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The Great Debate

April 13, 2011

Joseph Kaiser and Renée Fleming in Capriccio Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2011

I remain convinced that Richard Strauss’ Capriccio may be one of the most under appreciated operas in the standard repertoire. (Whether or not the opera is in the “standard repertoire” is probably a matter of debate in itself, but I would contend that it should be.) Perhaps one of the most musically inventive of Struass’ works, the opera is also blessed with perhaps the most “meta” of all opera plots this side of, … well, Ariadne auf Naxos. The one act “conversation piece” as Strauss called it is an extended debate about the relative importance of words vis-à-vis music in the arts and in what ways the two are subservient to theater as a whole. Each position in the argument is presented by a character, all of whom meet in the salon of a well-off young countess who acts as arbiter and eventually non-decider in the debate. She proposes that the warring sides compose an opera which becomes the very opera being performed, Capriccio. That the umpire in the discussion is one of Strauss' beloved soprano roles is to be expected, and it is a touchstone role for a certain class of performer. And one of them is Renée Fleming who is currently singing the role in a thoroughly enjoyable revival at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. I saw the performance on Monday, and you can too even if you aren’t in New York considering that the final performance in the run will be broadcast as part of the company’s “Live in HD” series to theaters around the world on April 23rd.

Strauss is one of Fleming’s strong suits, and she shines here. And while I wasn’t as taken with her individual performance last Monday as I was three years ago when she sang the part in Vienna, Fleming is still able to infuse the countess with the same kind of melancholy that makes Strauss’ Marschallin one of the great opera characters. Fleming seemed a hair less assured to me in the middle and lower part of her range on this particular evening compared to three years ago to my ear, but this feels like nit picking in a performance of this caliber. Of course singing the countess invites comparisons to some of the last century’s great voices. The only other time that The Met offered Capriccio was in 1998 with Kiri Te Kanawa in the lead role in the same production the house is currently reviving.

Sadly, much like this season’s revival of Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande at the Met, revivals of Capriccio are so infrequent that updating the previous already dated production may seem economically unwise. Fleming is placed in one of those trademark Met Opera dioramas like something from the Museum of Natural Opera History. The original production was directed by John Cox with sets from Mauro Pagano updating the action of the opera moved to the 1920s. This forces Fleming and Sarah Connolly, who plays the other major female role, the actress Clairon, into some mighty unattractive costumes. As has been documented elsewhere, Fleming did not wear the John Galliano designed gown she wore during the 2008 Met Opera season opening gala for the final scene of this opera. (Granted given Galliano’s fortunes this was probably wise.) But the matronly outfits she landed here are unfortunate at best. She spends most of the evening in a teal number dragging around what appear to be two dead gerbils attached to trains she repeatedly works not to stumble over. Then in the final scene she returns having raided Blanche's wardrobe from The Golden Girls.

Costumes aside, the most disappointing thing about Cox' staging is the real lack of sparkle and plain old stage magic in an opera that cries out for it. The cast is strong with Joseph Kaiser as an assured Flamand, the composer, and Russell Braun as the poet Olivier. Peter Rose makes a robust and persuasive La Roche, the impresario who reminds the two younger man exactly where they stand in things. Sir Andrew Davis, who conducted Te Kanawa in Capriccio’s first performances at the Met over a decade ago returned to the pit. I don’t feel he made the most out of some of the detail and rich texture in the work which builds from string quartets into full orchestral ensembles and then back again with deceptive ease. But the music is still very touching throughout.

It’s tempting to try and interpret Capriccio in anti-authoritarian ways. Not unlike Shostakovich during much of his career, Strauss wrote and premiered his final opera in Munich in 1942 during the Third Reich and WWII. Is the opera willfully ignorant of the times in which it was born? Is it a defiant testament to a world and art that Strauss saw disappearing as his own life was drawing to a close? Unanswered questions to be sure, but sometimes those are the most intriguing ones. In my mind the melancholy that pervades Act I of Der Rosenkavalier permeates all of Capriccio and I think that is why I find it so moving and lovely. And it is also an opera without a resolution. The countess expresses no answer to the debate and leaves the stage with a call to dinner. And maybe that is the best we can hope for in a very difficult world.



I saw this in 1993 with Kiri and Troyanos (imagine my shock when TT died a mere six weeks later). I couldn't bear it, even with great singers. You make the best possible case for it, but since I just can't stand Fleming.....
What!?!?!?! and What!?!?!?!?! I feel something very critical has changed in my cosmology. It will take me a while to absorb your dislike of the profound Capriccio. The Fleming thing I can relate to a little more easily although I do love her in the right thing at the right time.

But then again, I love pretension. The more pretentious the better. So maybe I'm a bit blind here.
Well....I'm reasonably certain that if I hadn't been in standing room, I would have slept through the performance. The Countess's final scene is beautiful, but the performance as whole was not convincing. A blind spot of mine, for sure.
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