Capriccio – Strauss’ Last Opera

Let’s play a little game. Match the three Strauss operas in List A with the three words in List B.

A: Capriccio, Der Rosenkavalier, Salome

B: Charming, Grisly, Teasing

OK, that was easy even if you’ve never seen Capriccio. Now here’s a riddle: How can a simple true-false question be both True and False?

A couple of weeks ago after seeing the preview of Capriccio Sara and I had a little discussion. She was certain that she had seen it in a previous Met HD performance; I was equally certain that the Met HD had never before shown it. Both of us are at an age where “senior moments” of lost memories are not uncommon, but we were each so positive in our memories that when I got home I went to the Met’s Archive page, and did a full search for “Capriccio”. And guess what? We were both right! Today was the first time the Met had done the entire opera of Capriccio on HD, BUT the first performance of the 2008-9 Met HD season was the Gala Opening performance of the season, and one of the three different opera scenes was from Capriccio with RenÉe Fleming.

Olivier (Russell Braun) & Flamand (Joseph Kaiser)

All of which is build-up to Richard Strauss’ question, posed early in the opera. Countess Madeleine (RenÉe Fleming) is in love. Of that she is certain. But part of her is in love with the poet Olivier (Russell Braun) and part of her is in love with the composer Flamand (Joseph Kaiser). Which will it be?

That question is the entire plot of the opera. For two and a half hours of unrelenting music it is pursued with all sorts of fascinating minor characters and minor sub-plots.

La Roche and the Countess

Impresario La Roche (Peter Rose) is a most pompous person who claims (in a deep bass voice) that he is more important than either of the suitors because unless he puts them into a stage production no one will ever hear Flamand’s music or experience Olivier’s poetry.

Olivier, Clairon, & Flamand

La Roche is producing a play written by Olivier and starring the Actress Clairon (Sarah Connolly).

Count & Countess

Clairon has that indefinable female quality which makes all men immediately aware of her, but her most serious suitor is Madeleine’s brother, the Count (Morten Frank Larsen) who also offers Madeleine some unhelpful big-brotherly advice.

Capriccio is presented in one unbroken act: a soirÉe that takes place in Madeline’s salon and in real time – a pleasant summer evening. As part of the soirÉe La Roche has arranged two interludes: a pair of ballet dancers (Laura Feig and Eric Otto) and a pair of “Italian singers” (Olga Makarina and Barry Banks). Each pair takes itself very seriously but is not very good; they are taken very casually by the Countess and her guests who continue to move about and converse during their performances – delightful bits of gentle buffoonery.

I regret that the Met did not provide me with any pictures of them. Nor do I have a picture of the male servants (Ronald Naldi, Paul Corona, Steven Goldstein, Christopher Schaldenbrand, Grant Youngblood, Scott Scully, Brian Frutiger, Kyle Pfortmiller). Shortly before the finale they are alone on stage and sing a delightful octet recapping the Countess’ dilemma – a device later used by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in My Fair Lady.

Countess Madeleine

And there you have the characters. But they are all supporting roles. This is Madeleine’s opera; and in this production that means it is RenÉe Fleming’s opera. She is on stage most of the time, including a couple of long solo stretches. This requires not only her beautiful soprano voice but also a superior stage presence, because there are periods when she is not singing. There is the orchestra, and there is RenÉe Fleming with only her body language and her expressive face. It is up to us, the audience to relate the visual and auditory impressions we are receiving to the plot of the opera – remember the plot?

But first, another game – a culinary one. Match the three Strauss operas with the three dishes shown above. Apple pie served with cheddar cheese, lutefisk, and a soufflÉ. That’s right. Capriccio is like a delicate soufflÉ. When it is done perfectly it is an almost transcendental experience. But let any small thing disturb its fragile perfection, and it would fall flat. The soufflÉ served up Saturday was yummy, thanks to the composer Richard Strauss, Stage Director Peter McClintock and the entire production team, Maestro Andrew Davis and the orchestra, RenÉe Fleming and the rest of the cast, and the entire Metropolitan Opera HD production.

Enough, already, you say. Did she choose the musician or the poet. Ah, but those are not the only choices. She could have rejected them both and lived single all her life. She could have chosen both and set up a mÉnage a trois. She could have decided not to make a choice but to continue in delicious ambiguity. Maybe she made a choice but didn’t tell us what it was. Maybe . . . .

There’s only one way you can know, because I’m not going to tell you. Come to a theatre near you at 6:30 pm local time on Wednesday May 11, 2011 and see the Encore performance. You won’t get many other chances. The only previous Met production was in 1998; who knows when they’ll do it again.

The Opera Nut

Photos, except as noted: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in on April 30, 2011

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