Opera Review:

Richard Strauss CAPRICCIO Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam, September 2000. (AW)

This unique work by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) first performed in Munich in 1942, was his last for the theatre, a conversation piece for music in one act. It can be seen as his intellectual testament in the form of, not so much a conversation, but an argument to justify the genre of opera.

There is a problem of how to stage an intellectual dispute, and embody an argument visually, in a meaningful way. If Strauss's stage directions had been followed explicitly there would have been a danger for a contemporary audience to lose sight of the problems under discussion in, or under, naturalised or personalised details. There is the danger of a front covering up the underlying essence, namely a dispute about cultural hierarchies.

What is more important, more valuable, more valid, more meaningful: words or music, theatre or abstract music? Such categorisations, canons and hierarchies had been under attack for some time, from avant-garde artists in many fields, by the time Strauss joined the fray in the form of a composition.

The Nederlandse Opera at Amsterdam's Muziektheater has dispensed with the elaborate and ornate trappings of18th century rococco castles and their social conventions. Instead, under the direction of Andreas Homoki, this production homes in on the essence of Capriccio. The stage set by Frank Philipp Schloessmann was nothing less than brilliant, in cutting through the surface, and presenting the arguments in visual form.

The stage picture was at one and the same time thrown open, and held in, by a full height, full width, opened musical score, with white notes on a charcoal grey ground and a fold, slightly off-centre to the left, receding to create a triangular floor space. A large white, movable cube, with diagonal black hand-written text, presumably in Strauss's own hand (?) over all its surfaces, nestled in front of the giant score. The ground bore the reflections of the musical score. Thus the staging set the metaphorical core of this work in front of the audience in a very direct way.

The beautiful costumes in black and white designed by Mechtild Seipel were theatrically stylised, with allusions to the modern, jazzy era, as well a to the 18th century, with - for light relief - some deliciously funny attires to ridicule Italian opera conventions. The costumes clothed the arguments, rather than created psychological pointers to characters. The subtle lighting by Franck Evin helped to focus attention on both text and music.

Strauss's argument, that both words and music are indispensable and interdependent, to reach emotional as well as intellectual understanding, was presented, through the Countess, by Angela Denoke, with utter musical conviction. David Kuebler as Flamand (defending pure music) and Dietrich Henschel (contesting on behalf of word play) were both stated their cases well. Olaf Bär and Hans Sotin distinguished themselves as the Countess's brother and the theatre director, who made the strong case for the importance of the theatre as the employer of purveyors of words and music alike, and the role of dance too was not ignored. All the singing from the supporting characters was of a high standard and the movements of this ensemble team (none of whom ever had an opportunity to sit down!) were smooth and always good to watch. The idiomatic conducting was by Hartmut Haenchen, who achieved perfect balance in this judiciously scored piece, despite the Muziektheater not having a submerged orchestra pit.

After so many conventions had been attacked and overturned, Richard Strauss was reasonably concerned about the continued existence of Opera as a viable art form. He has been vindicated. In our post-modern era Opera is not only alive and well, but flourishing and expanding as the cross-over art-form par excellence, capable of embodying current social and cultural values.

This production of Capriccio by the Nederlandse Opera deals imaginatively and in a contemporary idiom with a historical and historically important work of music theatre. Mounted in Amsterdam's thoroughly up to date opera house (which caused understandable controversy when it first appeared in its key position at the head of the Amstel) it offers renewal and renewed insights and thereby plays its part in keeping opera alive.

Alexa Woolf

Editor's addendum:

With the surtitles given in Dutch, naturally, this text-dominated opera was not the ideal one for a foreigner's visit to Amsterdam's Musiktheater. Indeed for one of us, (who is German speaking) surtitles in the language of the performance (as provided in English at Covent Garden this month for Britten's Billy Budd) would have assisted - it is always hard to capture every word, especially from sopranos in high register, and in Capriccio it really does matter.

Upon return, it was a pleasure to listen afterwards to the historic Walter Legge/Sawallisch recording of 1957, with Schwarzkopf supported by a dream cast, and to savour the uncommon intelligence and sophistication of the libretto. This has now been reissued by EMI at mid-price and is a top recommendation,EMI 7 49014 8 (ADD, mono), though for those wanting the most modern recording there is also a new version with Felicity Lott (Forlane 268052) which is of a May '99 concert performance in Mannheim. I have been able to sample it and despite good orchestral sound in stereo, it doesn't hold a candle to the one of forty years earlier. Felicity Lott (as heard on my equipment) does not sound in her best voice, and her supporting cast cannot compare with Fischer-Dieskau et al, nor George Prêtre with Sawallisch. The presentation too is far from ideal, with German & English words placed in separate sections of the text booklet (which makes following it with the English almost impossible) and track details only in a different booklet, so a lot of juggling is required!

Seen&Heard and Music on the Web have maintained an interest (amounting to a small sustained campaign) in questions of balance between text and music in concert & CD presentation, and between soloist and orchestra in recordings, so it is pertinent to mention finally another relevant point.

That justly admired EMI recording was balanced by Douglas Larter who, in my opinion, favoured unduly (by just a little) the voices over the orchestra, a common cause for complaint. With text and translations to hand for listeners, this was unnecessary and should be deplored; having heard in Amsterdam how easily the work can be balanced to perfection in the opera house confirmed my opinion. (PGW)

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