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Reviews

<em>Capriccio</em>, Garsington Opera 2018
03 Jun 2018

The poignancy of triviality: Garsington Opera's Capriccio

“Wort oder Ton?” asks Richard Strauss’s final opera, Capriccio. The Countess answers with a question of her own, at the close of this self-consciously self-reflective Konversationstück für Musik: “Gibt es einen, der nicht trivail ist?” (“Is there any ending that isn’t trivial?”)

Capriccio, Garsington Opera 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Miah Persson (Countess)

Photo credit: Johan Persson

 

In fact, she herself has provided the ‘answer’ to the opera’s dilemma, and this beautiful production by Tim Albery for Garsington Opera - a co-production first seen at Santa Fe in 2016 - which is by turns flippant and serious, frivolous and serene, confirms the truth of the Countess’s earlier words: “denn hier zu wählen, hiesse verlieren.” To make a choice, would result only in loss.

The opera is set in 1777, when Marie Antoinette has just been crowned Queen of France and Gluck is undertaking his ‘reform’ of opera. In a luxurious chateau near Paris, the Countess is worshipped by a composer, Flamand, and the poet, Olivier, who dispute the relative importance of words and music, and ask the Countess, whom they both love, to choose between their respective arts - and, by implication, between them. This love triangle takes place within a salon populated by other artists: a renowned actress, Clairon; an impresario, La Roche (a Straussian alter ego, based also on theatre director Max Reinhardt); the Count (the Countess’s wealthy brother), an amateur actor who is more interested in rehearsing romantic scenes with Clairon than in debating aesthetic theories; two Italian singers; and Monsieur Taupe, a prompter.

Count and Countess Capriccio.jpg William Dazeley (Count), Miah Persson (Countess). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

Pianist Glenn Gould admired Capriccio for its ‘gallant poise and serene literacy’, but others have found it more difficult to experience the work without considering the circumstances in which it was composed. As Alex Ross noted in The Rest is Noise, ‘On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in Chernovtsy, Romania; 1,500 in Jelgava, Latvia; and several hundred in Stanisławów, Ukraine. On October 28, 1942, the day of the opera’s premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.’

Some have condemned the opera as a piece of Kunstegoismus, and declared Strauss guilty of solipsistic indifference to, or at best naïve unawareness of, the political implications of art, even during war. One such was Paul Hindemith, whose music was condemned as degenerate by the Nazis and whom Bertolt Brecht had warned, ‘music is not a Noah’s ark, in which one can escape the flood’.

Director Robert Carsen, in his 2004 production for the Palais Garnier in Paris, set the drama in Occupied France at the time of the opera’s composition. At the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, Christian von Götz’s production for Opera Cologne confronted the audience with a drop curtain depicting German troops marching down the Champs Elysées.

Is Capriccio an escapist fantasy? If so, perhaps one might forgive the elderly Strauss for this active reminiscence on and review of a life’s work in which he deliberately casts his gaze inwards, retreating to an ivory tower of aesthetic theorising, rather than facing outwards to acknowledge the unpleasant reality of the present. But, it’s worth remembering that the opera’s origins began to grow eight years before the Munich premiere in 1942. When Stefan Zweig, the librettist of Die schweigsame Frau, was urged by Strauss to come up with another libretto, he wrote, at the end of January 1934 to say that the following month he would be in London to undertake research in the British Library on ‘all the libretti that the Abbe Casti wrote for Pergolesi who, second-class musician that he was, could not do justice to the great charm and the perfect comedy style of these texts’. In August that year, he mentioned Casti’s libretto for Pergolesi’s ‘Prima la musica e poi le parole’, and the seeds of Capriccio were sown.

Moreover, the original setting similarly preceded the turbulent and bloody years of the French Revolution and the Terror. Who’s to say that in Vienna 1942, in the midst of destruction and horror, art might not have seemed the only way to remind the world of its own humanity? Might Capriccio be not irresponsibly apolitical but rather ‘political’ in the broadest sense?

