Chicago, Lyric Opera:”Capriccio”

Chicago, Lyric Opera – 2014/2015 Season
Conversation piece for music. Libretto by Clemens Krauss and Richard Strauss.
Music by Richard Strauss
Countess Madeleine RENEE FLEMING
Italian Soprano EMILY BIRSAN
Monsieur Taupe KEITH JAMESON
Orchestra & Chorus Lyric Opera
Conductor Sir Andrew Davis
Original Director John Cox
Revival Director Peter McClintock
Set Designer Mauro Pagano
Costume Designer Robert Perdziola
Lighting Designer Duane Schuler
Choreographer Val Caniparoli
Chicago, October 9, 2014

Rudolf Hartmann, the stage director for the first production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, once recalled the precarious circumstances of the opera’s world premiere: “Who among the younger generation can really imagine a great city like Munich in total darkness, or theatergoers picking their way through blacked out streets with the aid of small torches giving off a dim blue light through a narrow slit? All this for the experience of the Capriccio premiere. They risked being caught in a heavy air raid, yet their yearning to hear Strauss’s music, their desire to be part of a festive occasion and to experience a world of beauty beyond the dangers of war led them to overcome all these material problems.” While the conditions facing Lyric Opera of Chicago and its cast are not nearly as harrowing as those described by Hartmann, this Capriccio finds itself carrying on in a similarly uncertain world where the future of opera itself seems in question. On the day preceding the performance I attended, Lyric Opera announced it was selling discounted tickets to every section of the Civic Opera House. And this, despite a world-class cast featuring superstar soprano Renee Fleming in the critical role of the Countess Madeleine. Even so, there were many empty seats—further evidence that American opera houses can no longer rely on name recognition to sell tickets. This state of affairs imbues the hauntingly elegiac quality of Strauss’s final opera with a particular poignancy. Thus, on this occasion, Capriccio seems not so much a cerebral exploration of the primacy of words or music as an homage, even justification, for the necessity of opera.
As Countess Madeleine, Renee Fleming is an effective focal point for the evening’s proceedings. Her portrayal is notable for a tinge of melancholy. She frequently makes reference to a framed portrait of what we assume is the Countess’s deceased husband. This evokes fascinating associations to Strauss himself and the loss of his artistic partner Hugo von Hofmannstahl in 1929. The composer never matched the greatness he achieved with Hofmannstahl and struggled to reconcile many of the elements with which Capriccio is concerned. Fleming wears her 1920s gowns with elegant aplomb and maintains an aura of quiet dignity and bemused curiosity throughout. The soprano is now in late career and is treading a path similar to that of Kiri te Kanawa, her notable predecessor in this role. Fleming has maintained much of the tonal glow of her halcyon days but at the expense of power and projection. She commands admiration for the preservation of her undeniably glamorous instrument. However, she manages her vocal resources very carefully now and still finds herself tiring at moments in the celebrated final scene. One longed for a sense of expansion, of finally letting the voice soar in the climaxes of the Countess’s monologue. Still, Fleming makes a virtue of economy by distilling this role to its muse-like essence, gently guiding the other characters in the fulfillment of their creative imperative. Strauss himself drew inspiration from any number of prima donnas, beginning with his wife Pauline and continuing on with Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, Elisabeth Rethberg and Viorica Ursuleac, the very first Countess Madeleine. Fleming joins a distinguished and elite group of sopranos who have found success as this endearing if elusive heroine.
As her two suitors, William Burden and Audun Iversen make an eloquent argument for the supremacy of their respective disciplines. Burden still sounds amazingly sweet of timbre after a career of more than two decades and phrases ardently as the composer Flamand. Iversen is a real discovery and his juicy lyric baritone made the best possible case for Olivier’s poetry—even though Strauss makes clear where his bias lies. Bo Skovhus is a boisterous, demonstrative Count, his weathered yet still attractive baritone capable of telling inflection. As Clairon, Anne Sofie Von Otter makes a long-overdue return to the company after a 25-year absence. She looks decoratively flamboyant in her flapper attire and presents a mercurial take on the historical actress, alternately flighty, peevish and gracious. As always, she is a paragon of vocal refinement and makes every phrase register with dramatic intention. Peter Rose manages to make La Roche an entirely sympathetic character, divesting the grandiose impresario of pompous bombast while singing with impressive reserves of power. As is customary in recent productions, Emily Birsan and Juan José De León engage in over-the-top mugging as the two Italian singers, earning uproarious laughter from the audience but missing the note of tender parody, affection and nostalgic recall so audible in Strauss’s music. In contrast, Keith Jameson aims for and achieves a subtle pathos as the befuddled prompter Monsieur Taupe. David Govertsen is a sympathetic Majordomo but his instrument lacks that extra touch of solemnity implied by the character’s vocal writing. Lyric Opera’s Music Director Sir Andrew Davis has long championed Capriccio and conducted it here in the 1994-95 season during the company’s only other previous run of performances. His contribution was the evening’s strongest element, summoning playing of luminous radiance from the Lyric Orchestra. The famous “Mondschein” interlude was devastating in its autumnal splendor despite some sharp and occasionally unsteady moments from the solo French horn player. However, the opening string sextet featured performances of exquisite detail and would have sounded equally at home in the concert hall. John Cox’s production, originally created for the Glyndebourne Festival in the 1970s, strikes all the right notes of wit and whimsy in Mauro Pagano’s frescoed drawing room, while Robert Perdziola’s interior design and costumes add to the production’s overall sophistication. As noted earlier, Peter McClintock’s restaging sometimes veers in the direction of vulgarity and obviousness. In summary, Lyric Opera has made the best possible case for an opera that has proved daunting for audiences of any era but especially in this period of faltering attendance, shortened attention spans and ongoing apathy for the performing arts in America. Five Stars! Photo Todd Rosenberg