In Der Rosenkavalier, the Act II duet usually known as the "Presentation of the Silver Rose" is likely to be the way in for a first-time viewer. It’s so seductive at first hearing that you want them to sing it again. This duet was one of the things that got me started on grand opera in general, and Richard Strauss became one of my first enthusiasms. The old devil thought that there could be nothing more truly beautiful than a soprano and a mezzo singing rings around each other. This conviction could sometimes cloy, but in the case of the Silver Rose duet he was right. The opera, premiered in 1911, was already a flashback to a more gracious time, Vienna in the 1740s, but from our standpoint it makes the pre-WWI period look like the lost paradise. In the libretto, by Strauss’s long-term collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the lecherous but cash-poor Baron Ochs has his oafish eye on Sophie Faninal, prize daughter of a rich upcoming family, and has sent the dashing young Count Octavian Rofrano to make the pitch. In the music, what happens next is a revelation. The two young people prefigure the fulfilment of their future passion through a sublime tissue of interweaving melodic lines. With so much lyricism on tap, it’s all too easy to dip the silver rose in chocolate, but in this performance it shines clean, bright and infinitely elegant.
The number is as hard to act as it is to sing, but it was done brilliantly in the 1985 Covent Garden performance recorded for television and now on DVD. Sir George Solti was the conductor, the American soprano Barbara Bonney was the perfect Sophie, and the role of Octavian was majestically incarnated by the stunning British mezzo Anne Howells, singing and acting with the finely controlled clarity of emotion that the role demands but doesn’t always get. With everyone at the top of their game, together they made magic, even though the composer was so obviously intent on achieving nothing else. Watch.