It may be wondered why Strauss decided to write an opera about the relative merits of the words and music in opera: “prima la musica o prima le parole?” Although it is a debate as old as opera itself, it is hardly a subject that is likely to excite potential audiences, and it is no doubt one of the reasons why his final opera, “Capriccio,” has found it difficult to establish itself in the same way as, say, “Salome” or “Der Rosenkavalier.” For the casual audience member, with little or no knowledge of the work, many of the arguments can appear obtuse or even ridiculous, or worse, they can be missed completely. Moreover, “Capriccio” is regularly referred to as a “conversational piece,” which can have the effect of reinforcing its reputation as an opera for the cognoscenti. All of which, perhaps, explains why Innsbruck’s Tiroler Landestheater had numerous empty seats for the opening night of its new production of the work. Yet, for those members of the public who are prepared to do a little research, it can be a real delight. Far from being a dry intellectual discussion, the drama moves quickly forward, as the characters involve themselves in some humorous light-hearted (and sometimes semi-serious) jousting, intertwined with various love interests. The dialogue is extensive and fast moving, but always engaging; the music is often playful, sometimes melancholic, but rarely too serious, yet always alert to the nuances of the text, which it reflects and enlivens in equal measure. It can, in fact, in the hands of the right director, become a lively romp. Strauss, himself, was very pleased with the work declaring that he “could do no better,” and he would no doubt, have been extremely pleased by this engrossing, thought-provoking, at times funny and fast moving Landestheater production.
The success of this production must be put down, in no small part, to its director, Anthony Pilavachi and his designer, Tatiana Ivschina who have created a first-rate reading of the work. It not only successfully balances the opera’s two main themes, the words versus music debate and the Countess Madeleine’s romantic dilemma, maintaining a lively and entertaining rhythm in the process, but also addresses another problem that hangs over the work, namely: how could Strauss write such a light, carefree work while living under the NAZI regime, and apparently be so oblivious to the horrors of the second World War that were unfolding around him? It is worth describing this production in some detail as this was key to its undoubted success.
As the curtain rises we are presented with the interior of a dilapidated salon, with broken windows and furniture piled around the room in a disorderly manner. On its far wall, facing the audience, is a large 18th-century painting, reflecting the era in which the opera is set. It is, however, 1942, the year in which “Capriccio” was premiered. The musicians enter the stage, dressed in 1940s costumes, and prepare themselves to play the opening sextet when suddenly the sirens blare and war planes are heard overhead, gunfire starts, and the musicians run for cover. After a few minutes, calm is restored and the musicians return along with the theater director, La Roche, who promptly falls asleep as they play the opening sextet. As its closing bars fade, the back of the stage brightens, illuminating the painting. The musicians depart and then, totally unexpectedly, the characters in the painting come alive and step into the room! We are now cast back to 1775, only La Roche is dressed in mid-20th-century costume. The opera now follows its normal course with the two lovers, Olivier, the poet, and Flamand, the musician, vying for the Countess’s Madeleine’s favors, whilst pressing their individual causes for the words and the music. La Roche looks on with a skeptical eye, and the Countess laps up the attention. Clarion, the actress, and the Count also descend from the painting to add a further love interest to the melee that is slowly developing.
Following an interval, a post-Strauss addition to the work, but usually inserted in modern performances, the drama picks up the pace. The debate between the characters intensifies, and we are entertained by dancers, musicians and Italian singers, who ham it up in fine style. The drama fairly races along. At this point, La Roche, who has been on the end of some severe verbal barracking steps forward, and the stage clears. He delivers a vociferous defense of his role as a theater director. Approaching the edge of the stage, he harangues the audience, angrily gesticulating and pointing at the paying public. But is that what is he really doing? Consider some examples of his words: “the grimace is their symbol – the parody their element – their content profligate insolence!,” “they have dropped their masks, but you see gargoyles instead of human faces!,” “you too, I know, despise this traffic but still you tolerate it! Your silence involves you in the blame.” Surely, these words are Strauss’/Krauss’ (the librettist) own words, directed towards the NAZI regime and those who tolerate it, neatly hidden amongst this frothy delight. Those who are too ready to criticize Strauss for remaining in Germany during this period would do well to read these words carefully, such a public statement was a courageous act and could easily have led to serious retribution.
The characters now depart and we are entertained by some farcical goings-on by the servants who enter dressed as clowns. This has the effect of altering the whole pace of the production, which follows on fairly quickly after La Roche’s credo, and allows the next scene involving the prompter Monsieur Taupe to have an almost devastating impact. The room is in darkness and out of his hiding place appears the prompter, a Jew with a star embroidered onto his clothes, who is welcomed into “our real world” by the Major-Domo, and embraced by La Roche. A truly moving scene, and totally in harmony with the music and the words of the text. And so, the opera moves into its final scene, dominated by the Countess’ final aria, who then gracefully climbs back into the painting, escorted by the now united pair of Olivier and Flamand. The lights darken and the opera finishes.
Pilavachi’s splendid interpretation worked exceptionally well and kept the audience fully engaged throughout the evening. His ideas overlaid the text and the music so perfectly that at no point was there a feeling of a producer overstepping his role and imposing his own ideas onto the work. He paced the work beautifully and never allowed it to become leaden and one-paced. Ivschina’s designs were also a delight and captured the feeling of the two periods perfectly, and the painting on the rear wall, from which the characters descended, was a truly astonishing piece of theater.
