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Ionarts in Santa Fe: Further Thoughts on 'Capriccio'

Amanda Majeski (The Countess) in Capriccio (photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

Charles T. Downey, Santa Fe Opera, part 1: Celebrating 60 with two rarities and Strauss (of course)
Washington Post, July 31

available at Amazon
Strauss, Capriccio, E. Schwarzkopf, N. Gedda, D. Fischer-Dieskau, Philharmonia Orchestra, W. Sawallisch
(EMI, 1957)
Santa Fe Opera gave the American premiere of Richard Strauss's Capriccio in 1958, not long after the 1942 world premiere in wartime Munich. It was last performed here in 1993, and the only time I have ever reviewed Capriccio was at the Opéra de Paris in 2004.

Capriccio is a meta-opera that is dizzyingly self-reflective. Set in the 18th century, two wealthy patrons, a Countess and Count who are sister and brother, invite a group of artists to their house outside Paris to discuss a work to be commissioned for the Countess's birthday. All the arts are represented -- a composer (Flamand), a poet (Olivier), an actress (Clairon), a theater director (La Roche), two Italian opera singers, a dancer, even a prompter -- vying for the attention of their patrons, one inclined more toward the popular arts (the Count) and one toward the higher ones (the Countess). In the end, the Countess decides that only an opera can feature all of the arts she loves equally, and the opera will tell the story of the very evening that has just played out.

Strauss himself understood the work's faults, telling his librettist, Clemens Krauss, as quoted by Michael Kennedy in his book Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma: "Never forget that our Capriccio is no piece for the broad public, any more than it should be played in a big house where only a third of the text can be understood. [It is] a dainty morsel for cultural gourmets, not very substantial musically -- at all events, not so succulent that the music will compensate for it if the general public does not take a liking to the libretto ... I have no faith in its theatrical effectiveness in the usual sense." Little surprise, then, that the house on July 27 had the greatest number of empty seats I can remember seeing in Santa Fe.

Strauss stacks the argument between music and words for supremacy in opera in his own favor, creating the most beautiful music for Flamand when he sets Olivier's sonnet to music, far surpassing the effect previously when the same poem is read aloud and unaccompanied. Along with Galeano Salas, the other Italian singer, also good, was Shelly Jackson from Manassas, Virginia, a former apprentice who in 2014 stepped into the role of Norina in Don Pasquale when the scheduled singer had to withdraw. Amanda Majeski did not impress in her debut in the truly awful staging of Vivaldi's Griselda by Peter Sellars in 2011, and she was not up to the demands of the Countess here either, brittle at the top and too easily covered by the orchestra to be effective. She will sing the role of the Countess in Washington National Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro this fall, and her Count at the Kennedy Center will be Joshua Hopkins, who made the same capable impression here as Olivier as he did as Papageno in a Santa Fe Magic Flute a decade ago. Majeski's Count in this Capriccio, Craig Verm, a former SFO apprentice, had a competent debut, but nothing remarkable.

Other Reviews:

James M. Keller, Capriccio charms at Santa Fe Opera (Santa Fe New Mexican, July 24)

John Stege, Ultimate Strauss: SFO’s Golden Hour (Santa Fe Reporter, July 27)
This beautiful score features Strauss at his most chameleon-like, quoting from a broad range of composers, including himself, a vivid reminder that he is, as scholar Michael Kennedy put it, "music's incomparable jester-poet." Leo Hussain's conducting did little to help this bit of elegant repartee shine, and the pit often sounded a little at odds with each other in the countless starts, shifts, and stops of the work. The overall musical cohesion was at its best in the two octets that show the ultimate power of opera, with eight different character perspectives jumbled together simultaneously. Some of Hussein's gestures seemed needlessly combative toward the musicians, as he repeatedly called for a louder sound from one of the musicians in the slender baroqueux accompaniment to the dance pieces, for example, or menacingly jabbed his finger at one of the Italian singers throughout their duet. The decision to take the intermission sheepishly added by Strauss was a mistake, as it comes at a drama-sapping point, just after the Countess has asked the Major-Domo to serve chocolate.

For the famous string sextet that opens the work, the six musicians were seated on stage, contrary to the composer's score indication, in a neo-Rococo chamber music salon in the midst of the Countess's more obviously modern home (sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel), which helped project their (not always ideal) sound. Director Tim Albery, whose stagings can be hit or miss, did little to make the work jump off the page. The period is updated to roughly the time of the opera's premiere, but without any reference to the horrors that Strauss was trying to forget by writing this escapist work. (Really, if there were any time for gratuitously adding Nazis to an opera, this would be it.) The mise en abyme suggested by the chamber music salon, where the Countess has her gorgeous final scene as night falls — the escapism of opera in general, and of this opera in particular — was not enough to lift the work above its surface wit. In that glorious final scene, Albery has the Countess see her reflection not in a mirror, as Strauss wanted, but in the French doors at the back of the salon, an alteration abetted by the supertitles, which avoid any translation of the word "mirror" heard from the singers. It may seem an insignificant change, but without it much of the work's meaning likely sails over the head of viewers unfamiliar with the libretto.

This production runs through August 19, at Santa Fe Opera.

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