20 Jul 2013

Capriccio, Royal Opera

‘Wort oder Ton?’ may be the Countess’s question, but it is far from the only question asked in, let alone by, Capriccio.

La Roche, for instance, introduces the rival element of the stage — and seems, by the force of his panegyric alone, to have won everyone over. (Not, of course that that brief meeting of minds and souls whole; once discussion of the opera begins, æsthetic and personal bickering resume.) The question of staging inevitably came to mind, here, of course, given the curious decision to present Capriccio in concert. Even if, as rumour has it, the decision to perform Strauss’s last opera was made late in the day, as a consequence of Renée Fleming having elected not after all to take on the role of Ariadne, it is difficult to understand why, instead of a desultory couple of concert performances, a production from elsewhere might not have been brought in. The Cologne Opera’s excellent, provocative staging, seen first at the Edinburgh Festival, would have been one candidate; so, by all accounts, would be Robert Carsen’s Paris production. (That is to leave aside the question, worthy of Capriccio itself, of why a singer wields such power at all. Gérard Mortier in Paris had the healthier attitude that if ‘stars’ were willing to perform in and to throw themselves wholeheartedly into interesting repertoire and stagings, all the better; if not, a house could and should manage perfectly well without them.)

Anyway, we had what we had — and I missed a full staging far less than I should ever have expected. Part of that was a matter of a generally strong musical performance, Ton winning out perhaps, but it seemed also to be a credit to the acting skills of the singers, who edged the performance towards, if not the semi-staged, at least the semi-acted. Though most did not follow Fleming’s lead — she has recently sung her role on stage — in dispensing with their scores, there was genuine interaction between them and more than a little moving around the stage in front of the orchestra. Presumably those credited with ‘stage management’ — Sarah Waling and Fran Beaumont — had some part in this far from negligible achievement too. Moreover, Fleming’s Vivienne Westwood gown, granted a lengthy description in the ‘production credits’, might as well have been intended for a staged performance.

Fleming’s performance was more mixed than her fans would doubtless admit, or perhaps even notice. There was a good degree of vocal strain, especially at the top, accompanied at times by a scooping that should have no place in Strauss. It would be vain, moreover to claim that there were not too many times when one could not discern the words. That said, it seemed that there was an attempt to compensate for (relative) vocal deficiencies by paying greater attention to the words than one might have expected; there were indeed occasions when diction was excellent. She clearly felt the agonistic tensions embodied in the role, and expressed them on stage to generally good effect in a convincingly ‘acted’ performance. There were flaws in her final soliloquy, but it moved — just as the Mondscheinmusik did despite an unfortunate slip by the first horn.

It will come as no surprise that Christian Gerhaher excelled as Olivier. Both he and Andrew Staples offered winning, ardent assumptions of their roles as suitors for the affections of the Countess — and of opera itself. Gerhaher’s way with words, and the alchemy he affects in their marriage with music, remains an object lesson . His cleanness of tone was matched — no mean feat — by that of Staples, a more than credible rival. Peter Rose offered a properly larger than life La Roche, though vocally, especially during his paean to the theatre, it could become a little threadbare. Bo Skovhus may no longer lay claim to the vocal refulgence of his youth; he can still hold a stage, though, even in a concert performance, and offered a reading of the Count’s role that was both intelligent and dramatically compelling. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, whom I have had a few occasions to praise in performances outside this country, made a splendid Covent Garden debut as Clairon, rich of tone and both alluring and lively of presence. Graham Clark offered a splendid cameo as Monsieur Taupe, rendering the prompter’s late arrival genuinely touching. There was, moreover, strong singing, both in solo and in ensemble, from the band of servants, many of them Jette Parke Young Artists. John Cunningham’s Major-Domo faltered somewhat, but he had a good line in the brief declamatory. The audience clearly fell for Mary Plazas and Barry Banks as the Italian Singers, though I was not entirely convinced that some of those cheering understood that they were acknowledging Strauss in parodic mode.

Sir Andrew Davis led an estimable performance from the orchestra, the occasional fluff notwithstanding. There were moments of stiffness, not least in the Prelude; transitions were not always as fluid as they might have been. Davis, however, marshalled his forces well, and pointed up the myriad of references to other music, whether direct quotation or something more allusive. For all the perfectly poised nature of the ‘discussion’, we always know that Strauss (and thus music) will win out, as he did here. The performance was recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast: inevitable cavils notwithstanding, it remains highly recommended.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Countess Madeleine : Renée Fleming; Olivier: Christian Gerhaher; Flamand: Andrew Staples; La Roche: Peter Rose; The Count: Bo Skhovus; Clairon: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner; Major-Domo: John Cunningham; Italian Singers: Mary Plazas, Barry Banks; Servants: Pablo Bemsch, Michel de Souza, David Butt Philip, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Riches, Simon Gfeller, Jeremy Budd, Charbel Mattar; Monsieur Taupe: Graham Clark. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Andrew Davis (conductor). Royal Opera House, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Friday 19 July 2013.