To the non-Germanist, Hofmannsthal may be best remembered as a librettist. The musicologist Jan Swafford stated: "[Hofmannsthal] would prove to be one of the finest librettists opera has seen, in the splendid company of Mozart's Da Ponte and Verdi's Boito." All told, he composed six libretti for the German composer Richard Strauss, several of which rank near the top of the genre.
In 1903 Hofmannsthal wrote his play Elektra, a rendition of the play by Sophocles. After Strauss had seen a stage performance of Elektra, he and Hofmannsthal got together in 1906. Elektra was their first collaboration, and by far one their most popular: although the play was very successful, the opera achieved such fame that the play ceased to be produced.
Their next collaboration was Der Rosenkavlier, the most successful of their six joint works. Hofmannsthal began writing the libretto in 1909, and the opera had its premiere in 1911. Hofmannsthal's next libretto was for Ariadne auf Naxos, which Strauss received with less enthusiasm than he had for previous works. As Bangerter explains, Strauss was concerned about the literary depth and complexity of the libretto, which would be lost on audiences and critics alike. All concerns aside, Ariadne auf Naxos ended up almost as popular as Der Rosenkavalier.
1914 marked the premiere of another Hofmannsthal-Strauss project: the ballet the Legend of Josepf, which opened in May in Paris - another triumph for the artistic partnership. The fist World War did not help Hofmannsthal's artistic output, since he was called back to active duty. In 1913, before the outbreak of war, he began on a new libretto: Die Frau ohne Schatten. However, it wasn't completed until after the war; it premiered in 1919. A prose version of the story was also published. Unlike previous efforts, Die Frau ohne Schatten was not a great success. Reasons include the fact that Strauss's music did not match the libretto as well as his earlier scores had, and secondly, many claimed that Hofmannsthal's libretto was too complex to comprehend.
The fifth opera to come out of the collaboration was Helen in Egypt, which was begun in 1923 but not completed until 1928. Both artists were pleased with the result, but had fears that the complexity of the libretto would be its downfall, as was indeed the case. Hofmannsthal's final libretto was Arabella, which was not performed until after his death. Yet, unlike the two previous operas, Arabella was highly successful - nearly as much as Der Rosenkavalier - thus marking the end of a 23 year long artistic collaboration. Strauss commented on Hofmannsthal's 50th birthday: "It was your words which drew from me the finest music I had to give." (Bangerter, 20)
As we have seen, the strength of Hofmannsthal's libretti was his highly poetic language, a trait of all he writing. On the other hand, his libretti were more than mere dramas; they were complex and complete literary works, and as such this sometimes hindered their popularity. Yet, many of the Hofmannsthal-Strauss operas are still performed, and have made an enduring mark on the genre.
I would now like to look at two particular opera's. First, let us consider Elektra, Hofmannsthal's first libretto, fashioned after his earlier drama. Elektra relates the ancient tale from Sophocles. In Hofmannsthal's version, Elektra is a neurotic yet psychologically real character, and she clearly resembles the young women in Freud's Studies of Hysteria. She is consumed by the need to avenge her murdered father. But, as with Freud's young subjects, Elektra is obsessed with sex and sexuality, and sexual references occur throughout. Whereas many of Hofmannsthal's lyric poems can be considered impressionistic, Elektra, with is stark and forceful language, is much more reminiscent of expressionism. It is an ancient drama colored by the neuroses of Hofmannsthal's own society.
Der Rosenkavalier, on the other hand, is a light social comedy with a touch of gender-bending. In contrast to the realism of his protagonis, Hans Karl, from Der Schwierige, Der Rosenkavalier is filled to a great extent by typed characters. As with many of his dramatic works, the setting is upper class, and decadent. In this opera, one sees the extravagance of a soceity near its end.
It is also worthwhile to mention the opera Arabella, which seems to be almost entirely based upon his sketch Lucidor. Noticing that Lucidor may have benn originally intended as a play, one sees how opera was not just musical theater for Hofmannsthal - it was a form of drama. The story is essentially the same as that in Lucidor, except that almost all the names have been altered - the only one remaining constant is that of the elder daughter, Arabella. Arabella was nearly as popular as Der Rosenkavalier, and one might wonder if it had anything to do with certain similarities between the two libretti. A relevant question is as follows: what came first: Der Rosenkavalier or Lucidor?
Hofmannsthal's libretti mark a great contribution to the genre of opera, but at the same time they can just as eaily be seen as an extention of Hofmannsthal's dramatic output. They are complex in plot and character - one may wish to compare them with the libretti of Wagner's operas in order to see the contrast. In all his dramatic works, the individual concerned Hofmannsthal, and throughout his works, be they poetic, narrative, or dramatic, the topics of identity, lost identity, and mistaken identity keep reoccurring.
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