Art Imitating Art: Strauss’s Capriccio at the Met

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Strauss’s Capriccio (Conversation Piece for Music in One Act) opus 85
Libretto by Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss

The Metropolitan Opera Production Live in HD, April 23, 2011
Andrew Davis, Conductor
John Cox, Producer
Mauro Pagano, Set Designer

Renée Fleming, The Countess Madeleine
Morten Frank Larsen, The Count
Sarah Connolly, Clarion
Joseph Kaiser, Flamand
Russell Braun, Olivier
Peter Rose, La Roche
Bernard Fitch, Monsieur Taupe

Richard Strauss

Strauss’s Capriccio is one of opera’s sinful pleasures.  Renée Fleming has made the last scene, “Madeleine’s Choice,” a signature concert specialty for years.  Indeed, the music here is luscious, and Strauss is at his most fetching. It features the reprise of the song Kein Andres, das mir so im Herzen loht, in which Ms. Fleming’s character accompanies herself on the harp. The song’s first appearance as a solo tenor aria, which blossoms with uncommon beauty into a vocal trio, leaves the opera with almost ninety minutes of something of a melodic watershed.  Kein Andres’s return at the end is clearly needed both as a unifying element and to give the audience something to remember at the very end. I can’t think of any Strauss opera in which he fails to adorn the final moments with magnificence. What is sinful, then, about the pleasure we perceive in this work?  There is the unavoidable extra-musical matter that his bon-bon, so beguiling, charming and utterly buried in an intellectual discourse on art itself, was written and performed during the most harrowingly lethal days of the Third Reich. The disparity between the genocides of 1942 and Strauss’s own Final Solution to “Which comes first: music or words?” can dampen and chasten an unconditional love of this work.  Somehow, one wishes it could have been written in a different historical context, perhaps near his life’s in 1949, when Strauss had written his unsurpassed Four Last Songs a year earlier.

Although it is tempting to deconstruct “Conversation Piece,” as Strauss calls Capriccio, by negating its essential (and genuine) loveliness in the context of Nazi-era malice, it is a disservice to do so. Producer John Cox resituates Capriccio’s eighteenth-century setting to the 1920s. While bringing us perilously close to a world of darkness, Cox does little to tilt a delicate æsthetic-political balance begged by the question, “Which comes first: the defining historical context, or the pure musical essence?”  Cox firmly believes in allowing us to enjoy Capriccio without an expected haunting as we enjoy Strauss’s last musical play.  The Met’s production, with a perfect cast, silhouetting the work from a benighted era, has given us as honest a Capriccio as is possible. Ms. Fleming, whose vocal inflections were somewhat controversial years ago, seems absolutely definitive as Countess Madeleine. She knows when a line should be perfectly beautiful, and makes sure we know too. Allowing more mundane colors to pass by our attention, Ms. Fleming allows the musically elite of Strauss’s score to shine. There is some premeditation for what is gorgeous, and her indulgence in underscoring such passages is disarming.

In the period between the First and Second World Wars, the arts, sciences, and philosophy were obsessed with the theory and practice of self-examination. Depending on the discipline, such pursuits became known as reflexivity, recursion, self-reference, and the ubiquitous application of the prefix “meta” to position oneself for self-scrutiny. Examination of “Self” (or, the self-conscience avoidance of such) became the heart of phenomenology, existentialism, and hence, much æsthetic criticism during these years.  In graphic arts, the palimpsest came to represent an artist’s material delineations in the throes of creation and definition where visible erasures express (or, self-consciously hide) some inner representation of an external context. It was during this period that arithmetic and number theory was used to examine the very workings of mathematical statements and proofs (Gödel), and that the very measurement of matter in physics could alter the reality under examination (Heisenberg).  With the Myths destroyed, traditional values and mores unseated, and the dissipation of religion, the Modern world was seen as thrown into a confusion that impelled artists to look, almost inescapably, on their own work as a source for matériel artistique. The quest for meaning in life became something akin to Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.

For Richard Strauss, the path to self-reference, given his great success with more classically-derived structures, was more elusive. He enjoyed, with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, one of the most intellectually synergistic collaborators in opera history.  Hofmannsthal’s inclination was always on the cultural cutting edge, and his fecundity never ceased to inspire (or, rather, direct) Strauss’s operatic genius.  After the amazing success of Der Rosenkavalier, it was hard for the pair to resist the financially successful groove that the conservative neo-classic escapism brought them.  The next opera, though, was the more experimental Ariadne auf Naxos, which, though a series of collaborative missteps wound up sporting an opera-within-an-opera.  Strauss must have loved the ironies inherent in the hint of near self-reference. After the untimely death of Hofmannsthal, Strauss collaborated with another Jewish librettist, Stefan Zweig.  The timing for this association couldn’t have been worse.  With Zweig escaping from the Nazis, and Strauss’s noble but ill-fated gesture of printing Zweig’s name on the programme of their opera Die Schweigsame Frau, scoffing the Nazi command which had ordered it removed, Strauss became a person of interest to the SS, and was immediately dismissed from his rather cushy position during the Nazi regime.  Strauss’s Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren were placed house arrest. In spite of his increasing personal isolation and the looming danger to his family, the ever self-promoting Strauss, oblivious to the abominations of his country, still created new operas each becoming eerily more rarified, classically introverted and escapist.

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Clemens Krauss

Strauss had been obsessively interested in Zweig’s suggestion for an adaptation of Giambattista Casti’s  opera Prima la musica e poi le parole (“First the music, and then the words”) in which a composer and poet are asked to create an opera. Zweig passed the idea along to Joseph Gregor (librettist for Strauss’s late Daphne and Die Liebe der Danae). Fighting with Gregor from 1935 until 1941, Strauss, who never trusted Zweig’s successor, ultimately came up with a new libretto with his friend and conductor, Clemens Krauss. The result was a work that includes characterizations of a composer, poet, and a theatre director who wrestle with a topic that had preoccupied vocal composers from Monteverdi onwards:  the primacy of words or music in dramatic vocal music.  The “debate,” is a knotty one since there are so many strands of discourse and perspective:  pure poetry, poetry inspiring music, music inspiring poetic, music and poetry in service to prose, the question of plot, and the influence of the externals of theatrical regalia including costumes, sets and direction. The characters in Capriccio can easily be seen as rather artificially positing one extreme or another.  The pretext for this “Conversation Piece” is a birthday celebration for the beautiful widow Countess Madeleine. A composer, Flamand writes music for the occasion while the poet, Olivier, writes a play for the same event. One M. La Roche will direct, and the Count (Madeleine’s brother) will have a starring role; a romantic interest of the Count, an actress of note (Clarion), will appear for the rehearsal. Flamand and Olivier both have designs on Madeleine, thinly veiling the quarrel of Poetry and Music in the pursuit of Beauty.  All characters are contrived to be at loggerheads in the “conversation.”  The Count, sung by Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen, dislikes music, seemingly in any form.  The poet Olivier, in a nerdy self-absorbed portrayal by baritone Russell Braun, cringes at the thought of how music distorts the natural meter and diction of poetry – especially his poetry. His rival for the lovely Countess, Flamand, while acknowledging the prescience of pure music, concedes that the art-song is the supreme alchemy of word and tone. Joseph Kaiser’s portrays Flamand as a pragmatic, self-confident craftsman, very much like Strauss himself. Flamand detests, however, the vapid antics of virtuosic display and the debasing superficialities of stagecraft which were inherent in the excesses of eighteenth-century Italian opera. We must recall that Strauss originally set Capriccio in the 1770s during which time Christoph Willibald Gluck actively rebelled against the artifices of opera buffa and opera seria. Flamand’s æsthetic rival is the pompous impresario M. La Roche who sleeps through Flamand’s string sextet, and dismisses any art that doesn’t play primarily to mass appeal. La Roche embraces virtuosic pyrotechnics and, hence, is seen as a staunch opponent (comically so) of Gluck’s reforms.  Usually portrayed in an unsympathetic way, bass Peter Rose, a burly thick-necked fellow, shines as a subtle comedian and tries hard to evade the buffo that Strauss ironically calls for in this self-reflective opera. La Roche grandly reveals his intention to produce an opera as a tribute to the Countess, and with Madeleine’s intervention, to appropriate Flamand and Olivier as collaborators.  The plot will be – oh mirror, mirror on the wall – what we’ve seen thus far on stage, with, of course, the dénouement and ending, unrevealed thus far. So, we have a dramatically tense dénouement merely by virtue of our not having seen it!  So, Madeleine must chose her suitor, Flamand or Olivier, and hence, conclude the “conversation.”  A comic character, Monsieur Taupe (literally, “mole”), the soporific and furtive prompter, making us realize how fragile and orchestrated our scripted life is, begins the dissipation of the fourth wall. John Cox takes Strauss’s lead here and follows it with a brilliant coup de théâtre: Madeleine, gazing in the mirror, in the throes of deciding between words and music, instead gazes at us, the audience. By becoming her mirror, Mr. Cox has stated his case for art being a reflection of life, a conclusion to which Gluck himself would give his assent. As well, the actors who do not conform to historical stereotype, elude through some crack, pure self-reference.

Renée Fleming (Photo: Andrew Eccles, Decca)

Ms. Fleming was radiant throughout, and, indeed, all performers were near ideal. Her voice, once hovering over the music, is now richly annealed with every lovely nuance. Kaiser, Braun, Larsen and Rose performed with great conviction and panache, giving a good male ensemble balance to Ms. Fleming’s singular presence. Bernard Fitch’s Mr. Taupe, was not as adorable nor as risible as is usually portrayed, but, like the Gluckian constraints of Mr. Cox’s production, Taupe’s offhandedness was welcomed. The small comic roles of the Italian Singers (Olga Makarina and Barry Banks) were delightful, and the wordless ballet dancers – Laura Feig and Eric Otto – had much to say in their pantomime, especially the saucy Ms. Feig.  Sarah Connolly’s Clarion had the requisite imperiousness of a diva while maintaining churlishness towards her erstwhile lover, Olivier.  The set design by Mauro Pagano was lush and appealing as his designs for the celebrated San Francisco production from 1993 which was captured on DVD. Mr. Pagano’s update of the design from the mid eighteenth-century to the 1920s was surprisingly minimal – after all, villas and châteaux aged well before the 1940s.  Andrew Davis, who takes his Strauss very seriously, indulges in luxuriant tempi, kept everything tightly paced with all subtle details cleanly underscored.

While Capriccio might still seem an opera only a Strauss lover can love, it demonstrates one way in which opera can be an escapist attraction.  Strauss, certainly the last master of Germany’s great musical lineage, lost himself in the dreams of an art that reflected of his own values rather than from the mirror of his grim and savage time.


About the author

Seth Lachterman

Seth Lachterman lives in Hudson, New York. While dividing his past academic career between music (composition and musicology) and mathematics, he has, over past three decades written original and critical works on the Arts. His essays have appeared in The Thomas Hardy Association Journal, English Literature in Transition, and poetry in Raritan. As a charter member and past president of the Berkshire Bach Society, he provided scholarly program notes for the Society’s concerts for two decades. Simultaneously, he has been a principal at Encore Systems, LLC, a software and technology consulting company. From 2006, is president emeritus of Walking The Dog Theatre of Hudson, New York. Seth writes regularly for Berkshire Review of The Arts. When not listening to music, Seth Lachterman reads philosophy with a current interest in Heidegger.

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