A sublime end to the season

21 July 2013 – I slept quite badly that night. My first live encounter (and first full-through encounter, for that matter) with Capriccio by Richard Strauss. I floated home completely transfixed and couldn’t go straight to bed. Whether the warmth or the power of the music, it seemed to be with me throughout the night as I drifted in and out of sleep, my mind having been completely switched on to abstruse aesthetic debates. Full moon without. The Mondscheinmusik within. Utterly intoxicating.

In my reflections on La Rondine I had berated such a slim plot, so grandly treated. So what makes it work with Capriccio? On the face of it – Countess has two lovers. one poet, one composer, she must decide the end of their opera – the plot is no more substantial than Rondine‘s flight of wistful fancy. It would be easy to say, ‘ Ah! but Herr Dr Strauss’s musik makes the difference’, and certainly it does, but the honest, boldly direct debate about music, poetry, stagecraft in the service of opera also contribute a special magic.

I can imagine it really irritating people, just as La Rondine irritated me. To say it’s a “connoisseur’s piece” is to apply a dash of grandiosity to the attempted elevation of my own opinion to objective fact; but Capriccio certainly does speak to people who like to reflect on the structure and power of the operatic artform, whilst giving their heartstrings a good tug at the same time. It does so with a wit and generosity that are not often to be found in opera.

In the simplified semi-staging, of course La Roche’s contribution as the theatre director is not on abundant display, however ardent his defence of it. The music and words take a further step to the fore. In the hands of Sir Andrew Davis, I thought the score was beautifully rendered, the delicate, twisting themes rising imperceptibly to crescendos and onwards. I haven’t always got too excited about Davis’s approach to things, but it worked beautifully for Capriccio. The orchestra wove the magic of the Mondscheinmusik with searing intensity, with some glorious woodwind tones. I simply can’t forget the sounds swirling around the ROH auditorium.

The cast was strong without exception; and crowned, of course, by the Countess Madeleine of Renée Fleming. The fussy argumentative dialogue of earlier in the opera gave way to a rich, creamy tone to crown the closing scene. She so painfully, but delicately, conveyed – as indeed only Strauss can really set up for her – that indulgence of sadness that remains just this side of tragedy: the ultimate in ‘bittersweet’ sentiment, never tipping over into cloying (say, Ivor Novello) or all-consuming despair (La Rondine again). The conversational approach didn’t really give Christian Gerhaher enough legato for his stupendous vocal talents to shine, but it was an unfailingly detailed and committed account of Olivier: he gave some lovely reactions to others’ interventions, principally whenever Flamand was getting the upper hand. As his composer-adversary, Andrew Staples had a wonderful, bright, sure tone and a similar level of engagement with the debate. Bo Skovhus was rather handsome and raffish as the Count, his playfulness and his commanding baritone both adding to that effect. Peter Rose played the theatre director who attempts to curb the pretensions of his creative colleagues, and played it admirably, rising to an impressive paean to the theatre’s power. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, replacing Christine Rice (who I hope is OK – there have been a number of cancellations since an illness was announced, have there not?) gave some vivid drama to Clairon, but her smooth mezzo could have done with more edge to get through the orchestra some times. The curious intervention of the Italian Singers, along with the Prompter, is intended to provide a bit of variety and contrast, but that would have really benefited from a full staging; they were in the characterful hands of Barry Banks, Mary Plazas and Graham Clark respectively.

When will this piece make it fully to the stage? It’s a dangerous question, since the last time an end-of-season Fleming concert was subsequently translated into a full production (with different cast), it ended up being that dreadful hash of a Rusalka. It’s a risk worth taking, though, and I take it boldly: please, someone at the ROH get planning a full staging of this wonderful, warm, life-affirming, thought-provoking and intimate work, and soon!

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