Beneath the surface of the lightly flowing dialogue and marvelous music, Der Rosenkavalier is an opera exploring the progress of human relations, both personal and societal. The opera begins with the scandalous love affair of young Octavian and the Marschallin, a woman old enough to be his mother. The Marschallin is well-aware that Octavian will eventually leave her, and indeed, Strauss captures the beginning Octavian’s dreamy romance with the young Sophie von Faninal in music of wistful unreality as Octavian ceremonially hands Sophie a silver rose. It is a story of metamorphosis, as Octavian transforms from the ‘boy’ amusing the Marschallin into a fully grown man.
Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, summon a half-imaginary, half-real Vienna of 1740, capturing both the intricacies aristocratic ceremony and the temporality of human existence.