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Der Rosenkavalier: ‘The story is farcical but underneath are real human issues that Strauss portrays in his music’

Celine Byrne, Claudia Boyle and Paula Murrihy are in awe of the way Richard Strauss writes for the voice

It’s not easy to see whether the seating arrangement is intentional or accidental. But when sopranos Celine Byrne and Claudia Boyle and mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy sit down at the table together for the interview in the Artane Music School before a rehearsal for Irish National Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavlier, they precisely reflect the relationship of their characters in the opera.

Murrihy sings the male role of Octavian, and on her right is Celine Byrne, the Marschallin, the older woman with whom the teenage Octavian is having an affair – her title denotes that she is married to a field marshal. The opening scene of the opera finds her in bed with Octavian after a night of lovemaking. On Murrihy’s left is Claudia Boyle, who is Sophie, the girl with whom Octavian will fall in love in a coup de foudre. The complication in the plot is that Sophie, who is as green as the Marschallin is mature, is supposed to marry the bumptious, avaricious and lewd Baron Ochs – his name translates as Ox. Octavian meets Sophie as the Knight of the Rose, when he delivers a silver flower to her as a ritual before she knows the identity of her intended husband.

I’m at an age now where I’m kind of looking at my life going, Wow, where’s my life going now? My kids have grown up. I think the opera is a little bit sad in a way; it has a lot of subtext and a lot of underlying themes

—  Celine Byrne

I ask each singer to tell me about their characters in the opera. Murrihy sees Octavian as “an incredibly passionate, young, vibrant 17-year-old who is totally in thrall to the Marschallin and in a very heady space when we first meet him. They’re having this incredible affair. I think he’s just in the absolute pinnacle of youth. In that true way that perhaps emotions can change, the way that he falls in love with Sophie is one of the most beautiful moments in the entire opera. It’s love at first sight that is depicted not only in the orchestra but on stage in the physicality. Octavian is an amazing role, because I go through so many different emotions, so many different journeys. The journey with the Marschallin is a completely different journey to that with Sophie, to that with the Baron Ochs. I’m circled with all of these different relationships, and I have a connection to every single person in the opera. It’s a very dense but exciting role.”

Byrne thinks the Marschallin’s key trait is social awareness, “even though she’s a woman of status, and she’s having this affair with Octavian, which is kinda risky. I don’t know if it’s right to say she’s in a loveless marriage, but she’s certainly a little bit unhappy – you get elements of melancholy and regret throughout the first act, where she’s reflecting on her youth. Her love for Octavian is a true love. But she’s also not stupid, she knows that it’s not going to last. She just enjoys being with him. I don’t even think it’s an affair that is just confined to being ‘a good waste of time’. I really do think it’s a genuine love, that she has an affection for Octavian. So much so that she intentionally moves towards breaking up with him so that he can move on and be with somebody else. Because she realises that he deserves to have a life beyond their relationship.”


Byrne connects strongly with the Marschallin’s awareness of time passing. “I’m at an age now where I’m kind of looking at my life going, Wow, where’s my life going now? My kids have grown up. I think the opera is a little bit sad in a way, it has a lot of subtext and a lot of underlying themes. We have a director [Bruno Ravella] who directs it in a different way than when I’ve done it before. The Marschallin has been quasi-depressive before, a little bit melancholy. This is more uplifting. He wants it in a different way, which makes me think about the character in a different way.”

Boyle sees Sophie as “probably the most naive and sheltered of the three characters. She’s young, and Strauss is amazing because you can hear that in her music. It’s very youthful, very pure and angelic, almost. And, commenting about Paula’s words about the scene where they fall in love, the presentation of the rose, you can see that in Strauss’s music. It’s just very ethereal and pure.”

The Marschallin is very, very clever. She’s super intelligent. I think if I was spending time with Sophie, I would be all for having the shots in the pub. But she’s too immature for me

—  Celine Byrne

Although she sees Sophie as having been shaped by her religious upbringing, she also sees her as a character of real strength. “I do like to find strengths in a character,” she says. “I think it’s more interesting. I would be a strong character, I think, well ... from time to time” – there’s a big smile in her voice as she says this. “I connect more with characters that do have strength. And she definitely does. As soon as she meets the Baron she tries to navigate her way out of this engagement. Then she seeks the help of Octavian in doing that. Certainly in act three she tells the Baron in no uncertain terms how she feels about him. She is strong as well as being naive. She grows throughout the opera and it is lovely to see that progression, too.”

Would their real-life selves be happy to spend time with the characters they play? A resounding yes. “What’s not to like?” says Boyle. “I like everything about her. She has integrity. She’s very charming, she’s endearing. I think that’s really important.”

Murrihy is not put out by “that youth and that impetuousness and perhaps the slight irrationality of a young man in the throes of hormones and on the brink of manhood. I think he’s quite an empathetic person, and very vulnerable. I think he says what he thinks. He’s honest. There’s no artifice. He knows his place.”

Byrne would look forward to meeting the Marschallin, and thinks their conversations would be intellectually stimulating. “She’s very, very clever. She’s super intelligent. I think if I was spending time with Sophie, I would be all for having the shots in the pub. It’s youth as well. It’s a different stage of life. It would definitely be a fun night out with Sophie. But she’s too immature for me. The Marschallin I would love. We’d go for high tea in the Shelbourne, and it would be lovely. Octavian I would definitely go for a pint with. I’d love to spend time with him, because you’d be able to just be honest with him, have an open conversation, you know, wouldn’t go any further. I’d go to the Marschallin for advice, and we’d have conversations on a higher level. That’s great as well, because, even me, as an artist, I have a lot of friends that I grew up with in school, and we hang out and we have the best craic. But when I want to talk about religion or opera or something, they mightn’t necessarily be the friends that I grew up with that I would have those conversations with. Yeah, I like the Marschallin.”

All three are in awe of the opera itself: the way Strauss writes for the voice, the complexity of a work that the composer called a “comedy in music”. Boyle explains, “for my voice type, I love how he writes. It’s just so fuelled with emotion and great depth. I know the story is farcical and has all those elements as well. Underneath they are very serious and real human issues that I think Strauss portrays in his music. There’s such colour, such texture.”

Boyle is the only one singing her role for the first time.

Byrne enthuses about it in a quiet reverie that sees her referring to beauty three times in a single sentence. She adds that when she comes back to it, “I just fall in love with it all over again,” and she recounts how her first Rosenkavalier in Germany had Octavian presented as female, turning the relationship with the Marshallin into a lesbian affair.

It’s been seven years since Murrihy last sang it, though when the role was new to her she had the opportunity to sing in three completely different productions over two years, which enabled her “to find different ways, to find new colours, to find different ideas on who Octavian is. It’s different now because I’m different. My voice is different. I’m a different person. Seven years of life will definitely inform anything.”

I ask them about their favourite singers in their own role. Byrne offers three: “Christa Ludwig [with whom she studied], Renée Fleming and Angela Denoke (a wonderful actress who just hits you with the role)”. For Murrihy it’s Anne Sofie von Otter (“of the modern Octavians”) and Christa Ludwig (“who was incredible as well”) – Ludwig performed two of the three roles, even though one is for a soprano, the other for a mezzo. For Boyle it’s Diana Damrau (“An amazing artist and a fantastic actress. The whole package.”)

Finally I ask each for Rosenkavalier in three words. Murrihy gets in first with “lush, heartbreaking, action-packed”. Byrne follows with “heartbreaking, melancholy, beautiful”. And Boyle offers “emotional, exquisite, farcical”.

Irish National Opera’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, March 5th-11th.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor