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Richard STRAUSS (1874-1949)
Capriccio (1943) [163.00]
Renée Fleming (soprano) – Countess; Bo Skovhus (baritone) – Count; Michael Schade (tenor) – Flamand; Markus Eiche (baritone) – Olivier; Kurt Rydl (bass) – La Roche; Angelika Kirschlager (mezzo) – Clairon; Michael Roder (tenor) – M Taupe; Irida Martínez (soprano) – Italian singer; Benjamin Bruns (tenor) – Italian singer; Clemens Unterreiner (baritone) – Haushofmeister
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Christoph Eschenbach
rec. Vienna State Opera, 27 June 2013
Picture: 16:9, dts-HD
Audio: PCM Stereo, PCM 5.1
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese
Booklet: German, English, French
no extras
C MAJOR 716004 Blu-ray [166.00]

Strauss’s last opera – although it was first performed later, the beautiful and unjustly neglected Die Liebe der Danae was written earlier – stands completely outside the dramatic body of his other stage works. Entitled a “conversation piece” by the composer, it explores at length the vexed question of the relationship between words and music on the lyric stage. As such it lies outside the realm of any historical period. Indeed a Glyndebourne production a good many years ago updated the action to the period of the work’s conception and composition. This did give rise to a number of minor anomalies – surely at that period the conversation would have revolved around the music dramas of Wagner, and indeed Strauss himself, rather than Gluck, and the Count’s carriage was reconfigured as a limousine – but generally the interrelationship between the characters was not disturbed.

What is however inflexible in the treatment of the work is its social milieu. The theatre-loving Count and his sister can clearly afford a sizeable domestic establishment — servants are everywhere. They also run to a private theatre sufficiently grand to attract a major actress such as Clairon down from Paris for an afternoon’s rehearsal complete with two singers and dancers to provide entertainment for the invited guests. Even the theatrical impresario La Roche, although he may sometimes express himself in an uncouth way, is not out of place in this upper-class company. Sadly, the production by Marco Arturo Marelli on this video misses the mark in both respects. The gestures of the protagonists would be out of place in polite society in any age – La Roche even ‘gives the finger’ to Olivier – and there is altogether too much purely physical action in what is after all an intellectual debate ... but is it a debate at all? At the beginning we see Olivier and Flamand seated at their desks in modern dress — or at least the fashion of the early twentieth century. They then rise and put on coats of some two hundred years earlier before they enter into the action. The costumes look shabby, with what seem to be patches stitched onto them. The set is an uneasy cross between a stage rehearsal room and an eighteenth century chateau lined with mirrors which seem to have seen better days. In effect we are being asked to view the action as a charade, a view emphasised by the manner in which Olivier’s play is deliberately sent up by the Count and Clairon. This strikes at the very heart of the opera itself. If all the characters are merely acting out their parts – and at the end of the Septet they advance to the front of the stage to interact with the orchestra, clearly showing an uncomfortable degree of self-awareness – then why should the listener feel compelled to pay any attention to what they are actually discussing? As it is, the formal duet of the Italian singers appears no more artificial than what surrounds them.

This is a great pity, because what we have here in both musical and (mainly) dramatic terms is a very great performance of Capriccio indeed. After a rather perfunctory start to the opening Sextet — Eschenbach taking a rather brisk tempo — we are soon immersed in the world of Strauss’s music. We experience its subtle and not-so-subtle underlining of the points in Clemens Krauss’s text and its understanding of the exact relationship between words and music which lies at the very heart of the opera. The cast work together as a real ensemble, and there is not a weak link among them.

Renée Fleming produces a stream of glorious Straussian richness – although we should never take such bounty for granted – but she does much more than that. She really inhabits the world of the Countess, relishing every word and nuance of the text and interacting with the other members of the cast with lively interest. In her final scene she spins out her singing of the sonnet on a thin sliver of silver sound. This not only sets the quotation apart from the rest of the scene but also enhances the effect of the music. She even manages to make one overlook the frankly cumbersome dress which she is given to wear for this scene, looking like some 1930s creation undertaken under the supervision of Picasso. Her knowing smile at the conclusion seems to convey the impression that she knows how the opera should end – but she is not going to tell us. It is a pity that the final curtain brings us back to Olivier and Flamand working at their desks, where the attention should be concentrated on her.

Michael Schade and Markus Eiche as the two rivals for her favour also work well together, sometimes friends and sometimes enemies. Schade’s small lyrical tone may be slightly underweighted for some of the largest climaxes, but better that than a Heldentenor trying unsuccessfully to pare down the volume to conversational levels. Bo Skovhus is somewhat rough-toned as the Countess’s brother, although that fits with the slightly Philistine nature of the character; and he flirts charmingly with Angelika Kirschlager as Clairon. The latter also displays a nice line in bitchiness in her brief scene with her ex-lover Olivier. Kurt Rydl as the impresario – a role all too often consigned to basses somewhat past their prime – is a tower of strength particularly in his big monologue when he propounds Strauss’s own views on the lyric stage. The smaller character parts are also well taken, but particular mention must be made of Clemens Unterreiner, whose brief contributions to the final scene do not disturb the mood as they so often can do.

It is a joy to encounter once again the sure directorial hand of Brian Large at the helm of the video production. Unlike so many video producers nowadays, he knows exactly where and when to point the camera without too many fussy changes of perspective. He does his best to minimise some of the more distracting elements in the stage design — one catches glimpses of a series of scrawled signatures on the backcloth during the Sextet, the object of which is quite impenetrable. The subtitles tell us everything we need to know, even during the most convoluted passages of the Octet, while avoiding any jarring colloquialisms.

All that said, there is one other fly in the ointment. A niggling cut is made in the passage when the company are discussing the subject for the opera they have commissioned. This saves about two minutes in a score that lasts over two hours. Why? The cut removes one element in the conclusion of the argument – the need to avoid hackneyed subjects – and the solution proposed by the Count comes out of the blue. In a work as tightly knit, both in text and music, as Capriccio, this is sheer vandalism. Oh, and some lout shouts “bravo” just before the final chord has quite died away.

There are several rivals for recordings of Capriccio in the video medium. Although I have not seen all of these, the one featuring Dame Kiri te Kanawa in traditional settings from San Francisco Opera conducted by Donald Runnicles probably gives a better presentation of the work itself. On the other hand, one would not want to be without Fleming’s Countess, which has a liveliness of approach and acting skill which Dame Kiri fails to match.

Paul Corfield Godfrey