America's superstar soprano Renée Fleming leads a glittering cast in Capriccio

October 25, 2014     By Truman C. Wang

All photos by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

There were two loves in Richard Strauss’ professional life – the theater and the soprano voice.  Of the dozen or so operas that Strauss wrote, many feature scenes of great theatricality (Die Frau ohne Schatten) and extended high-flying passages for the soprano (Der Rosenkavalier, Daphne).  The showmanship in these works is quite staggering.  Much of this over-the-top drama can also be found in his orchestral works, most famously in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In Capriccio, however, Strauss turned the traditional opera on its head and engaged in a two-and-a-half hour ‘conversation’ on the polemics of opera.  It is an intimate love story of a woman who must choose between her two suitors  – the poet or the composer?  the words or the music?   “Is there an ending that is not trivial?” - she asks us.  The opera ends without a hint of a resolution, either in the libretto or in the musical score.  Perhaps it’s Strauss telling us that, in art or in life, we must follow our own heart in all our pursuits.

And so, in October of 1942, Capriccio opened, marking the start of the ‘Indian summer’ for Strauss, his final period.  Eschewing all theatrics, the music of Capriccio is exceedingly mellow in tone and refined in technique (similar to other works from this period – the Oboe Concerto, Horn Concerto #2, Metamorphosen, Four Last Songs – and to the late music of Mozart, whom Strauss idolized).  In a way, the reversion to a simpler musical language was a homage to a gentler bygone era, before Nazi Germany had brought the horrors upon the world and itself.  The Battle of Stalingrad would start just days after the opera’s premiere, heralding the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.  The Munich opera house, which saw the premiere of Capriccio, would itself be bombed to ruins the following year.

The beautiful neoclassical French chateau set of Capriccio from the original Metropolitan Opera production (1998) found its new home at the Lyric Opera and was much happier there.  In my opinion, the smaller auditorium  in Chicago was more conducive to the opera’s co-creator Clemens Krauss’ remonstration to the singers during rehearsal: “Clarity! If they don’t hear every single word, the opera is meaningless!”  (To which Strauss allegedly quipped, “If they hear just a little of my music, I’ve nothing against that either.”)

For this revival production, the Lyric Opera assembled a top-notch cast of singers, all veterans of German opera and lieder.  Both Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter had appeared in the 2010 Met revival, and I had the pleasure of hearing Andrew Davis conduct the opera in the 1992 San Francisco production, famously designed by Gianni Versace.   The Met/Chicago production updates the setting from the original “Paris, 1775” to early 20th Century but that is hardly noticeable inside the elegant old-world drawing room of the Countess’s French chateau...until she picks up a telephone to order chocolate.  The 1920’s costumes are beautifully detailed and elegant with a touch of fin-de-siècle nostalgia.   The only fault I could find is the missing mirror at the end, a curious lapse that makes nonsensical Madeleine’s final words, “You mirror…can you help me find the ending that is not trivial?”

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis led a large orchestra in a sweeping, romantic reading of the complex musical score.  The elegant string sextet introduction opens the door of the chateau to more elegant drawing room music that conceals below its glittering surface a rich undercurrent of musical motifs.  It is a tribute to Strauss’ skills to make music so complex sound so beautiful.  Following Krauss’s remonstration, Sir Andrew kept the orchestra fairly light and transparent throughout so that the words could be heard clearly, allowing full-volume tutti only twice in the whole opera – during La Roche’s ‘Laughing Octet’ and the Countess’ closing monologue.  The orchestral Intermezzo “Moonlight” music before the monologue, where the offstage horns softly intoned the main melody that gradually swelled up into a shimmering full orchestra, was a thing of great beauty.

Naturally, many parties are involved in a “conversation piece” about an art form as complex as the opera.  Tenor William Burden and baritone Audun Iversen, singing the composer Flamand and poet Olivier respectively, carried on some lively arguments and gave a memorable rendition of the sonnet with the Countess (lightly accompanied by the full orchestra).  Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, a noted singer of the German lieder, was ideal as the actress Clairon who made the most of her witty, pointed dialogue.  Baritone Bo Skovus played the Count, a happy-go-lucky disinterested third party whose sole purpose is to woo Clairon.  Veteran bass Peter Rose pretty much owned the role of stage director La Roche after having sung it all over the world.  And then there were the fine troupe of dancers, Italian singers, and servants all vying for laughs, adding a much welcome respite to the on-going drama.

Every Strauss opera demands a great soprano.  The Lyric found her in Renée Fleming, the American sweetheart of opera.  The non-connoisseurs know her as the national anthem singer at the 2014 Super Bowl.  Whichever.  She sells tickets and that’s all that matters.  Her luminous high notes and peachy-cream middle were ideal for Countess Madeleine’s long, soaring lines in the final monologue, and her fluent German came in handy for the ‘conversations’.  I am well aware of the criticisms targeting certain ‘impurities’ in Ms. Fleming's vocal production.  I am also acquainted with many such reports of woe in the history of this great art form -- Maria Callas’ infamous ‘wobble’, Beniamino Gigli’s vulgar ‘sobs’, Joan Sutherland’s lazy diction, etc.  And then there are singers who are gifted with plenty of voice, perfectly pitched and beautifully produced, but not an ounce of brain to speak of.  An eminently intelligent artist, Ms. Fleming brought to the role of Countess Madeleine a physical warmth and vocal glamour which, to my eyes and ears, are unequaled today. 

Ultimately, it is not the words or the music, but great performances by all the artists involved, that make for great theater.  In Capriccio, we had all the right elements for an unforgettable night at the opera.

Truman C. Wang is editor-in-chief of Classical Voice.  Since 2003, his articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, and other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.