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Recordings

Richard Strauss: Capriccio
24 Feb 2012

Fleming in Strauss’s Capriccio

Is there somewhere in Italian opera repertory where, as a comic interlude, the portentous clichés of German opera come in for a skewering amid the luscious sunshine of Italianate lyricism?

Richard Strauss: Capriccio

Die Gräfin: Renée Fleming; Flamand: Joseph Kaiser; Olivier: Russell Braun; La Roche: Peter Rose; Clairon: Sarah Connolly. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Andrew Davis.

Decca 0440 074 3454 3 DH [2DVDs]

$37.99  Click to buy

None come to mind. But Richard Strauss twice stopped the progress of heavily scored recitative in his own operas to bring on caricatures of Italian opera singers for light-hearted relief. In Der Rosenkavalier the Marschallin is entertained in her boudoir by the “Italian singer,” a tenor who belts out what, ironically, is probably the best known aria from any Strauss opera, “Di rigori armato.” Then in Capriccio, Die Grafin, as elegant and aristocratic as her operatic predecessor, also finds such amusement, this time with the “Italian Singers,” a tenor and a soprano whose music mocks the “high note” obsession of Italian opera. It’s almost as if Strauss might have wondered if audiences might grow restless in the middle of an intermission-less two and a half hours of a barely dramatic debate over whether music or literature is the highest art. The buffo treatment afforded the Italian Singers might make such audiences recoil from wishing they could slip out of a Capriccio performance for some time with Il Trovatore.

Capriccio is a late work of Strauss, and as with the Vier Letzte Lieder and Metamorphosen, the score’s greatest music, in the final scene, is duskily lit with the glowing colors of a dying sunset. In the preceding two hours, Strauss weaves parodies of 18th century music along with his own craftsman-like ability to keep the musical motor running without ever seeming to arrive anywhere. The characters have no history or interior life to propel the action, such as it is. A musician, Flamand, and a poet, Olivier, compete for the patronage and romantic attention of Die Grafin. La Roche, a theater director, is putting on an entertainment for her, which will feature a self-infatuated actress (Clarion) as well as the two Italian Singers. As the theatrical endeavor proceeds, a rhetorical argument takes the place of any narrative drive — is it music or literature that is man’s highest artistic achievement? In her long closing soliloquy, Die Grafin evades a final answer, but the dominance of Strauss’s score seems to complete the response for her.

Capriccio will never be a mainstay of the operatic repertory, but it is the most frequently performed of any of the operas from the latter stage of Strauss’s career. It offers a great leading role for a soprano, who gets to be the focus of attention for most of the evening and who, at its close, has the stage to herself. In this Metropolitan Live HD performance from April 2011, Renée Fleming meets every vocal requirement of the role; not unexpectedly, as her credentials in Strauss have long been validated. What she can’t quite do is to suggest the depths of intelligence or sensuality that the other characters claim to see in Die Grafin. Peter Rose, a notable Baron Ochs, makes the most of his big scene as La Roche. Sarah Connolly gives the outrageous Clarion a good try, without quite seeming comfortable in the role. Joseph Kaiser as Flamand and Russell Braun as Olivier can’t escape the bland confines of their under-characterized roles. Barry Banks and Olga Makarina are very funny as the Italian Singers and also notably un-Italian.

Conducting Capriccio must be a treat, with its small ensembles built into the framework of larger orchestral set-pieces. Andrew Davis leads the Metropolitan Opera forces in a detailed, buffed performance. The John Cox production harmlessly updates the action, which is hardly historically relevant to begin with. Robert Perdziola’s costumes and Mauro Pagano’s sets complement the elegance and handsomeness of the work.

As strong as this performance is, anyone who loves this opera must also seek out a San Francisco Opera performance with Kiri te Kanawa and Tatiana Troyanos, both of whom simply outclass their talented peers in the more recent production.

Chris Mullins

 

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