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Perspectives

A Time for Love

A fresh look at Der Rosenkavalier — By Clélia Renucci

If love between a mature man and a young woman seems the most natural thing in the world, conventional morality has always stigmatised women who fall in love with younger men. In recent years, the coining of the term cougar has highlighted this phenomenon. Clélia Renucci, author of Libres d’aimer, les cougars dans la literature, invites us to lay prejudice aside and, through an examination of the relationship between the Marschallin and Octavian, plunge into the psychological complexity of Der Rosenkavalier.    

“The characters were there acting out their dramas for us even before we had names for them: the clown, the old man, the young maiden, the great lady, the pretty boy. They were archetypes and their individualisation was the province of the writer.”

Thus wrote Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist of Der Rosenkavalier when describing the genesis of plot. That was at the beginning of the 20th century; today he would doubtless have written “cougar” for “great lady”: although the term is recent – it was first included in the dictionary in 2012 – the principle is not. The mutual attraction between mature women and young men is timeless. In the Bible, wasn’t Joseph imprisoned for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife? And Stendhal’s Sanseverina who, unlike her Biblical counterpart, could not bear the loss of her lover, died soon after the death of her nephew Fabrice Del Dongo despite his having never returned her love. To these tragic passions, Hoffmannsthal chose to oppose the effervescence of a Viennese farce.

When the beautiful Marschallin perceives the temporal difference that separates her young lover Octavian and herself, she reminds him that one must “take things with a light heart and a light touch, have them and hold them, hold them and let them go…”, halten und nehmen, halten und lassen…

This lightness is perceptible throughout the libretto of this “comedy for music”. No tears, no outbursts of grief disrupt the transfer of the lover’s affections from the “great lady” to the “young maiden”, just theatrical symbol: the curtain opens on an unmade bed and closes on a handkerchief. As Richard Strauss stipulated, “The Marschallin must maintain her Viennese grace and lightness; she must be both tearful and dry-eyed.”

She has had lovers and will certainly go on to have more. This transition is a new awareness, not a fatality. “Light we must be […] life punishes those who are not.” True, but one also reads in Hoffmannsthal that “depth must be hidden. Where? On the surface.” Let’s hope so!

The Marschallin senses time reassert its hold over her

The opera opposes four characters: the cougar, the old man, the pretty boy and the innocent maid. Let’s begin with the couple formed by seventeen-year-old Octavian and the Marschallin, fifteen years his senior. A first name and a title: the asymmetry of the situation is clearly established from the outset.

Their liaison reposes on an imbalance that is accepted and even sought after by the Marschallin. Whilst the lovers are in bed together in the early morning, a sudden noise alarms the Marschallin who believes she hears her husband returning from the hunt. She makes her lover hide behind a screen but in his haste, Octavian leaves his sword on the bed. She reproaches him with: “Birdbrain! How foolish. Does one usually leave one’s sword in a lady’s bedroom?” Octavian replies: “ If my behaviour strikes you as stupid, and if you can’t understand that I lack experience in such things, then I don’t know what you see in me.”

What the Marschallin likes, in fact, is that her lover is a novice whilst she is far from inexperienced, even if she prefers not to talk about the others in front of the one of the moment, - “you don’t need to know everything.”

Another bit of stage business is also revealing: Octavian is often to be seen in the same position, with his head on his mistress’s knees like a child seeking comfort, while she caresses his hair. And the sweet nothings they exchange, “Marie Therese! – Octavian! – Kitten! – Baby! – My treasure! – My little one!” remind us of Madame de Warens’ initiation of Rousseau and their respective nicknames: “little one”, “mummy” especially as their liaison inspired the librettist.

However, unlike Rousseau’s Confessions, we are not watching the beginnings of the relationship, which is already well established and destined to end soon if we consider Octavian’s words: “Wie du warst! Wie du bist!” “As you were then! as you are now!” He evokes both past and present but not the future… The cougar seems frozen in a fixed image or a memory that is not destined to evolve in the mind of the young man.