A First-Rate Maestro
The musical side of this production was in the more than capable hands of the young Italian conductor, Francesco Angelico, who produced a first-rate performance from the Tyrolese Symphony Orchestra. Although “Capriccio” is written for a large orchestra, Strauss rarely employs the whole orchestra simultaneously, preferring an overall quieter sound with a wide variety of musical textures, and Angelico was certainly up to the task of delivering just that. He displayed a masterful control of the orchestra, producing a highly polished and nuanced performance, which beautifully underpinned and elevated the on-stage drama, rarely allowing it to overpower the singers, who were always given his full support. With only the occasional exception, the singers’ voices were allowed to float above the orchestra, ensuring that the dialogue was clearly audible to the audience, which is particularly important for a full appreciation of “Capriccio,” where the words and music, do indeed, complement each other. In the passages in which the full orchestra was given full reign, Angelico created a truly serene Straussian sound, allowing it to bloom, and emotionally envelop the audience.
A Strong, But Flawed Countess
The principal character, through which the drama rotates, is Countess Madeleine who was sung by Susanna von der Burg. Technically very secure, she managed the demands of the part well, displaying a clear diction, delightful phrasing and a beautiful tone which lost none of its shine in her upper register. The part does seem to suit her voice very well indeed, although it does lack that certain sparkle that characterizes a true Straussian soprano. Moreover, her essaying of the role appeared seriously flawed. Instead of the regal Countess, in full command of her domain, who always has just the right word to say, in just the right way, at just the right time, von der Burg presented us with a Countess who always seemed to be running away from the lovers, bullied by them or indulging in frivolous gesturing, and certainly not a Countess who took Art seriously, as she cavorted with the dancers. She simply did not have the stage presence necessary to carry the role, being regularly outshone by lesser cast members. The choreographer, Marie Stockhausen should, of course, share some of the responsibility for this. In the final scene, however, von der Burg delivered a beautiful rendition of the sonnet “Kein Andres, das mir so im Herzen loht” and thus, deservedly, left the audience with a very good impression.
A Dynamic La Roche
As the theater director La Roche, Michael Hauenstein looked and acted the part perfectly, producing an emotional and nuanced performance. His commanding presence meant he dominated proceedings, and convincingly organized the entertainments. Hauenstein’s La Roche, sometimes cynical and always practical, was portrayed as a multifaceted and sympathetic character, no more so than in his emotionally spirited defense of the theater and his attack on the compliant audience, in which his voice was almost trembling with anger. He has a strong, powerful and flexible voice, which he uses with a great deal of control, and to great effect. Throughout the opera La Roche is involved in all sorts of discussions – humorous, angry, frustrated, practical – and Hauenstein is able to convincingly characterize his voice accordingly, altering tone, coloring, and dynamics with apparent ease.
The two artist/lovers, Olivier and Flamand, were played by Richard Morrison and Uwe Stickert respectively. Olivier was portrayed as the more aggressive and dominant of the two, whilst Flamand was more ardent and serious. Both singers acted superbly well, moving smoothly from comedic scenes, in which they deliberately exaggerate their artistic natures, to scenes in which they earnestly express their love for Countess Madeleine. Stickert possesses a sweet, open tenor, strong and even over the whole range. He showed no signs of vocal stress or loss of tone in the upper register, beautifully characterizing his voice through delicate shadings and subtle dynamic changes. Morrison also sang well, possessing a warm, rich baritone. His coloring and phrasing were of a pleasing quality and employed to great effect. However, in the wooing of the Countess he comes up short, at one point being overwhelmed by the orchestra – he has failed the test! Flamand, on the other hand, suffers no such embarrassment.
The Remaining Great Support
Alec Avedissian, as the Count, has a secure powerful baritone, which he employed effectively. Dressed in a blue frock coat and white breeches and sporting a black ponytail he really did look and sound the part. You could easily imagine him as Count Almaviva in “Figaro (a part he has, in fact, already essayed).” However, he overplayed the part, sometimes appearing imbecilic rather than a person of noble bearing. While this may be acceptable when he is attempting to act in Olivier’s play, it simply grated when he descended to such levels in other parts of the work. The current target of his affections, Clarion, played by Valentina Kutzarova, could certainly have been confused for the Countess, such was the nobility of her bearing. Resisting the temptation to play the actress as a stereotypical diva she produced a dignified portrayal, with a voice to match. She possesses a beautiful tone, and her vocal phrasing was a delight.
The Two Italian Singers suitably overdressed in powdered white wigs and pale blue and white costumes. They really did look and act the part, successfully playing the scene for laughs, as they deliberately overacted and overembellished their roles. They arrived on stage escorted by typical 18th century flat scenic clouds. The male singer, played by Florian Stern, struggled to project his voice successfully and was completely drowned out when singing in the octet. The female singer, however, played by the soubrette soprano Sophia Theodorides, put in an energetic and polished performance. Her young, clear voice is bright and flexible, with a pleasant tone.
Joshua Lindsay certainly made the most of his small role as the prompter, Monsieur Taupe. He emerged from the trap door, disheveled and frightened, a Jew in hiding, and delivered an emotionally charged reading of his role, his singing characterizing his predicament perfectly. The Major-Domo, played by Johannes Maria Wimmer, put in a solid performance, displaying a strong solid bass.
The Tiroler Landestheater has a real success on its hands. It is thought-provoking, disturbing and funny in equal measure. The orchestra under Angelico was superb and the singing was of high standard. Hopefully, the word will quickly get around and the empty seats, seen on the opening night, will disappear.