Santa Fe, N.M. — Richard Strauss’ opera Capriccio receives a splendid production this season at the Santa Fe Opera. The company has always been known for Strauss operas, mainly thanks to founder John Crosby, and in 1958, SFO presented the American premiere of Capriccio.
The opera, the ultimate in patrician theater, takes place at a soirée in the servant-laden home of Countess Madeleine, portrayed by soprano Amanda Majeski, and her brother, the count, portrayed by baritone Craig Verm.
The most important guests are two suitors for the Countess’ hand in marriage. One is a poet, Olivier, portrayed by baritone Joshua Hopkins, and the other is Flamand, a composer portrayed by tenor Ben Bliss. Also in attendance is the director of the most prominent theater in town and the actor most adored by the public, the lovely Clairon (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham), in whom the count is currently enamored.
Everyone is very cultured, droll and witty, as well as super intelligent. Sounds like a party at your house? Probably not. But Strauss revels in such company. After all, his most famous opera, Der Rosenkavalier, is about the same people. His operas frequently feature strong (and titled) women, so much so that they carry their name: Salome, Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die ägyptische Helena, Arabella, Daphne, and Die Liebe der Danae.
Capriccio is his last opera and he thought that it was a fitting farewell. But the process was not an easy one. Bereft of his favorite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal of Rosenkavalier fame, Capriccio had multiple authors. It is based on a title of a libretto by Giambattista Casti, written in the late 1700’s for Pergolesi.
Yes, just the title. Prima la musica e poi la parola (first the music and then the words).
Strauss felt that this was the ultimate question about opera itself, as an art form. In a letter to Joseph Gregor, one of the many librettists Strauss consulted, as quoted in Charles Osborne’s erudite book on the Strauss operas, the composer gave some examples:
“First the words, then the music (Wagner) or
First the music, then the words (Verdi) or
Words alone, no music (Goethe) or
Music alone, no words (Mozart)”
Given this confusing sentiment expressed above, it is little wonder and the dissatisfied Strauss himself had a hand in the final product.
(Another consideration was that this score was written under the heavy hand of the Third Reich’s censors. Strauss’ position as a conductor and composer was an uneasy one during Hitler’s rule.)
Capriccio, which contains some of Strauss’ most sublime music, is also an in-joke for classical music nerds. Strauss includes a multitude of actual and pseudo quotes and from well-known composers as they are mentioned, no matter how obliquely. The wink-wink argument, hidden in the story line of which is more important words or music, is obvious by the conflicting professions of the countess’ two suitors.
Spoiler alert: The opera ends before her decision is revealed.
But not to worry, in this production, director Tim Albery gets some real laughs with his clever staging from those who don’t recognize a quote from Gluck. The opera also has a clever theater joke tossed in for good measure. Near the end, a miscellaneous prompter shows up, probably from the off-stage rehearsal of the poet’s play. He fell asleep, who knows when, and he shows up completely confused as to where he is or even what he is prompting.
An aside: There was a time when all theaters and opera houses had a prompter’s box at the foot of the stage. It was their job to both cue the actors and yell out their next lines. Such things have almost completely vanished, although some opera houses in Europe, even the Metropolitan Opera in New York, retain prompters in their cramped cocoon.
The Santa Fe production, designed by Tobias Hoheisel, puts Countess Madeleine’s home, and the costumes, somewhere in the 1950’s, with sleek chrome and leather furniture. Strauss wanted the opera to be set in the opulent 18th century so, presumably to please the long-dead composer, Hoheisel stuck an incongruent 18th century gold-gilded rococo music room in the middle of the stage.
Majeski plays the countess with a charming casualness. However, in an era of opulent vocal production, her thin soprano with its tight and fluttery vibrato, sounds out of place and time. Clean diction and her immersion in the role count for a lot in this talky opera, but we are used to hearing soprani like Renée Fleming in the role. Majeski’s sound requires an adjustment that is possible, but difficult, to make.
As Flamand, tenor Ben Bliss displays a beautiful sound and is wonderful when captivated, in an innocent manner, hearing his own music played. Hopkins displays and equally lovely baritone. He plays the poet as, well, a poet—moodier than the composer. Both are marvelous singers. In case the Countess is judging by vocal production, her choice would be hard indeed.
Most of the real laugh-out-loud comedy comes from bass-baritone David Govertsen, as La Roche, the vainglorious theater producer with big, albeit ridiculous, ideas for productions. Susan Graham is one of the greatest mezzos of our time and it is quite amazing to see her as the big star, Clairon, a supporting role. She plays her with quiet elegance rather than doing an over-the-top satire of “big stars” in the 50’s era. Verm’s portrayal of the count is also restrained. Often, as with Clairon, this role is overplayed as a rich, shiftless playboy chasing movie stars. Verm’s version of the count earnestly copies his sister’s comportment, with varying degrees of success.
Two Italian singers make an appearance as entertainment. Soprano Shelley Jackson and tenor Galeano Salas are wonderfully wacky as the pair who, after their brief concert, help themselves to the refreshments. Jackson hits the spirits while Salas inhales the cake. Bass-baritone Adrian Smith plays the stiff-backed Major-Domo. Ballerina Beth Miller does a fine job with Jodi Melnick ‘schoreography.
But tenor Allan Glassman steals the show with his ditsy portrayal of that lost prompter mentioned earlier.
Conductor Leo Hussain keeps the opera moving forward throughout the evening. Since so little happens, Capriccio can feel long, but not with Hussain’s brisk tempi and minimal rubato while still reveling in Srauss’ opulent music.
The orchestra also has a role to play in this opera. Strauss toys with the question he poses with the orchestral writing. The themes he attaches to the various characters and concepts, especially the composer and poet, keep churning in the score under the discussion, cleverly displaying the conflicted mind of the countess. Strauss wanted the opera to end with a question mark, but he couldn’t help himself when it got to the finish line. At the end, it is the composer’s music, a setting of a sonnet by the poet, that the countess is humming.
Strauss wrote the opera without an intermission, similar to Salome, but its two-hour running time requires a break for modern audiences (although we seem to have no trouble siting through movies that long or longer). This production inserts the standard intermission and does no harm to the opera.
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