Facts, leaps & taking unnecessary offence Renée Fleming as the Marschallin and Sophie Bevan as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, ROH, 2017. Photo: Catherine Ashmore.

Facts, leaps & taking unnecessary offence

Jenna Simeonov

In what’s arguably already one of the biggest news weeks of 2017, Martha C. Nussbaum’s New York Times article about Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, “Sex, Love and the Aging Woman” stood out. Frankly, it had me a bit irked. She points to “three lies” told by Strauss and librettist Hofmannsthal in their 1910 story about a Viennese woman and her younger lover:

  1. “The obvious lie”, that older women inevitably have to stop having sex.
  2. “The subtle lie”, that older women can’t find an “interesting” lover.
  3. “The subtlest of all”, that audiences will only accept a death or a break-up as the ending to a relationship where the woman is significantly older than the man.

Nussbaum’s piece is definitely worth a read; though I don’t agree with everything she says, it’s a bit of a jackpot for opera lovers who like to dive deeply into the characters of their beloved works.

My issue with these so-called lies - told through the tale of Princess Marie Therese von Werdenberg (more commonly known as the Marschallin) - is that they seem more like rushed conclusions than anything else. In order:

Older women inevitably give up their sex lives

I mean, isn’t the Marschallin an example of the opposite? She’s an older woman, having sex with a younger man named Octavian. Yes, she stops having sex with him by the end of the opera, but isn’t it a reach to say that she won’t ever have sex with anyone else ever again? I’m not ignoring the potential symbolism in the story, but why can’t we also go with the literal, with what’s presented to us in this story? The Marschallin doesn’t really act like a woman who’s had one husband and just one lover; she seems pretty comfortable in her relationship with Octavian, not clingy or self-conscious, but quite in control of the situation. Isn’t it a big assumption that Octavian has been the Marschallin’s first - and last - lover?

Older women can’t find “interesting” lovers

“A lonely aging woman, in an unhappy marriage, described as beautiful, cannot find an interesting lover,” writes Nussbaum. “All she can find is a hormonal boy who would sleep with anyone, and she takes what she can get. Strauss’s subtle lie is that a wise aging woman will naturally make a staggeringly inappropriate erotic choice, jettisoning the search for love in a desperate burst of sexual eagerness.”

These seem like Nussbaum’s opinions, no? Who says Octavian isn’t interesting to the Marschallin? Who says he’s an “inappropriate erotic choice”, or that the Marschallin is in any way “desperate”?

Moreso than a healthy sex life, is it not also empowering for an older woman to have agency of her own? To make her own decisions? Maybe Octavian can sleep with anyone, but for now he’s sleeping with her. Not once does the Marschallin confuse what she has with Octavian with true love; when she does admit to him that she knows he’ll eventually move on to someone else, he’s more distraught than she is.

Audiences cannot accept a successful, happy relationship between an older woman and a younger man

Nussbaum writes, “it is only in this form — where the aging woman makes a terrible choice, and then comes to her senses and renounces that choice — that an audience will accept the representation of the sex life and emotions of an aging woman.” Again, with phrases like “terrible choice” and “comes to her senses”, they seem laden with the author’s biases more than anything else.

Now, this “lie” may be closer to truth than the other two, but I’d argue that it’s significantly less true in 2017 than in 1910. Yes, the Marschallin sees Octavian’s obvious attraction to the younger Sophie, and decides to cut herself out of any potential love triangle. One could see it as an admission of defeat, of an older woman’s unfitness for the dating game. But am I the only one who sees the Marschallin as having her cake and eating it too?

The Marschallin is no dummy; she’s dealing with a 17-year-old man who has just met a pretty young thing. What will likely happen if she doesn’t acknowledge it is this: Octavian will be attracted to Sophie, but he won’t want to insult the Marschallin, so he’ll start lying to her about wanting to sleep/actually sleeping with Sophie. Octavian will either keep up the patronising lies, or he’ll attempt some hideously awkward break-up attempt, or he’ll just ghost the Marschallin because he’s a goddamn teenager and can’t handle confrontation.

What grown woman has time for that shit? There’s a difference between the Marschallin wistfully giving up a fun lover for whom she had some affection, and her discovering that her body is no longer of interest to anybody, ever again? The former happens in this opera - yet Nussbaum seems to assume it’s the latter.

There’s one interesting bit that complicates the matter, and that’s Strauss’ music. Take, for example, the infamous trio from the final act of Der Rosenkavalier: the Marschallin, Octavian, and Sophie are all stunned in their own ways about where they’ve ended up, with the young folks finding love amongst each other, and the Marschallin realising she’s down one lover. The tugging, impossibly beautiful music that underscores this moment can make an audience feel as though the Marschallin’s heart is shattering, that she’s losing not just a lover, but a whole chapter of her life.

But our primary source should be the same as the one Strauss used to write his music: the libretto. Again, there’s a difference between ending an affair (which may indeed come with miffed feelings of jealousy), and ceding to an age-appropriate life of celibacy. I think it’s an assumption and a leap to decide that the Marschallin, in ending her relationship with Octavian, is permanently closing the doors on her own sex life.

Readers, what do you think? Does the Marschallin’s story stand for larger injustices in the lives of older women? Or is Der Rosenkavalier a story of a woman and her particularly memorable young lover?

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