Youth and the end of an epoch

04 January 2017 | by Robert Thicknesse


Richard Strauss’ best-known work looks like the popular idea of what opera is: an anguished soprano drifts around a drawing room in a big frock while the massive orchestra heaves and cascades around her in tones of impossible voluptuousness. What is she on about? Does it matter?

This most popular of twentieth-century operas is wholly nineteenth-century in spirit – and originally set in the eighteenth. It tries to be many things – comedy, romance, posh operetta – and features in Baron Ochs a plot-motivator who spoils the show whenever he appears; it seduces you with music of self-conscious loveliness, massed strings swooping about with abandoned languor – and makes you feel a bit naff for loving it. And of course this was all a bit suspect when it was written in 1910, with traditional opera flapping in its death throes.

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