Conductor Davis, radiant Fleming make a case for Strauss’s talky “Capriccio”

October 08, 2014
Renée Fleming stars in Richard Strauss's "Capriccio" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Renée Fleming stars in Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

In the early going of Capriccio the brittle, artsy musings of the wealthy characters become so irritating it makes even a libertarian want to trash the elegantly appointed salon of these pretentious One Percenters.

Richard Strauss’s final opera, which opened Monday night at Lyric Opera of Chicago, remains an acquired taste for many, and has only been staged once previously at Lyric, two decades ago. Capriccio takes place on the birthday of the Countess Madeleine, where several entertainments are being planned. The beautiful, wealthy widow is being courted by two lovelorn suitors: Olivier, a poet, and Flamand, a composer. In addition to vying for her romantic attentions, the two rivals debate which of their art should be primary in opera, the words or the music? The Countess reconciles the quarreling artists and convinces them to collaborate on an opera, yet she cannot decide which of the men she should choose for herself.

Written in 1942, Capriccio is Strauss’s affectionate farewell to the stage, and the aged composer and his librettist, conductor Clemens Krauss, were clearly drawing on their experiences and frustrations in producing operas. Capriccio is a short one-act opera–here presented with an intermission rather than straight through as the composer intended—yet a heavily conversational and metaphorical one. The dialogue concerns itself with such inside-theater-baseball affairs as textual and musical cuts, and whether stage directors improve operas or mostly bungle them (one debate that seems even more relevant today). There are witty moments but many of the insular jokes that must have amused Strauss and Krauss seem bewildering today. The slender scenario remains largely text-driven and static, consisting of well-dressed rich people debating obvious artistic presumptions at great length.

There are isolated lyrical moments such as Flamand’s aria setting lines of Olivier’s poem and the melodious echt-verismo music for two Italian singers. Yet even Strauss’s music often gets buried under the endless yadda-yadda of Krauss’s talky text. To save this uneven work, Strauss would have to write one of his finest opera finales and, fortunately, that’s exactly what he does. Madeleine’s soaring climactic scene where, accompanying herself on the harp, she muses on her two besotted admirers, and the primacy of words or music is one of Strauss’s most inspired creations.

There is no real reason to stage Capriccio unless you have a radiant star soprano in the role of Madeleine, and clearly Renée Fleming supplies the necessary mega-wattage. In her first fully staged Lyric production since La Traviata in 2008, Fleming here reprises a role she has sung to acclaim at the Metropolitan Opera, in the same John Cox production.

One can’t imagine any singer today better suited to the role of the Countess Madeleine. Still, one wished that Lyric had booked Fleming for this role a few seasons earlier when her soprano possessed greater gleam and luxuriance. At times, she seemed to have trouble riding the mounting waves of Strauss’s lyricism, with the Countess’s reconciliation of Flamand and Olivier sounding rather effortful.

Lyric’s artistic advisor certainly has the lovely physical presence for the role of the wealthy patroness, yet dramatically Fleming’s Madeleine initially seemed rather too earnest and American–smiling a lot and lacking a certain regal Central European hauteur. There are no real dramatic flash points in this lightweight work, yet Fleming did find a likable depth in this rather shallow character and seemed more comfortably invested as the evening unfolded.

The soaring finale ideally needs more body and richness of tone yet Fleming wielded her resources with undeniable skill. Even now no one does poignant melancholy better or more movingly, and the soprano’s pure, expressive tone and depth of feeling in her final aria were beautifully rendered, making the unanswered question (words or music) sound just the right valedictory note at the opera’s close.

Lyric has surrounded its starry soprano with a top-drawer supporting cast. Audun Iversen made a most impressive company debut as Olivier. The Norwegian baritone displayed a warm and flexible voice and deftly balanced the comedy with sincerity, looking like a bespectacled scholar yet ardent in making his impassioned, awkward moves on the Countess. As Flamand, William Burden is a bit seasoned for the role of the young composer yet sang with vibrant tone and characterized well in his exchanges with Iversen.

Peter Rose was ideal casting for the cynical yet savvy impresario La Roche (Strauss’s affectionate portrait of the celebrated director Max Reinhardt), bringing an earthy bluster to the role that contrasted neatly with the more genteel characters. Rose was suffering a throat infection opening night and, while he sang well in the first half of the evening, the ailing British bass was clearly struggling to get through La Roche’s extended soliloquy of the director’s art.

Anne Sofie von Otter brought a natural vocal ease and willowy presence to the glamorous actress Clairon. As the Count, Madeleine’s brother, Bo Skovhus was too often over the top yet provided the funniest moments of the evening with the gauche dilettante’s atrocious acting.

Juan Jose de Leon and Emily Birsan brought apt unrestrained vocal fervor to Strauss’s (rather patronizing) depiction of the Italian Tenor and Soprano. David Govertsen was an efficient and officious Majordomo and Keith Jameson etched a fine cameo as the weird, aged prompter, Monsieur Taupe.

The John Cox Met staging humanizes the characters somewhat by updating the action from the late 18th century  to the 1920s, dispensing with powdered-wig Rosenkavalier-isms and affording the glamorous Fleming the opportunity to wear two stylish period dresses by Robert Perdziola. With its tall tapestries and tasteful furnishings, Mauro Pagano’s unit set for Madeleine’s salon (updated by Perdziola) is a striking evocation of understated elegance.

Revival director Peter McClintock moved the action skillfully and naturally, avoiding longueurs in this static work as much as possible. Duane Schuler’s painterly lighting offered a stunning moonlit visual in the final scene.

More than anyone else, this was Sir Andrew Davis’s show. Few conductors can equal the Lyric Opera’s music director in Strauss, and Davis’s fluent, spirited yet light-footed account of this score was masterful, maintaining a fleet, conversational pace and rising seamlessly to the breakout lyrical moments.

Even by their standard, the playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra was beyond reproach, with a refined quicksilver quality that suits this restless music. The opening string sextet was drop-dead beautiful, Jonathan Boen lofted a gorgeous horn solo to open the final scene, and violinist David Perry, cellist Yi Xin and harpsichordist William Billingham (offstage) made a graceful banda accompanying the ballet dancers.

Capriccio runs through October 28.; 312-294-3000.

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