Richard Strauss’s last stage work, Capriccio, has always been considered a connoisseur’s delicacy, and as such unsuitable for mass consumption by Metropolitan Opera audiences. I never thought I would see this intimate one-act conversation piece at the Met, but here it is, and I suppose three reasons explain such an unexpected addition to the repertory: Kiri Te Kanawa’s attraction to the role of Countess Madeleine, the availability of a preexisting production, and English supertitles – full text comprehension is essential to savor this two-and-a-half-hour debate on which is the more potent medium of artistic communication, words or music.
That may sound like an unpromising topic for an opera, but Strauss knew what he was doing – the old composer (78 at the time of the premiere in 1942) was too much of a practical theater man to deal in abstractions or produce a talky treatise on aesthetics. The sophisticated libretto, by Strauss and conductor Clemens Krauss, presents six vivid personalities motivated by considerably more than verbal one-upmanship. The impetuous poet, Olivier, and the dreamily romantic composer, Flamand, are in hot pursuit of the beauteous Madeleine, while her blasé brother has designs on Olivier’s ex-mistress, Clairon, a leading actress at the Comédie Française and a protégée of the flamboyant theater director La Roche. They all gather in the Countess’s salon to argue their positions, and as the plot thickens in this eighteenth-century chat room, we gradually realize that the Flamand-Olivier rivalry stands as a metaphor for opera itself, with Madeleine as both muse and victor’s prize.
How astonishing, but how typical, that Strauss would address such a precious subject at a time when the world of German culture as he knew it was hurtling toward destruction. But perhaps, at the end of a long life, he may be pardoned for indulging in such an escapist diversion, especially since the mystical union of words and music had always been central to his creative thinking. In any case, he could never have composed Capriccio except when he did. Only by the forties was he ready to make a definitive statement on the matter, when his text-setting technique was at its most refined and the autumnal lyricism of his late style in full flower. Seamless in construction and endlessly inventive, the score reaches a gorgeous conclusion as Madeleine, still undecided and “burning between two flames,” once again sings the radiant sonnet by her two admirers, a creation that now no longer belongs to either poet or composer, but to her and to us.
For its presentation of the opera, the Met has borrowed an elegant rococo salon interior designed by the late Mauro Pagano and already seen in many opera houses, most recently in Chicago. There the characters were in period costumes, but at the Met the action has been moved up to the twenties – an inspiration of director John Cox, who first tried it out at the Glyndebourne Festival twenty years ago. While the conceit does not completely sabotage the opera, I fail to see how Capriccio presented as a Noël Coward comedy of manners gains in relevance and immediacy for a contemporary audience. On the contrary, the libretto’s references to Goldoni, Gluck, Couperin, and other eighteenth-century figures – not to mention Strauss’s delicious musical pastiches – become jarring anachronisms, and the whole ambience of the piece suddenly seems absurdly misjudged. Arbitrarily bringing down the curtain for an intermission in the middle of the opera doesn’t help, either.
Of course, Kiri Te Kanawa looks sensational in her twenties outfits (specially designed for her by Peter J. Hall – Martin Battersby dressed the rest of the cast), so the smart but dislocated look of the show will probably disturb only purists. It’s rumored that this production marks the soprano’s local farewell, but divas have been known to change their minds and Met audiences seem reluctant to let her go. As her voice ages, Te Kanawa, like many placid singers, becomes a more lively stage presence, and her Madeleine is now a far more natural and nuanced characterization, a woman who knows how to gain attention by listening as well as by talking. By the same token, the once-creamy tone has thinned out, sounding particularly parched in the final scene, where one yearns for a fresh, healthy Strauss soprano to soar over the orchestra. That is now well beyond Te Kanawa’s powers, so future roles, if any, will have to be chosen with care.
Otherwise, this is an experienced and generally alert Capriccio cast, if hardly one to change reluctant minds about the opera. With his plastered-down hair, surly tennis-anyone attitude, and darkly attractive baritone, Simon Keenlyside makes the strongest impression as Olivier, quite overwhelming David Kuebler’s pallid Flamand and even upstaging Jan-Hendrik Rootering’s rather too amiable La Roche. Kathryn Harries (Clairon) and Kim Josephson (the Count) fit neatly into the ensemble but project little vocal character. Andrew Davis is an old hand at conducting this tricky score; he and the Met orchestra contribute the evening’s most satisfying pleasures. A spotty enterprise, then, one that would have surely worked out better in the more intimate surroundings of a mini-Met, a long-hoped-for and much-discussed theater space that seems doomed never to materialize.