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Capriccio at the Garnier (Part 2 of 2)

This is the conclusion of a review of Richard Strauss's final opera, Capriccio, performed by the Opéra de Paris at the Palais Garnier, on July 8. Here is Part 1.

If you are familiar with Capriccio you will understand what I mean when I say that it's not a conventional opera. It's an opera about creating an opera and about what opera is and why it is the consummate performing art. That may sound like an impossibly cute idea, but it is truly absorbing in practice. Also, it worked in this production, because Carsen extended the theme of play within a play to its fullest extent. The curtain rose about ten minutes before the scheduled curtain time, and a small chorus, costumed as stage hands, began arranging chairs on the bare stage—complete with stray lighting pieces scattered around, set flats standing up in the wings, and a background set piece made to look like a rough stone back stage wall—as if for a rehearsal. Six principal string players (two violins, two violas, and two cellos) had left their places in the orchestra pit and now took their seats on the stage for the overture. (All six players, including some women, were costumed as male string players.) The Countess (Renée Fleming) entered, brought to our attention by a spotlight, and took a seat out in the house—in the good seats in the orchestra section, of course, as a countess should—while the audience applauded. When she gave a sign to the players on the stage, they played the piece designed by Strauss as a piece of chamber music, meant to be part of the Countess's birthday celebration ("erklingt aus dem Salon links das Andante eines Streich-Sextetts"). This is the basis for the plot: the Countess is meeting at her house outside Paris with the group of artists who will plan and execute her birthday celebration.

The scene is specified by Strauss as taking place around 1775, the time of Gluck's operatic reforms, in Paris. Carsen has moved the action up to the year 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, and the traveling artists are escorted to the house under the watchful eyes of Gestapo agents. As noted in Renaud Machart's excellent review (Parole et musique en lutte dans "Capriccio", à Garnier [Word and music in conflict in Capriccio at the Garnier], June 18) in Le Monde, the opera was premiered

on October 28, 1942, at the Munich State Opera, the year of the implementation of the "final solution." In the room were the Nazi authorities who had forbidden Strauss, since 1935, to work again with Stefan Zweig, a pacifist and a Jew, with whom he had just created Die Schweigsame Frau (The silent woman, op. 80, premiered June 24, 1935, at the Dresden State Opera).
In that context, the opera really does present a dream of a better time, an era when the "war" was only between supporters of Gluck and supporters of Piccinni, and it brings into relief how governments can shackle the arts for their own purposes.

Strauss's music may be an acquired taste, according to some, but I don't remember a time when I knew it and didn't like it. Following in the footsteps of Wagner, Strauss goes about as far as you can go with chromatic distortion of traditional tonality before things get ugly. (By "ugly" I don't mean not worth listening to, I just mean before it becomes something that is clearly not traditional tonality. Certain scientific theories were recently passed around Blogistan, starting from the most worthy Arts & Letters Daily, trying to explain why atonal music is challenging to the ear, and I think it's hogwash for the most part. Terry Teachout thinks that this justifies his dislike of music from later atonal composers. For example, he speculates "that atonality contradicts the natural law of music" or "that the human brain is hard-wired to comprehend and appreciate tonal music." Of course, Terry is free to like and dislike whatever music he wants, but does this mean that music before 1600—which is not tonal either and in the Middle Ages could be quite dissonant, after all—"contradicts the natural law of music?"
Available from Amazon:
Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven's Time
Furthermore, what does this say about the world outside Europe, that the only style of music that obeys the laws of music was practiced in Europe between 1600 and 1900? I believe that a summary reading of Nicolas Slonimsky's brilliant Lexicon of Musical Invective makes it clear that people have always had adverse reactions to new sounds—over the years, people have complained about the incomprehensibility of Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Wagner, only to turn around later and accept and even worship them. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring caused an infamous riot at its premiere in 1913, because people thought it was incomprehensible and ugly. By 1940, it was heard in, of all things, Walt Disney's Fantasia, and Stravinsky's manuscript was sold at auction, many years later, at the highest price paid for a composer's score up to that time.)

When the stage sextet finished the introductory piece, they continued to play, with mutes on, for the first small scene of the opera, featuring the famous argument between the poet and the composer about which is the greater art, poetry or music. (This opposition—summed up with the phrase prima le parole, dopo la musica [first the words, then the music], and vice versa—has been at the center of all famous operatic debates of music history: is the text or the music more important in creating an opera? This is the subtext of Capriccio, for which it is always cited in studies of opera history.) The orchestra in the pit then took over, as the sextet removed their costumes and returned to their places. By placing the Countess in the audience at the start of the opera, the production identifies her with us, and indeed she is the listener who has to choose between the poet and the composer, both of whom are in love with her, at the opera's conclusion. The director also invites a dancer, a famous actress (Von Otter) with whom the countess's brother is in love, and two hilarious send-ups of Italian bel canto singers to offer other types of performance to the Countess. Ultimately, when she cannot decide among all these possibilities (which are humorously demonstrated on a rolling model of, you guessed it, the stage of the Garnier), she makes the terrifying decision to ask the director to combine them all. They will produce an opera for her birthday celebration. The rehearsal concludes, and the chorus of servants cleaned up the mess, in a funny scene that was excellent.

This is where the production became quite ingenious. The curtain fell as the orchestra played a transitional passage of music. When it rose again, we saw another curtain exactly like it, and a row of stage lights just like the one in the Garnier. That curtain began to rise when the real curtain had ascended about halfway, revealing the Countess on a set that bore some remarkable similarities to the Garnier auditorium. In effect, this was the reverse of what we saw at the start of the opera: we saw her in her home, which looks like where we were seated, and she looked out at us over the stage lights. The servants tell the Countess that all the guests have left, to go back to Paris, and that she will be eating alone. Monsieur Taupe, the prompter, also appears in a funny scene and is told by the Countess's butler that everyone else has left.

In the dramatic closing scene, the Countess stepped over that second row of stage lights to join us in our world again, as she agonizes over how to choose between the poet and the composer. Ultimately, she cannot choose and lets the servant take both the poet’s words and the composer’s score away. As she acknowledges, there is no easy way to end this story. Speaking to her reflection in a mirror, as directed by Strauss, she asks the "other Madeleine" to help her: "Kannst du mir helfen den Schluss zu finden für ihre Oper? Gibt es einen, der nicht trivial ist?" (Can you help me find an ending for this opera? Is there one that is not trivial?). The chorus stripped away all the set pieces, leaving the enormous space of the full Garnier stage totally bare (really, this time, no illusions). To the closing measures of music, the Countess, now so much smaller in that vast space, which the audience is never allowed to see, was helped toward a door far away, at the back of the stage. As the first concluding pizzicato chord was plucked, all of the stage lights went out simultaneously, prompting some in the audience to start yelling and applauding, which was met by a “Shh!” of consternation from those who knew there were a few more chords to be heard. The singers and conductor (Ulf Schirmer, replacing Günter Neuhold in July, who in turn was substituting for renowned Strauss conductor Christian Thieleman, who had had to cancel) took numerous curtain calls on that empty stage, to cries of bravo and the rhythmic clapping you often hear from European audiences.

Adieu, Hugues Gall.

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