In these two exclamations, with which the opera opens, Octavian confines his mistress in a past-present time that he will not allow to continue. He is happy to be “the only one who knows who she really is” and the only one for whom she exists as he knows her. She, on the other hand, often expresses herself in the future, as sure of her own destiny as she is of her lover’s. “Baby, today or tomorrow, you will be off, you will leave me for another woman, younger and more beautiful than I”. And at the end of Act III, when she grants Octavian the hand of Sophia, “today or tomorrow or the day after. Did I not tell myself so? It happens to all women […] I swore to myself that I would love him as he should be loved and even to love his love for other women. I did not realise that it would come upon me so quickly!”

The Marschallin senses time reassert its hold over her:

“Time is a strange thing. Whilst one is carefree, it signifies absolutely nothing at all. And then, suddenly, one can think of nothing else. It is all around us. It is even in us. It ripples down our faces, it runs down the mirror, it flows between my temples. And between you and me, it still flows, silently, like the sands in an hourglass.”

In effect, the march of time reasserts itself. Hippolyte, her hairdresser has “made an old woman of her”. All the same, there is a clue in the character’s name: Hippolyte is not the son of great Theseus but the clumsy hairdresser of a Viennese aristocrat. This Phedre will not be a tragic heroine but a marionette straight out of the commedia dell’arte; her lover will slip through her fingers, not crushed beneath his own horses but promoted to the rank of Kavalier.

If the first scene of Act I seems to lead us along the well-trodden path of operetta and cuckolded husbands whose wives hide their lovers in the closet, the arrival of Baron Ochs with his “stupid, harsh voice” sends us off in a new direction. The “local Don Juan” as Richard Strauss called him, needs the Marschallin’s help: he is on the point of marrying “an appetising little doll, barely fifteen years of age”, one Miss Faninal with a generous father and a dowry to match. According to Viennese custom, the future husband must seal his promise with the gift of a silver rose delivered by a knight and the Baron is in search of a young man to carry out this ritual…

A quartet is formed and two couples emerge: the cougar and her lover; the old greybeard and his bride-to-be, an example of the modernity of Strauss and Hoffmannsthal inviting us to examine the resultant parallels more closely. The characters of the Marschallin and Baron Ochs are superficially the same: they are both too old for their prey but their perception of time bears no resemblance as the moving case history of the Marschallin shows:

“There he goes, horrible creature, puffed up with pride, and he gets a pretty little princess and a fat dowry into the bargain, just like that, and he reckons he’s the one demeaning himself.

What’s the point of getting angry?

That’s the way of the world. I well remember another young girl who left the convent only to be fettered by the sacred bond of marriage.

(She takes a mirror)

Where is she now? Yes, where are the snows of yesteryear?

I’m just saying that: but it seems incredible that I could ever have been that little Resi and that one day I shall be an old woman.

The old lady, the old Marschallin!

“Look, there goes the old princess Resi!”

How do these things happen?”

Now that the Marschallin’s life is behind her, she perceives the burdensomeness of a woman’s status in a society where men are masters of the game, even that of seduction: “Those are just games for [their] convenience! But, my God, we women pay the price, we suffer the shame, but in the end it serves us right.”

The life of the Baron, on the other hand, is still before him. Not yet married, he can enjoy life to the full. If we compare his speeches with those of the Marschallin, the difference is edifying: the Baron goes from “haystack” to “boudoir”, living for ephemeral seductions, whereas the Marschallin lives through her memories and, as she so eloquently puts it, “the real difference lies in how one does something”.

One might think that the Marschallin’s clearsightedness has left her disillusioned, that her awareness of the unequal relationship between men and women and of the inexorable passing of time has made her melancholy. However, and this is the mark of the librettist’s genius, even if the cougar cannot control time, it is she who imposes the rhythm of events on stage. She is the fatum of the play, the “puppet master” who sets events in motion.

