Sunday, September 02, 2007

Guest review -- Capriccio at the Edinburgh Festival

I have been tied up with non-operatic obligations and haven't been able to post or answer emails of late, but a correspondent at the Edinburgh Festival asked me to post this review from last week. All words after the divider are the guest reviewer's, not mine.

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Richard Strauss : Capriccio
Cologne Opera
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne
Markus Stenz – conductor
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
30 August 2007

The drop shows an eye, and in the pupil of the eye, an image of German troops marching down the Champs Elysées in Paris. The familiar opening sextet begins, and the drop lifts to show an office; a high-ranking Nazi official sits behind a desk doing paperwork, a woman, close-cropped hair, stern grey suit, sits before it reading a German newspaper. She is clearly disturbed by something she is reading, but refrains from comment when an officer/servant appears to tidy something away. When he is gone, she drops the paper pointedly in front of the official, and leaves. He glances briefly at the paper, but puts it aside, then extracts some documents – identity papers – from a hiding place. A Jewish woman and man enter, and pay him for the documents. The woman also presses upon him a pearl and diamond choker; he’s reluctant to take it at first, but then accepts it. Two men in fedoras and black leather dusters – SS agents – appear next. They toss the official’s paperwork around contemptuously, and leave behind some sort of order, and a gun, without, however, seeing the money. He puts the money and choker away in a lacquer box, and takes from the box a small vial of what seems to be poison. Then a red velvet curtain conceals his office, and Flamand and Olivier, in 18th Century costume, discuss the charms of the Countess Madeleine from “backstage”, as if none of what we have just seen has ever happened.

So begins Christian von Götz’s new production of “Capriccio” for Cologne Opera, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival this week. Most of this production takes place in a factitious historical period – we’re looking at a play within a play within a play. In that sense, the occasional reminders of its 1942 framework tend to be more of an irritant than anything else, and the whole opening dumb-show casts a very long and somewhat aggravating shadow.

Yet there are notions that emerge very clearly, and very successfully, from that initial set-up. Madeleine’s meditation on the importance of words versus music is purely escapist fantasy, surrounded as she is by the money taken from desperate fugitives, the pearl choker around her neck. When she leaves at the end, under arrest, the “Count” dead, her household composed of brown-shirts, her self-interrogation is all the more poignant.

Most striking, however, perhaps, is La Roche’s great monologue. Although nothing in the staging at that point evokes the contemporary setting, the context suddenly becomes vibrantly clear, and every word comes across as the nearest thing to an apologia for his own ambiguous position vis-à-vis the Nazi regime that Strauss ever issued. “Capriccio” remains a difficult work to stage, even if taken purely at face value, because it is impossible to ignore just when it was written, or the deliberately anachronistic idiom in which it is written. It’s been close on 25 years since I saw my last (and first) production of “Capriccio”, and that too was set in the 20th Century, though in the mid-30s. The text and the music are so period-specific in their references that to update it seems ludicrous, yet it’s perhaps precisely because they’re so specific that one can do so with impunity – the sense of play-acting, of an elaborate fantasy, carries the notion through regardless. It worked then, and it works here, though the bulk of the action is more or less visually returned to its ostensible period of origin, c. 1775.

It helped, of course, that the production was well served musically, with a strong ensemble cast. Gabriele Fontana (Madeleine) does not have the most beautiful timbre, but brought a vitality to the role that served her well, while Michael Eder rose splendidly to the occasion as La Roche. Of the others, while there were no weak links to speak of, Dalia Schaechter’s rich-toned mezzo stood out particularly as Clairon, while the stuffed Sharpei plushie she carted around occasioned considerable amusement in the audience. An Edinburgh Festival engagement certainly allowed this provincial German company a few resources in terms of singers it might not otherwise have been able to command, but there was a cohesion present, right down to the smallest role, that Europe’s finest opera stages could envy. Small wonder half the world’s young singers seek apprenticeship in Germany’s opera houses.

Most memorable, however, was the Gürzenich Orchestra. It’s tempting to overplay Strauss, and wallow in the luscious harmonies, but then he easily becomes indigestible, and there are pages of considerable complexity in “Capriccio” that do not allow for the least bit of self-indulgence. There was none here; Stenz and the orchestra provided a reading of the utmost clarity and finesse, the texture clear and luminous, with great beauty of tone, and crystalline precision in the tricky octet and sextet passages. Here was a full-scale orchestra playing with the delicacy of the chamber orchestra of “Ariadne auf Naxos”, entirely appropriate to the context, stylish, graceful, and sweetly painful. If ever “Capriccio” needed an advocate to prove that it is not, and never was, intended as a blinkered retreat from reality into sugar-coated fantasy, then this was it.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.