|Amanda Majeski and Ben Bliss (photo by Ken Howard)|
Richard Strauss' last opera Capriccio premiered in 1942 in Munich and received its professional debut right here at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958 (although the Juilliard School had presented it four years earlier). Strauss has always been important at the Santa Fe Opera and last night's performance yielded numerous delights, although it will never be our favorite Strauss opera. That place belongs to Der Rosenkavalier!
Capriccio has been called "A Conversation Piece for Music" and it does indeed involve a great deal of conversation. One might call it "talky". The libretto was written predominantly by Clemens Krauss with likely a great deal of input from Strauss himself. It comprises an exploration of the relative importance of literature and music. After hearing the opera, we have decided for ourselves--Music 10, words 2!
We personally do not care for operas about ideas, politics, or philosophy. We prefer operas about human relationships. In this case, it is the relationship between the characters that held our interest. The philosophical argument has been dramatized as a decision to be made by the Countess Madeleine regarding her two suitors--the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier.
Soprano Amanda Majeski portrayed the countess elegantly and had her finest moment at the end of the opera when, alone onstage, she sings the same aria that Flamand had composed for her and sung in the first act. The exceptional young tenor Ben Bliss, whose singing has blissed us out for a few years now, perfectly personified an ardent young composer, confident in his talent. The character likely represents Strauss himself; the string sextet which opens the opera, played by onstage musicians, amounts to a statement of the beauty of music without words.
But Flamand's song, which we heard sung first by tenor and later by soprano, is the most gorgeous piece in the opera and is a setting of a love sonnet written by Olivier to woo the Countess. The role of Olivier was excellently handled by baritone Joshua Hopkins. Olivier accuses Flamand of ruining his text but we, and the audience, know better. The music has animated the text and brought it closer to our hearts.
Bass-baritone David Govertsen gave a marvelous performance as La Roche, the theater director, who gets to hold the stage for a considerable period of time in a rant about the performing arts. He is a guest at the home of the Countess along with Flamand and Olivier. Also present is Clairon, a famous actress, stylishly enacted by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham.
It is the tiny touches that create a believable character and Ms. Graham's finest dramatic moment occurred when she opened the script for a reading, stretched out her arms to hold the book as far away as possible, and finally dived into her bag for her glasses. The gesture is common in those over 40, but the expression on her face was uniquely hers. It was a moment! Obviously she was hiding her presbyopia from the Count, Madeleine's brother, with whom she was having a flirtation.
The Count was enamored of her and had theatrical aspirations as her "scene partner". Baritone Craig Verm also succeeded in creating a believable character, one who was not particularly musically inclined. There was some gentle humor in the way he and his sister teased one another about their romantic interests.
Tenor Galeano Salas and soprano Shelley Jackson, both apprentices, made a fine appearance as the Italian Singers and drew laughs from the audience. While the artists were debating the worth of the various arts, this couple was off to the side devouring the cake and port.
Further humor was provided by the servants who had a great scene at the end in which they gave their opinions on the arts and on the behavior of the now-departed artists. All were sung by apprentices: Thaddeus Ennen, Andrew Maughan, Andrew Paulson, Benjamin Werley, James Harrington, Nicholas Davis, John Matthew Myers, and Peter Scott Drackley.
Tenor Allan Glassman was quite funny as Monsieur Taupe the prompter who told the Major Domo (Apprentice bass-baritone Adrian Smith) that he was the most important individual at the opera. Without him the show would not go on!
There were also giggles to be had when the artists discussed their opinions about opera, several of which corresponded to our opinions of the opera we were hearing in real time.
Conductor Leo Hussain seemed to have a special feeling for Strauss and brought out the textural subtleties. The vocal ensembles were particularly fine.
Director Tim Albery prevented this wordy opera from being static. However, we did not understand why the story, which was supposed to take place in the latter part of the 18th c., was updated to Strauss' own time of 1942. There was much discussion among the characters of Gluck's modernization of opera which seemed to make no sense.
We are puzzled by all the recent updatings of operas to the 1940's and 50's--a period when costumes and hairstyles were particularly unflattering. We don't think Capriccio was horribly damaged by the updating; it just seemed pointless.
Costume and Set Design were by Tobias Hoheisel. Strangely, the Countess' drawing room, where all the action takes place, was in fine 18th c. design as would have been appropriate if the opera were staged as it was meant to be. But the side rooms were furnished in unattractive mid 20th c. style. In one moment, which delighted us, the Countess has a servant remove a boring piece of modern art from the wall and replace it with a classical oil painting.
(c) meche kroop