‘Time is a strange thing’ – these words sung by the Marschallin in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and set to the most exquisite music encapsulate the philosophical aspect of the opera and haunt me as I reflect on our studio run during a day off between rehearsals.
The last few weeks have been very pressured, trying to rehearse an unusually long and complex piece within a tight time frame. Time in our world is mostly measured: chronologically, digitally, and mechanically. Our rehearsal sessions have to fit into a compact three hours and not a minute longer.
Our studio run was planned with military precision so as to make the best use of our chorus’ availability, with rehearsals for this Summer’s other production Die Fledermaus coinciding. However, within that three-hour period, time expanded and contracted as the music, enfolding different historical eras and exploring time in all its dimensions weaved its magic, and the performers responded gloriously.
Opera has the potential to explore inner psychological time, its transience and layering in all its complexity, and this is one of Strauss’ and his librettist Hofmannsthal’s major concerns in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’.
Historically, the opera encapsulates several periods of time: it looks back with nostalgia on its original 18th century setting with musical references to Mozart, and on Vienna of the 1860/70s through its rich and varied use of the Viennese waltz – and then there is 1911, when it was first premiered. We are taking 1911 as our starting point: the old social structures are still in place, there is a fin de siècle atmosphere, two world wars are still to come. The transience of time is encapsulated in the music and in the metaphor of sand: time trickles like sand in an hour-glass, trickles through our fingers and in our faces showing the process of ageing and accumulated experience. This metaphor weaves its way through the production, reflecting the passing of time and the accumulation of memory.
Inspired by my grandmother, 100 years of age when I conceived this production, I have framed the opera with the Marschallin as an old woman looking back at her life. Similar to my grandmother, the old lady experiences her youth more vividly than the present. Memories are triggered by a cup of tea as she looks back on her youth and on a lost era with ‘one eye wet, one dry’ referencing Strauss’ description of the piece. It is also a little over one hundred years since the piece was written, and we look back after a century of extraordinary events: warfare, technological advances, humanitarian concerns, and continually accelerating time.
Yet Strauss’ music can still provide us with an opportunity to experience the expansion of time as our imaginations soar, as we face our own mortality and deepen our understanding of time through this ephemeral art form of opera. In an act of synchronicity my son has just sent me an article on the film-maker Agnes Varda entitled: ‘Memory is like sand in my hand’….
Der Rosenkavalier is a new production and is part of Welsh National Opera’s Vienna Vice Summer season along with Die Fledermaus. Der Rosenkavalier opens at Wales Millennium Centre Sunday 20 May 3.00pm, for all performance dates visit www.wno.org.uk