Director Tim Albery and conductor Douglas Boyd certainly think so, as Boyd explained to me in a recent interview. Albery and his designer, Tobias Hoheisel, have updated the action to the years just after World War II, locating the action in a wealthy philanthropist-patron’s modernist house, the rectilinear regularity, pure colours and clean lines of which recall the architectural aesthetic of Mies van der Rohe. Servants in livery, both modern and traditional, stand erect in spacious vestibules left and right which frame an exquisite replica rococo drawing-room - an exuberance of gilt, glass and ornament, the folly of the hostess who reveres the eighteenth-century.

Sextet Capriccio.jpg Photo credit: Johan Persson.

In the light of Albery’s theatrical conceit, it seems both fitting and ironic that Mies van der Rohe’s fundamental aesthetic principle was that a building should be an expression of its era and materials: ‘I am not interested in the history of civilization. I am interested in our civilization. We are living it. Because I really believe, after a long time of working and thinking and studying that architecture ... can only express this civilization we are in and nothing else.’

On the opening night at Garsington, the enchantment which magically merges two historical epochs began with the first notes of the opening Sextet, performed by two members of the Garsington Opera Orchestra and four students from the Royal Academy of Music, and climaxed in the closing moments, when this interior oasis slid imperceptibly to the front of the stage, bathed in glorious green and blue by lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth, carrying us beyond ‘history’ and into timelessness.

There is no gesture or bustle during the Sextet: the characters, like us, take their seats and listen to the music and the questions that it poses, suggesting that the opera is not so much a denial of reality but a renewal of essential human dilemmas and values.

Albery’s drama is not all abstract theorising, however; there is plenty of self-referential eye-brow raising as the characters complain that it’s fortunate that the music obscures the words in opera, for it saves one having to fathom out nonsensical plots, and in any case the words are banal. The vigorous conversations are companionable and invigorating, and should vehemence risk escalating into violence, civility - and the Countess’s diplomacy - is there to pull things back from the brink, something that modern politicians would do well to heed.

The conversational ease was complemented and enhanced by Boyd, who captured the transparency of the densely motivic score, allowing both the words to be heard without undue effort and the multitude of instrumental motifs to make their mark lightly but lucidly. At moments where Strauss’s own voice in the debate seems to slip to the fore, the music seamlessly blossomed with sumptuously impassioned emotion, but elsewhere the gracious dance forms of the eighteenth-century which seem to underpin the musical discourse carried the drama forward charmingly.

Sam Furness (Flamand), Gavan Ring (Olivier), Andrew Shore (La Roche) credit Johan Persson.jpgSam Furness (Flamand), Gavan Ring (Olivier), Andrew Shore (La Roche). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

The temperature on stage does rise, when La Roche’s plans to stage flamboyantly theatrical productions of the myths of the birth of Pallas Athene and the Fall of Carthage are rudely abused, before the impresario lambasts the pale, young aesthetes, ‘blasse Ästheten’, with a persuasive panegyric against those who condemn the old ways but create nothing new.

No one knows better than Andrew Shore how to exploit the power of ‘theatre’. His La Roche made a nonchalant entrance, a suave riposte to Flamand’s vanity: as the Sextet spun its silken web, La Roche, sipping champagne, strolled breezily across the drawing-room, in search of a leather couch upon which he subsequently took a snooze. But, this does not mean that Shore does not value or articulate musical or dramatic concerns. He sang with vigour, directness and dignity, and La Roche’s arguments communicated with conviction and cogency.

Albery’s choreographic details are engaging. Both suitors have charisma, and they are neatly opposed. While the Sextet rhapsodises, Olivier flicks through his poetry, making annotation; during Olivier’s eulogising, Flamand browses through his score, conducting the music in his mind. Tenor Sam Furness’s sweet-voiced Flamand is delightfully boyish and ardent, lost in his music, inflamed in voice and heart by his passion for his dual muses, music and the Countess. Baritone Gavan Ring effectively conveys the more mature and worldly Olivier’s frustration - and despair, when he decries Flamand’s setting of his sonnet which destroys the rhyme and metre - resonantly surmounting Strauss’s high-lying lines with focus and conviction.

