Wartime Austerity

Illustration by Athletics

If the term “inner migration” can fairly describe the mind-set of musicians who chose to remain in Germany during World War II, then Richard Strauss took the ultimate trip. Consider Capriccio, his last opera. With war raging on all sides, the Nazi evil evident to all, and Germany’s proud musical institutions about to fall in ruins, the 78-year-old composer’s mind was on an allegory about the mysterious union of words and music—“one art redeemed through the other,” sings Countess Madeleine ecstatically during her final monologue. As escapes from reality go, this one-act, two-and-a-half-hour conversation piece set in an elegant eighteenth-century Parisian salon is in a class of its own.

Well, art always concerned Strauss far more than global politics, which he regarded mostly as an annoying interference with his work, and perhaps in the long run we are luckier that he composed Capriccio than an angry piece of agitprop. The City Opera has opened its fall season with the work, which only seems more astonishing and delectable as time passes, even in this misconceived update with its unwanted intermission. An extended argument-discussion of operatic aesthetics might seem unpromising for a music drama in any case, but Strauss was too wily a theater man to write an abstraction. The witty, literate libretto (by the composer and his longtime colleague, the conductor Clemens Krauss) presents a rich gallery of colorful personalities: the composer Flamand and poet Olivier, whose heated rivalry for the affections of the Countess symbolize the opera’s theme; the ego-driven theater director, La Roche; Madeleine’s blasé brother, who pays court to the voluptuous actress Clairon. For added contrast there’s a pair of hilarious Italian opera singers along with onstage dancers and instrumentalists who give Strauss ample opportunities to compose some delicious musical divertissements.

By the time he felt ready to write this swan song—his operatic testament, as he called it—Strauss was not about to let a world war stand in his way. Here is the final working out of his sophisticated handling of musical prosody, sung conversations that precisely mirror the meaning behind each word of text. The triumph of Capriccio is the sheer fluidity of the musical discourse, always supported by an orchestral fabric rich in motific development but never covering the voices, a score couched in that luminous, autumnal beauty so characteristic of Strauss’s late style. And the final twenty minutes, as Madeleine discovers how her two suitors are now forever joined in Flamand’s musical setting of Olivier’s sonnet, is surely the apotheosis of this composer’s lifelong love affair with the soprano voice.

Capriccio works best when staged in period dress, given the numerous musical and verbal references to Gluck’s Paris and the 1752–54 Querelle des Bouffons. All the characters should at least look smashing, which they do not in this drab, cheerless production staged by Stephen Lawless and designed by Ashley Martin-Davis. To suggest that the action takes place during the grim days of World War II is positively perverse, especially when the Countess must enter looking like a dowdy housewife, the glamorous Clairon like a frump, and the jack-booted Count suspiciously like Adolf Hitler. Sets and costumes brighten gradually as everyone gets caught up in the fantasy world, but by the end it’s too late and one feels alienated by the whole milieu.

Needless to say, the singers don’t have much of a chance to register anything positive in this depressing atmosphere. Pamela Armstrong has a useful soprano, but it lacks the phosphorescent, soaring tone that Madeleine ideally requires, while the rest of the cast, apart from Eric Halfvarson’s ripely drawn La Roche, is little more than competent. Ditto the purely functional orchestral playing under George Manahan’s baton. Strauss felt that his last opera was meant for connoisseurs and best reserved for special occasions when it could be cast, rehearsed, performed, and savored under festival conditions. I fear he was right.

Richard Strauss
New York City Opera
Last performance September 24.

Wartime Austerity