Richard Strauss was (and in musical circles still is) known alternately as the "other Strauss" (he was no relation to Josef or Johann) and the third Richard (the first being Wagner, after whom there could be no second!). Der Rosenkavalier was Strauss's fifth opera, and its subject matter was hotly debated by Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal before composition. Originally Strauss intended to write a third in his series of tragic operas, coming of the heels of Salome and Elektra. The two settled, however, on a romantic comedy, a work he described "more in the style of Figaro."
From 17th- and 18th-century playwrights (and from the diary of a certain Empress Maria Theresa), Hoffmansthall collected characters and scenarios with which to construct the libretto for Der Rosenkavalier. He lifted material from several Moliere plays: those familier with such works as Moliere will find parallels in the domestic social farces and class struggles in the story. For this somewhat "light" fare, however, Strauss composed some of his most luxuriant music, filled with colorful waltzes and some lovely ensemble pieces. For details on the story, read Der Rosenkavalier's plot synopsis.
Act one of Der Rosenkavalier opens in the boudoir of the Marschallin, Princess Marie Therese. The morning sun streams through the windows, and the Marschallin (whose husband is away on a hunt) is joined in her enormous bed by her young lover Octavian. On hearing a young servant boy bringing chocolate for the princess, Octavian dives behind bed curtains until the child departs.
The Marschallin and Octavian resume cuddling momentarily, until another unexpected intrusion. As Octavian again goes for cover, the Marschallin's cousin, the Baron von Ochs enters, trailed by several footmen. Ochs has come to follow up on a letter he has sent to the Marschallin, which she has not bothered to read. She tactfully extracts the details - the Baron is engaged to a young Sophie von Faninal, the daughter of a nouveau riche arms dealer. In exchange for the Baron's title, the Faninal family will bring to his impoverished estate a handsome dowry (hence the title of the opera, which translates to "the rose bearer"). The Baron has come to his cousin to suggest a suitable candidate to present the customary silver rose for his betrothed and her family.
Octavian, meanwhile, has come out of hiding in the dress of a lady's maid, "Mariandel," and catches the ever-wandering eye of the Baron. The Baron flirts shamelessly with the disguised Octavian, inviting her (or him) to dinner, and brags about his amorous exploits, one of which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son, Leopold, who serves as his personal servant. The Marschallin deceptively explains that Mariandel is also a bastard child, the sister of Octavian, Count Rofrano, hoping to keep her lover in the picture. Since the families are related, she suggests his services as the Rose Bearer.
The Marschallin's morning activities commence, and among her visitors are Valzacchi, a shady character, and his niece, Annina, who wish to sell their "black papers" detailing the local gossip and scandal. The Marschallin declines, and sends them on to the Baron, who is busy negotiating a prenuptial agreement with a notary. He finds time, however, to have them arrange a tryst with the servant Mariandel (Octavian). Meanwhile, the Marschallin is attended to by three orphans; her hairdressers, who, she complains, make her "look old"; a tenor who sings a lovely aria; and a salesman trying to sell her dogs and a bird.
Finally, the entire entourage, including the Baron, leaves, and the Marschallin and Octavian (dressed again in men's clothes) are left alone. The Marschallin recounts her youth, when she was forced into a loveless marriage fresh from the convent, and claims that her affair with Octavian is fleeting. He protests, but she persists, and forces him to leave. After his departure she regrets the absence of a last kiss, and sends the silver rose with her boy-servant Mohammed to Octavian, to take to Sophie von Faninal for her cousin the Baron.
Act two takes place in the extravagant Faninal home, the family in which the Baron von Ochs is planning to marry into. The patriarch Faninal excitedly prepares the home and waits for the Baron to arrive. Octavian arrives first, and presents the ceremonial silver rose to Sophie. The two fall operatically, desperately, in love, in the midst of which the Baron arrives to be presented to Sophie.
Octavian steps back, and the Baron takes in the luxurious surroundings, and critically examines his wife-to-be. His free hands and impudent manner disgust Sophie, who (as soon as the Baron leaves to draw up a formal marriage contract with her father) begs Octavian to help her out of the marriage. Octavian promises to not let her marry the Baron, but their deal is secretly observed by the sneaky Valzacchi and Annina. The Baron returns, Octavian proclaims that Sophie will not marry, and a duel ensues. The Baron suffers a surface wound to the arm, and wails that he has been murdered. The furious father Faninal excuses Octavian, orders a doctor, and proclaims that his daughter will marry the Baron von Ochs dead or alive. A tearful Sophie fleas the room.
Bandaged and no longer wailing, the Baron receives a note from Annina, promising a meeting with the fair Mariandel (again, Octavian in drag) the following night. The Baron, delighted but cheap, refuses to tip the messenger, an action that will have dire consequences.
Act three of Der Rosenkavalier takes place in a private restaurant at an inn. A sizable interlude precedes the "real" action, during which piano is used extensively to create the tavern's ambiance.
Octavian, Valzacchi, and Annina oversee the night's events, with Octavian (dressed as the "lovely" Mariandel) pays them off with a thrown purse of money. During the intermezzo Octavian (dressed as the fair Mariandel) checks to see all his trick players in the room are in place . . . and the rogue Baron Ochs enters the trap.
After Ochs enters he makes no waste in attempting to seduce Mariandel/Octavian, and feigns surprise when a large anteroom with a bed is discovered. The planted tricks play their part, popping up for the Baron, who is distracted, but not as distracted as when he is approached by the veiled Annina, claiming he is her husband. Four small children appear, crying "Papa, Papa," making Baron Ochs' case look especially bad.
The Baron calls for officials, but again, his actions prove especially damning - caught in a house of "ill repute" with a commissioner, he turns to Valzacchi to verify his identity and is rebuked. He then claims Mariandel is his fiancee, Sophie von Faninal. The Faninal family appears to prove that a lie to the commissioner. The father Faninal immediately dissolves the marriage agreement, and all seems lost until the Marschallin arrives to regain order.
The Marschallin recognizes the commissioner as a man who has served her husband, and dismisses him. Octavian meanwhile, has dispensed of his handmaiden attire, and has returned in pants. Baron Ochs begins to realize the farce that has been pulled on him, and takes it in relatively good humor. He tries to slip out unnoticed, however, and is presented with a bill for the night.
Sophie, Octavian, and the Marschallin are left alone. A lovely trio takes place, in which the Marschallin frees Octavian (realizing their affair has run its course) to pursue Sophie. The curtain closes on Octavian and Sophie.