Thus it is she who, during her dialogue with the baron, suggests that her “cousin”, the young Count Octavian, perform the task of presenting the rose to Ochs’ fiancée. In so doing, she knowingly gives her lover carte blanche to be unfaithful to her and seduce the innocent young girl destined to marry the coarse old baron, knowing also that, now Octavian has been emboldened by his initiation with her, the comparison between the two men will be all the more crushing.

In Act III, it is she also who resolves Octavian’s dilemma when, shamefaced, he is incapable of explaining his sudden passion for Sophia to the woman who is still his mistress: “Off you go and follow the dictates of your heart. […] You’re a man aren’t you? Go.”

The only time the Marschallin slips out of her role as stage director is when she lets Octavian go without kissing her. In a final burst of passion she calls him back, sends her servants after him … Already far away, he has gone without a backward glance. As the gate closes behind him, he probably feels the freshness and promise of a new love. She would have like to have changed roles and become for an instant the woman she once was, but she has created a breach that the love between the two young people will fill.

Thus, another parallel between two characters warrants our attention. Octavian and Sophia have one thing in common besides having fallen in love with each other at first sight: they are in the same situation, each is involved with someone their senior. The words the pronouns when they see each other are exactly the same: “When have I ever been so happy?”

And yet, Octavian’s ‘courage’ during his duel with the baron is diminished by his cowardice in Act III. Embarrassed by his mistress’s unexpected arrival, he stammers, “ It was not planned this way, Marie-Therese, I wasn’t expecting you. Do you want me to… shouldn’t I…? The girl … the father …”

Sophie on the other hand, a character often overlooked in this opera, represents rebellion. If the Marchallin is a Phedre completely lacking in tragic gravity, Fraulein Faninal could be seen as Antigone. She does not follow the pathway imposed by her father and refuses to marry Baron Ochs, a Pan who takes himself for Apollo, always on the lookout for game, however small “like a good hunting dog who has picked up a scent.” She aligns herself with youth, braves the anger of her father and defies the fate reserved for young girls, although she is aware that “first she needs a man if she wants to make something of herself.” She even manages to overcome her jealousy towards the Marschallin and her mature lucidity renders her even more beautiful.

“I’d like to kneel down before that lady and do something for her, because I sense that she is giving him to me, although she has taken something of him from me.”

If the opera seems to end conventionally with the triumph of love and youth, the final quartet is less conventional than it seems: unlike the comic resolution in a Molière play, for example, it is not the fathers of the young people who are reconciled in a closing twist, but the former mistress of the groom and the father of the bride. Giving up her place to the young girl in an act of maternal sacrifice, the Marschallin allies herself definitively with old age: from now on she will be closer to Faninal to whom she gives the line:

FANINAL (patting Sophie’s cheek with fatherly affection): They’re all the same, these young things.

THE MARSCHALLIN: Yes, yes.

A vague reply that excludes her from the very youth that she has watched slip through her fingers throughout the opera but which is full of the promise of another couple.

Where to hide profoundness then? On the surface of the white handkerchief

Where to hide profoundness then? On the surface of the white handkerchief, a little square of fabric left behind by young people and dabbed on the tears of libertine eyes, one dry, the other damp, crying for the loss of one lover before moving on to the next.

Although the Marschallin stops the clocks in her own home, she cannot prevent the advance of time or Octavian’s sudden love for Sophia, which accelerates it. The opera’s structure and the parallels between the characters (the Marschallin – the Baron; the Marschallin – Sophia; Octavian – Sophia) invite us to mistrust the happy ending and to have no doubt that one day, Sophia will meet a young man who will seduce her and relieve the boredom of her marriage to a pretty boy turned Apollo, an indiscriminate seducer and consummate rake. Does the Baron not say of Octavian that he “feels as if he is looking at himself at the same age”? Off with the old love and on with the new!


Clélia Renucci teaches modern literature. She has just published an essay with Albin Michel, Libres d’aimer, les cougars dans la literature.

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