Tonight, Friday, Nov. 22, the Metropolitan Opera continued a mini-Richard Strauss opera festival of sorts with its second instalment, his 1911 magnum opus, “Der Rosenkavalier” (The Rose-bearing Knight), with performances through Dec. 13. The festival’s first instalment, a six-performance run of the composer’s 1919 “Die Frau ohne Schatten” (The Shadowless Woman), overlaps with its Saturday matinee, Nov. 23, and final presentation Tuesday, Nov. 26. The festival culminates in the spring (April 3-24) with Strauss’ final 1933 collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, “Arabella,” the composer’s long-hoped-for follow-up to the Viennese setting of “Der Rosenkavalier.”
The New York Times’ chief music critic Anthony Tommasini’s recent column “Liberating the Librettos—Anthony Tommasini Weighs In on Opera What-Ifs” raised the intriguing question, What might happen to memorable opera characters in any sequels composed based on clues in the score or libretto of the original works? His follow-up article, “Reviewing Opera Fan Fiction,” posits a credible storyline for a “Der Rosenkavalier, Continued.”
It would be quite a challenge to come up with a sequel to Strauss’ “Shadowless Woman,” what with its central characters the celestial Emperor and his half-human Empress, the very human Barak the dyer and his unnamed wife, and that creepy nurse. Perhaps a prequel would be more manageable, showing what led up to the royal marriage or even the Empress’ backstory. Wouldn’t you like to know how an enigmatic woman comes into being, not totally celestial nor entirely human?
Easier to devise might be a sequel to Strauss’ “Arabella,” titled “Zdenka und Matteo.” If you’re familiar with the Strauss chestnut, then you recognise the names of Arabella’s sister Zdenka, who is madly in love with Matteo, who thinks she’s a boy (mostly because her parents pass her off as their son, “Zdenko”) and pines after Arabella, who is pursued by three noble suitors, Counts Elemer, Dominik and Lamoral, but eventually falls for Mandryka, a Croatian widower and wealthy landowner from a distinct social stratum to Count Waldner’s family, now fallen on hard times. When the central couple overcome their initial relationship challenges, poor Matteo ends up alone but for Zdenka, who sweeps him into her arms and, we suppose, into a double wedding with her sister. Ring down the curtain.
With that dynamic of disappointed beau suddenly turned (unwilling) fiancé, what do you suppose Zdenka and Matteo’s marriage would be like? Let’s say Act I finds them married five years, struggling to raise two little ones, and expecting the visit of as-yet-childfree Arabella and Mandryka, who have blossomed into the loving couple we dreamed they would be. Is the pressure too much for Zdenka who grew up in the shadow of her sister, hidden from society because her parents couldn’t afford to bring two daughters out into society? What if Act II gives Matteo his first chance to be alone for a moment with Arabella, who practically was never aware of his existence? Will the torch he bore for her reignite? Will sparks perhaps fly in both directions this time? That would leave Act III for the two pairs to sort things out through a series of duets, trios, quartets and rounds of couples therapy.
Fortunately we don’t have to sit through such a tangled story—not when we’ve got not one, not two, but three rather complicated operas by Richard Strauss and the rare chance to see them all in one season.
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