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Renée Fleming as Countess Madeleine [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
06 Apr 2011

Capriccio, Metropolitan Opera

Richard Strauss, nearly eighty years old and past caring what anybody thought (Pauline aside), ignored the Second World War happening just down the street and collaborated with his longtime conductor Clemens Krauss in an arch libretto about the feud for primacy between poetry and music, concluding with their synthesis in opera.

Richard Strauss: Capriccio

Countess Madeleine: Renée Fleming; Clairon: Sarah Connolly; Flamand: Joseph Kaiser; Olivier: Russell Braun; La Roche: Peter Rose; Count: Morten Frank Larsen; Italian Singers: Olga Makarina, Barry Banks; Dancers: Jennifer Goodman, Griff Braun. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by Andrew Davis. Performance of April 1.

Above: Renée Fleming as Countess Madeleine

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera


In fact, as they both surely knew, poets are thrilled when a composer sets them to music and opera composers treasure a good librettist, as no one did more than Strauss, deeply upset when the Nazis drove his Jewish collaborators into exile.

In Capriccio, the opera they concocted, the artifice of the contest is given a dramatic turn of the screw: Countess Madeleine, the elegant heroine, is amorously besieged by a poet and a composer who are, therefore, at daggers drawn. When the poet writes her a sonnet, the composer turns it into a song. The poet fights back by inserting the piece in a poetic drama. An impresario resolves to stage it with Paris’s leading actress, and Madeleine’s brother, who is pursuing that lady, volunteers to appear in it (and pay for it). There will also be dancers (since this is France) and even some money-grubbing Italian singers (because … why not?), and a whole lot of sophisticated banter about art, the arts, and the heart. Oh, and a bunch of menservants between scenes to provide scabrous commentary on the affectations of their betters. Plus a sleepy prompter to remind us that the public often misses the real work being done backstage. It is music-drama as Viennese pastry: Form follows anything but function, but the result is miraculously filling. Strauss thus got a chance to bring his career to a perfect conclusion—not a swan-song so much as a dessert—it was his last essay in the operatic form though he produced other music till his death six years later.

CAPRICCIO_Kaiser_as_Flamand_6334a.pngJoseph Kaiser as Flamand

Strauss’s operas are of two kinds—most of them both at different moments—the talky operas (Die Schweigsame Frau; Intermezzo) and the lush, lyrical ones (Die Frau ohne Schatten; Daphne). The best of them straddle the two states, easily (Ariadne; Rosenkavalier) or uneasily (Salome; Arabella). Capriccio is talky, but the talk is about matters lyrical and the lyricism shines through at every opportunity, like a light glowing through the cracks in ragged scenery. It’s a hefty, two-and-a-half-hour intermissionless evening (when the Met last gave it, there was an intermission, because Kiri Te Kanawa insisted), but it couldn’t be by anyone but Strauss, and if you have the proper orchestra (the Met has, led by Andrew Davis) and cast (the Met mostly has), it’s as enjoyable as a long, heavy Central European dinner with many champagne toasts to accompany the different courses.

One mild awkwardness: For reasons unclear (Robert Perdziola’s costumes?), John Cox’s production in Mauro Pagan’s magnificent trompe l’oeil drawing room has been set in Paris of the 1920s, though Krauss and Strauss carefully filled the libretto and the score with in-joke references to Paris of the 1770s, when they set it. The 1770s was the era when (survivors said, after the Revolution) the sweetness of life reached its peak, when Clairon ruled the stage and Gluck the opera. Clairon is a character here, and there is much talk about Gluck and Voltaire and Rameau, and of everyone appearing (or not appearing) at the royal court, none of which makes sense in the republican 1920s. (And would one, in the latter period, discuss drama versus music in the theater and never mention Wagner or Debussy? In Paris?) So we are obliged to ignore the libretto at such times, tragic as that is for so careful and literate a piece of work, and enjoy the quotations from Gluck’s Iphigénie, and sigh for the good old days when opera direction made sense.

It may have been a mistake for me to listen to the first performance of this run of Capriccio on the air, via the free broadcasting service available on the Met’s web site: The voices all sounded impossibly strong, the score wonderfully lush, and I looked forward to kicking back and letting the Straussian surf waft me to Nirvana. In the theater, though, I found the voices far less sumptuous, less physically present. The conversation was favored; the lyricism faded out. Thus, for example, Joseph Kaiser, a young tenor I’ve admired in other roles, sang Flamand the Composer ardently and enthusiastically but made little that was distinctive of his role. Russell Braun, as Olivier the Poet, might have been, in fact, conversing not singing (and he does recite his sonnet). Peter Rose, who captivated the Met as Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream among other roles, was a splendid buffo presence without giving much sensual pleasure as La Roche, the impresario. Sarah Connolly, as Clairon, perfection last year as the Composer in Ariadne, was hampered by a costume and fright wig that made her look like one of Samantha’s aunts from Bewitched, and sexy, innuendo-fraught witticisms fell flat from such a figure. Stage direction that distracted her every move with the witty dancing of Jennifer Goodman cannot have helped her. The self-parody of Olga Makarina and Barry Banks as the hungry Italian singers earned most of the vocal interest of the show.

CAPRICCIO_Rose__Braun__Kaiser_7687a.png(right to left) Joseph Kaiser as Flamand, Russell Braun as Olivier and Peter Rose as La Roche

That leaves, as the plot does, the Countess Madeleine of Renée Fleming. Capriccio is the Countess’s show, her chance to fill the shoes (or shall we say culottes?) of Mozart’s Countess and Strauss’s Marschallin and Arabella (a countess by birth)—all of them roles Fleming has sung here with honor. Strauss, indeed, is one of the composers for whom she has the greatest natural affinity. She looked splendid in the rather awkward costumes—would a lady this classy really change into a glittery silver ball gown to dine alone?—and her interactions in the salon scenes, her amused, tolerant bewilderment at the two declarations of love, her grace to her guests, her juggling of the situation were superbly handled—Kitty Carlisle Hart set to music. We understood why all these people loved her, were thrilled to be with her, to perform for her. She sang the varying phrases with distinction, lyricism salted with witty banter.

So to the long final scene, where she is alone with a mirror, an invisible mirror the director has hung on the fourth wall, so that she must peer into it and, descrying her inner self, present that self to us. This scene is a meditative tour de force, considerably more introspective but also less intense than the meditation of Thaïs, another Fleming-with-a-mirror role: After all, her immortal soul is not at stake here, whichever fellow she chooses by eleven o’clock the next morning. The dalliance may not even last. Too, in the French manner, she may decide on simultaneous affairs with both, or at least simultaneous flirtations. Fleming has sung this meditation often, on disc, in concert, at the Met Gala. Perhaps that is why, after a night on her best, most musicianly behavior, acting the role and singing the words, she slips back into bad habits in the last minutes, slurping and cooing where Strauss meant his music to be precise, dreamy, yes, and well acted, but precise. It was a reminder of Fleming the gifted but self-indulgent musician, who could have been but is not the great American diva of our time.

John Yohalem

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