over.
Octavian is quite overwhelmed by the Marschallin’s kindness, and he thanks her and tells her of her goodness; however, she cannot find the words to respond. I am not so sure that in this situation anyone in the Marschallin’s position would want to hear that she is so good. At this moment commences the wonderful famous trio, after which Octavian leaves to confront Faninal. He tells him that his daughter may have lost a baron, but she has won a count—and even better, she has been saved from a scoundrel while gaining the love of a very enchanting young man. Faninal naturally agrees. When Octavian returns, he finds Sophie alone and joins her in a love duet. Faninal remarks to the Marschallin, “Young people are like that,” to which she replies,”Ja, ja.” (There’s an “all’s well that ends well” in which the little page, Mahomet, waves to the audience the handkerchief that Sophie dropped [as she and Octavian leave the stage at the very end of the opera], and which he has been sent to retrieve. The final curtain falls as he dashes out to join the young couple in their carriage.)
I have to tell you a very funny story which happened to me when we made our recording in Vienna. I had forgotten that I had to sing “Ja, ja”—the trio was over and it had been a very tiring day with many retakes, so I went home. So of course when they reached this point in the opera, no Marschallin was there. They couldn’t wait for my return because it was rather late and time is money, so Elisabeth Schumann, who was the Sophie, said: “Oh, you don’t have to call her back. I can imitate her voice.” So what you hear on the old record of Rosenkavalier is the voice of Elisabeth Schumann, not mine.
This is my understanding of the story of Rosenkavalier. I hope it helps you to enjoy the opera much more fully.”