A Capriccio That Nods to Other Strauss Operas

United StatesUnited States Strauss, Capriccio: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago / Sir Andrew Davis, (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 12.10.2014 (JLZ)

 William Burden Renee Fleming CAPRICCIO (c) Todd Rosenberg-
William Burden Renee Fleming CAPRICCIO (c) Todd Rosenberg

Countess: Renée Fleming
Clairon: Anne Sofie von Otter
Count: Bo Skovhus
Flamand: William Burden
Olivier: Audun Iversen
La Roche: Peter Rose
Italian Soprano: Emily Birsan
Italian Tenor: Juan José de Léon
Monsieur Taupe: Keith Jameson
Majordomo: David Goversten

Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Original Director: John Cox
Revival Director: Peter McClintock
Set Designer: Mauro Pagano
Costume Designer and Interior Décor: Robert Perdziola
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Choreographer: Val Caniparoli

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new season features a richly detailed production of Richard Strauss’s late opera Capriccio. The last of the composer’s fifteen operas, Capriccio (1942) focuses on the genre itself: Do the words have primacy over the music in opera, or does music take precedence? While the question is never answered explicitly, Capriccio remains captivating through the intersections of text and music that animate the score.

The libretto is set around 1775, which places this “conversation piece” (as the subtitle indicates) around the time of Gluck’s reform operas. This confluence is established in the first scene, where Strauss incorporated a substantial quotation from Gluck’s Alceste (1767, rev. 1776) in his score, along with other references to Gluck throughout the opera. This libretto is, after all, an adaptation of Casti’s Prima la musica e poi le parole that Salieri set in 1786, and so included references to recent music.

Lyric’s production places Capriccio in a posh art-deco milieu of the 1920s, with elegant costumes that are as colorful as Strauss’s scoring. The updating is not new to the company, which has presented Capriccio in modern dress before, but this production excels in bringing out other details. A kind of operatic Ein Heldenleben for Strauss, Capriccio includes gestures and tropes from the composer’s earlier operas that receive apt references in the current production. The work picks up from Intermezzo stylistically, but also Strauss’s other operas. At the beginning, the Countess’s entrance with a prominent rose evokes the presentation scene in Der Rosenkavalier. The monologue of the director La Roche is the counterpart of the composer’s monologue in Ariadne auf Naxos. Similarly, the cacophony in the debate resembles the opening of the third act of Der Rosenkavalier, where the Italian singer recurs in Capriccio as two Italian singers, which Emily Birsan and Juan José de Léon execute with theatrical irony and musical deftness. At the end of Capriccio, even the final gesture thoughtfully echoes Der Rosenkavalier’s conclusion, with each musical gesture matching a staged one.

Further, Capriccio’s Madeleine has the musical and dramatic aplomb of the Countess in Der Rosenkavalier, and Renee Fleming brings this out with consummate style. From start to finish, Fleming allowed the audience to enter into the drama, combining phrasing, intonation, and tone in a persuasive interpretation, before the finesse of her concluding monologue. As the composer Flamand, William Burden delivered the duet with Fleming with equal intensity—part of an exceptionally nuanced performance making a strong case for the supremacy of music.

Peter Rose gave a compelling portrayal of La Roche, with his monologue (Scene 9) standing out for its brilliant delivery. Rose moved adeptly between declamatory and melismatic passages, with spot-on delivery of the text, turning the monologue into a tour-de-force.

In fact, all the roles were cast well, with Anne Sofie von Otter as Clairon, Bo Skovhus as the Count, and Audun Iversen as the poet Olivier. Despite some softness in her delivery, von Otter was well-cast. Skovhus gave a similarly fitting portrayal of the Count, with some of his finest moments in a duet with Fleming early in the opera. As Olivier, Iversen contended admirably with his counterpart Flamand (Burden), and the interaction between the two animated the performances of both. All in all, this production offers a uniformly strong ensemble, including the chorus of servants leading into the opera’s dénouement.

This production presents Capriccio in two parts: the first ends with Scene 7, when the Countess orders chocolate, and a parallel to the opera’s final scene, when the Majordomo announces dinner. This attention to staging meshed nicely with the musical direction, masterfully executed by Sir Andrew Davis with appropriate tempos throughout, and the Scene 8 dance numbers moving deftly from one to the other. The smart choreography included the principals’ showing moments of self-awareness, and no single element stood out.

As to that open-ended question about the primacy of music over text, it is important to note that the concluding words are indeed trivial: the announcement of dinner. While the stage directions have the countess humming the Flamand’s sonnet as the opera ends, the orchestra fulfilled that instruction with seamless lines. In this effectively staged and impeccably executed Capriccio, Lyric’s response to the priority of text and music was to present both well.

James L. Zychowicz

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