Met Opera Live’s HD Capriccio in London

Met Opera Live – Strauss, Capriccio: Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission live to the Barbican Cinema, London. 23.4.2011 (MMB)

Capriccio was Richard Strauss’s last opera and arguably, one of his greatest works. The opera deals effectively with a topic that occupied Strauss all his life, i.e. the relationship between words and music in opera. The idea came originally from Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) who suggested creating a libretto based on the 18th Century comedy by Giovanni Battista Casti (1724-1803), entitled Prima la musica, poi la parole, which was the source for Antonio Salieri’s opera of the same title in 1786. Zweig worked on a scenario with Joseph Gregor. Subsequently, Strauss rejected two libretti by Gregor and eventually, took it on with Clemens Krauss (an Austrian conductor who was a great supporter of Strauss’s work) and together they created the final libretto for Capriccio though most of it was actually written by the composer himself. The original is set, like the comedy, in the 18th Century, hence the references to Goldoni, an Italian play-writer (1707-1793) and to the composer Gluck (1714-1787) who undertook a reform of opera. Capriccio was premiered in Munich, in October 1942, to great acclaim. Since then, it has become one of Strauss’s most popular pieces and, as the music is undeniably of the period when Strauss was alive, most productions were updated to the 1920s or 1930s, which in spite of some 18th Century references, makes the work as a whole more believable.

Capriccio is often called a “talking” opera or described as a “conversation piece” and as such, it is not everybody’s cup of tea! It is however not a deviation from the composer’s previous operas but it could be referred to as the climax of his artistic style and ideas as an opera composer. The opera deals with the relationship of words and music: Which art form is more important, more inspiring or should take precedence over the other? This is personified in the characters of Flamand (a composer) and Olivier (a poet) who are both in love with a young widowed countess, Madeleine, who is also a singer. There are great arguments for either the music or the words between Flamand and Olivier and they are eventually joined by everybody else. Finally, it emerges that they should write an opera together and the count (Madeleine’s brother) suggests that the characters should be the people present in the room and that the end should be decided by his sister. The final scene sees Madeleine (the countess) alone, thinking about the end of the opera and which of the two suitors  she will choose, but she is unable to make a decision. Madeleine becomes the metaphor for opera and when she looks at her reflection in the mirror and realises that she cannot make a choice, she walks away slowly. The audience then understands, as I believe Strauss intended, that neither words nor music can take precedence over each other as an art form: Each is different but equally needed and opera can only exist when both are harmoniously merged.

This final scene, which lasts approximately twenty minutes, is a perfect vehicle for a star soprano with great stage presence and none more so than American Renée Fleming. Capriccio is tailor-made for her, almost as if the composer had her in mind when he created the role of the countess Madeleine. On the Opening Night Gala of the 2008-09 season at the Met, Fleming dazzled the audience with her performance of this scene, which is possibly the reason why the Met decided to stage the full opera, in the current season, with her in the starring role.

As expected, Fleming was an arresting presence on stage. She looked beautiful both in the simple but elegant blue gown that she wore for most of the opera and then, in the glittering, silvery one during the final scene, even though this was a considerably less stylish dress than the one designed especially for her to wear in the Gala mentioned above. Fleming makes it perfectly believable that the two men (the composer and the poet) are completely taken by her and have fallen deeply in love with her. She is tender, sweet and sensitive in the scenes where she is alone with each of them, as in turn they declare their love for her, and commanding in the ensemble pieces. Strauss’s music suits Fleming’s floating vocal qualities to perfection and it is clear that she delights in singing it. The final scene was therefore eagerly anticipated but unfortunately, its ending was to be a disappointment, though not due to Ms Fleming who was as dazzling as ever. Her singing was superb and she delivered the conflict within her mind supremely. However, just as we were reaching the climax of the scene, the satellite signal failed; presumably, due to the thunderstorm raging over London at that time. For a few seconds picture and sound vanished; then the picture returned but sadly with defective sound: We could see Ms Fleming looking rather lovely but the music and singing were fractured, coming across as if one was listening to a CD that got stuck. A sad ending to what had been a truly wonderful performance so far. Eventually, it all returned but by that time the opera had finished and only a few of us, “die-hard” opera fans, had remained seated but all we got was the cast on stage, the applause of the public at the Met (oblivious to our predicament in London) and the credits!

Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy until the signal interruption. The production was gorgeous: settings, lighting and costumes were all tasteful and elegant, and both the direction for the stage and for the live film were excellent. The cast was superb and Fleming’s countess was well matched by Canadian baritone Russell Braun as Olivier (the poet), Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen, as the count (Madeleine’s brother), British mezzo Sarah Connolly, as Clairon (the actress) but especially, by British bass Peter Rose who gave us an impressive, effective and convincing La Roche (the theatre director) and most of all by young Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser who made a dashing, ardent Flamand (the composer) both in physical presence and quality of voice. It was the first time I saw and heard him in a live opera production, after his performance as Tamino in Kenneth Branagh’s 2006 film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. I thought that he was good in the film but it was a film! So, I did not actually believe that he might have a voice or a technique good enough to sustain a live performance in an opera. I am glad to say that he does and fully deserved to be part of such a distinguished cast as the one assembled for this production of Capriccio.

The orchestra of the Met was also in fine form and Andrew Davis led them in an excellent performance of Strauss’s last opera; technically flawless and insightful, serving the composer’s meaning and the singers in a very effective way. The execution of the sextet, which opens the opera, was particularly delicate, at times beautiful, however, to my mind, the softer passages were a little too soft: The sound of the instruments seemed to fade, as if they were disappearing in the distance.

Overall, it was a pleasant evening in spite of the technical issues at the end. If you were present at the Barbican, eagerly anticipating Fleming’s performance in the final scene and were disappointed because of the signal failure; then, I would suggest that you try and catch a television broadcast of the 2008-09 gala, which is sometimes aired on Sky Arts 2, and where Fleming performed the final scene in full. Believe me, it is worth the effort!

Margarida Mota-Bull

The next Met Opera Live broadcast at the Barbican is on 30th April of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.