Hanna Hipp (Clairon) .jpgHanna Hipp (Clairon). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

William Dazeley’s Count is a heartier baritone, blunt and confident, communicating his aristocratic assurance with vigour. As Clairon, Hanna Hipp wears her tailored cream trouser-suit with style; always in character, she acted superbly and her rich mezzo added plushness and passion to the conversational ensembles.

The Italian singers, Nika Gorič (soprano) and Caspar Singh (tenor) relished the straight-faced parody of their bel canto divertissement, and offered a playful counterpart to the company’s philosophising, as Singh tried to stop Gorič quaffing too much champagne and eating all the cake. Further fun was offered by a diverting interruption by the servants who, taking their seats at the front of the stage during a work-break, reflected wryly on their masters’ theorising - ‘I suppose now they will even want servants to appear in their operas’. They, like Graham Clark’s Monsieur Taupe - the prompter who’s gone to sleep on the job but who is the ‘the invisible ruler of a magical world’ - know what goes on ‘backstage’. Counter-balancing decorum was provided by Lowri Shone’s expressive ballet and by Benjamin Bevan’s self-composed Major Domo.

Caspar Singh (Italian Tenor), Nika Gorič (Italian Soprano).jpg Caspar Singh (Italian Tenor), Nika Gorič (Italian Soprano). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

But, it is the Countess herself who presides in this opera, which she commissions, inspires, judges and embodies. Miah Persson was the perfect hostess: regal of bearing and manner, tactful but teasing. She sailed sweetly and swiftly through the conversational snatches and soared through Strauss’s expansive arcs with a blend of silvery limpidity and golden gleam - matching the opulence of her own rococo recreation. When she declared, of music, ‘It awakens dark dreams - ineffable/ A sea of awareness - entrancingly beautiful!’, it was as if Strauss himself both spoke and sang.

Countess Capriccio.jpgMiah Persson (Countess). Photo credit: Johan Persson.

At the close the Countess’s sonnet declares the ‘truth’; the dilemma cannot be resolved. We need both music and poetry, in opposition and in harmony, and what is truly essential is, as the sonnet tells, love. And, so, Capriccio must end with a question mark, for the Countess can find no answer ‘that is not trivial’.

The war threatened ‘humanity’ and also destroyed the manifest forms that such humanity took - human culture; when the Munich Nationaltheater was struck during an Allied bombing raid, Strauss wrote, ‘There is no consolation, and, at my age, no hope.” In this regard, the ‘triviality’ of Capriccio is not apathetic, but redolent with pathos - a Romantic cry for beauty and truth in a world of deceit, destruction and dread. Capriccio may, superficially, seem negligently inconsequential but, as Tim Albery and Douglas Boyd show, it gives us hope.

Claire Seymour

Countess - Miah Persson, Flamand - Sam Furness, Olivier - Gavan Ring, La Roche - Andrew Shore, Count - William Dazeley, Clairon - Hanna Hipp, Monsieur Taupe - Graham Clark, Italian Soprano -Nika Gorič, Italian Tenor - Caspar Singh, The Major-Domo - Benjamin Bevan, A young dancer (silent) - Lowri Shone, Servant - Richard Bignall, Servant - Dominic Bowe, Servant - Robert Forrest, Servant - Andrew Hamilton, Servant - Emanuel Heitz, Servant - Jack Lawrence-Jones, Servant - David Lynn, Servant - Kieran Rayner; Director - Tim Albery, Conductor - Douglas Boyd, Designer - Tobias Hoheisel, Lighting Designer - Malcolm Rippeth, Choreographer - Laïla Diallo, Garsington Opera Orchestra/Onstage string sextet, in association with the Royal Academy of Music.

Garsington Opera, Wormsley; Friday 1st June 2018.

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