“An opera,” says one of the characters in Richard Strauss’s last effort in the genre – his so-called “conversation piece in one act – “is an absurd thing.” At the heart of Capriccio is an impassioned but exquisitely polite debate over what matters most in opera – the music or the words. At stake is the favor of Countess Madeleine, a dilettante dwelling in a country villa outside Paris who balances the musician Flamand against the poet Olivier as they create an opera for her amusement. The artist who makes the better case for his medium will triumph in love as well as in art. After more than two hours of rumination, intrusion, and glorious singing and versification, Madeleine decides that there is no answer to the dilemma that could not be trivial. That Strauss and his librettist – the famed conductor Clemens Krauss — could ask such a question as German armies ground their way to defeat at Stalingrad in the autumn of 1942 alone speaks to the power of art.
The Met’s Capriccio first appeared in the 1998-1999 season as a vehicle for the leading soprano Kiri TeKanawa, who was well known for her interpretation of Countess Madeleine’s dominant role. This rival, the only one since the premiere, is also a vehicle – for the star soprano Renee Fleming. Some critics charge that the voice has lost its luster, particularly in lighter and bel canto parts if the mixed reviews of her performances in this and last season’s Armida are any guide. But the Strauss repertoire remains her ravishing own. Indeed, as the years pass, I only find her more and more at home in Strauss heroine roles and similar parts, such as her triumphant Thais in Massenet’s opera of the same name. The vocal line is articulated with great care and nuance, while the dramatic personae she delivers are truly aristocratic creations. Countess Madeleine demands no less. The finale, a monologue in which she ruminates on the question of which art form matters more, flowed with iconic charm. Fleming maintained her hauteur throughout, only playfully letting her guard down during the famous Moonlight Music, when Madeleine basks in the romantic situation she masters, clad in a gorgeous silvery gown while twirling a long-stemmed rose. The cloying artists can only pale before such a woman, but Joseph Kaiser’s Flamand and Russell Braun’s Olivier captured their spirit with excellent performances. Peter Rose sang the impresario La Roche, whose monologue about theater reminds us, if in a parodic way, of how important management is to the magic. In his debut season and role, Morten Frank Larsen played Madeleine’s brother, identified only as the Count, as what used to be called a sportsman, a philistine whose interest in art extends only as far as the talented mezzo-soprano Sarah Conolly’s Clairon, his actress love interest. Olga Makarina and Barry Banks were well considered additions in the short roles of the Italian singers who serenade the Countess and her party of guests. Sir Andrew Davis may well be the best conductor of the work performing today. He led a drawn out performance that balanced the score’s harmonies with the dissonant elements that recall the twentienth century musical milieu Strauss did so much to shape.
With such a talented orchestral reading of this complex yet sublime score, it makes sense that the John Cox’s production is updated to the 1920s – nearly the time of the opera’s composition — from the original eighteenth-century setting. The dialogue that revolves around Lully, Rameau, and other composers whose memories were more present in the earlier era seemed a bit anachronistic in an era when Wagner was the most popular composer in France, but Mauro Pagano’s inviting sets place us well at ease in a milieu where the arts are considered both so seriously and so lightly. Having Madeleine served a martini added the perfect touch. – Paul du Quenoy