This lovely DVD is a re-release of a 2004 staging, originally out on TDK. It’s an excellent performance, gathering together a host of the finest operatic talents of their day, but what makes it work so well, for me, is the way it has been so specially realised for film. We get a very different experience to what those in the Palais Garnier must have had: for a start, the opulent surroundings of the Opera House double as the Countess’s chateau, and in the opening minutes we see Renée Fleming’s Countess wandering through the marbled foyers of the theatre, surrounded by footmen, and taking her seat in the empty auditorium to listen to Flamand’s sextet being performed on stage. Later, during the rehearsals for Olivier’s drama when La Roche enters to suggest the cut, he does so into the front row of the empty auditorium, thus extending the world of the drama into the reality of the physical space. It lends a wonderful air of intimacy to the drama, making you feel as though you are the only one watching and that there was no audience present in the theatre at the time (though occasional audience applause proves that this was not the case). The controversial aspect of this comes in the final scene which, we are to believe, is actually the final scene of the opera that Flamand and Olivier have collaborated on, and so we see the chief characters sitting in the principal boxes in the theatre watching Renée Fleming sing on stage. Bizarrely, this includes the Countess herself and the director is so pleased with his idea that he allows himself regular cut-aways to the characters in the boxes rather than focusing on Fleming onstage. Still, while it’s a little odd it isn’t too distracting, and the stage picture itself is good. The stage is mostly bare, as if to suggest a rehearsal space for a theatre. Only at the back do we see hints of the opulent chateau that we would expect to have for the Countess’s surroundings, but these suggestions are realised beautifully by the time we get to the final scene. Robert Carsen updates the action to 1942 and the Nazi occupation of Paris, but to no good effect, with only the occasional presence of a Nazi officer in a greatcoat to date the conceit.
Regardless of what you think of the concept, however, the performance itself is a treat. Renée Fleming has long been associated with the Great Ladies of Strauss, and it is wonderful to have her Countess so triumphantly enshrined here. The voice is at its richest and most opulent in this recording, far more successful than in the excerpts recorded in her Strauss Heroines CD which, for me, was boxy and self-conscious. The live performance brings out the best in her and she has a wonderfully coy, aristocratic way of engaging with the other characters on stage. Her countess is utterly believable as a person, as well as sounding ravishingly beautiful. The final scene is a real joy, as are her individual interactions with Flamand and Olivier. It helps that she looks very beautiful in the part too. The two suitors are also superb. Rainer Trost’s Flamand is lyrical and ardent, one of the finest things this tenor has done on disc. The highlight, for him, is his description of the Countess in her library; full of intense longing while managing to remain understated and earnest, it has an almost confessional quality to it. He is matched, however, by an outstanding Olivier from Gerald Finley. He brings passionate vigour to the part, seeming to strain at the character’s limits to suggest the intensity of his feelings for the Countess and for his art. His confession of his love is wonderful, as is his sense of camaraderie with Flamand. At the end of the opera I have always felt that the Countess’s hand must go to Flamand: here, for the first time, I was not so sure.
The supporting cast are just as good. Anne Sofie von Otter, almost unrecognisable in a dark wig, enjoys hamming it up as Clairon, bringing out the primadonna side of the character, and she is matched by a superb Count in Dietrich Henschel, dark and attractive of voice while rakish and witty in character. Franz Hawlata’s La Roche is successful primarily in the less serious aspects of the role, though he lost my attention in his great monologue about the eternal laws of the theatre as he seemed to lose communication with the conductor. The Italian Singers are suitably histrionic, and Robert Tear lends a touch of class to Monsieur Taupe. The Major Domo makes a big impression in a short space of time, and the servants’ octet is delightful, full of light touches of humour and delicacy.
The orchestra, invisible throughout almost the whole of the disc, play beautifully for Schirmer, who conducts with more life and theatrical flair than on his Decca CD recording. The only shame is that it had to be split over two DVDs, as it breaks the continuity of the performance somewhat. Still, this is a small quibble in what is not only a hugely successful Capriccio, but also a highly competitive one, holding its own in a very distinguished field of recordings and proving to be very recommendable among both CDs and DVDs. Watching it helped me to rediscover afresh the joys of Strauss’s final masterpiece, and that’s high praise to give to any recording.