Saturday, April 23, 2011

In the beginning

Capriccio - Metropolitan Opera, 4/7/2011 & 4/19/2011
Fleming, Rose, Kaiser, Braun, Connolly, Larsen, Makarina, Banks / Davis

Strauss and Krauss' Capriccio is one of the more difficult operatic masterpieces to "get" at first listen: not because of any obscurity in its expression, but because of its very clarity in an aesthetic model not much shared elsewhere. Anyone can appreciate the moonlight music and final monologue, but -- as I've seen in this run -- by that point all too many have become sleepy (like La Roche during the sextet-overture) or fidgety or actually left after two-plus unbroken hours in the theater.

So what, if anything, are those two hours of buildup -- and the piece as a whole -- about? All the program notes helpfully point us to the words/music (or music/drama) debate, but if this is the crux, it hardly plays out satisfyingly: the poet-suitor and composer-suitor both make their pitch (personal and professional) relatively early, and not only is elaboration thereafter lacking but the piece concludes without a definitive answer! Nor is it particularly about a love-rivalry, as our experience with other opera might suggest: again, the second half then seems like long digression -- and on top of this, each suitor cuts too small and civilized a figure to be much of a romantic lead.

Nor, despite its chronological finality, is Capriccio Strauss' farewell to opera. For he had already written that, in the greatest music that was ever almost-but-not-quite spoiled by a horrific wooden libretto (and three viciously difficult principal roles): the final act of his previous opera, Die Liebe der Danae. Jupiter's monologue there is his magnificent renunciation of life, the stage, and everything else -- Strauss' late personal version of Wotan, Hans Sachs, or the Marschallin. And it was Danae, though earlier-written, that was the last attempted Strauss premiere: the wartime cancellation of the 1944 Salzburg Festival prevented its official debut, but Strauss and some others were able to see his opera-composing career close with a momentous dress rehearsal.

Having already written an end, Strauss instead found a beginning: the literary skills of conductor Clemens Krauss, whose quick wit and understanding revived much that was impossible with the clumsy but Nazi-approved pen of Joseph Gregor (the aforementioned wooden librettist of Danae, and Daphne, and Friedenstag). And so Stefan Zweig's kernel of a words-or-music piece turned into this new attempt called Capriccio, finished in 1942. It was a backwards-looking journey.

Capriccio, in fact, goes all the way back, to the beginning of all things -- not the world per se, but to Strauss' world, which is to say opera. Not merely historically, though that too -- the characters praise the birth of recognizably-modern opera in Gluck -- but personally and thematically as well. We see all the figures of a life in the opera world, transposed into well-mannered shapes: the poet-librettist (Hofmannsthal -- with whom Strauss' opera masterpieces began -- and Zweig), the impresario (Max Reinhardt, Strauss and Hofmannsthal's collaborator in both music and the founding of the Salzburg Festival), various patrons, dilettantes, prima donnas, and performers, a prompter, and even an amusingly opinionated chorus of servants. Strauss arranges and rearranges these players in ever-more-formally-intricate combination until an opera -- and, thus, opera itself -- shakes out.

We first hear it about to happen with a horn tune, as Countess Madeleine's brother intones that an opera is an absurd thing. When it recurs, the Countess herself is calling composer and librettist to their task in rather more sanctified terms. And, at the last, the tune kicks off the moonlight music as the finale begins. What has announced itself? Opera, at last -- the full operatic experience, in its no-longer-to-be-deferred glory... but also in its essence and beginning -- the primal operatic scene, the true beginning to complement an already-found end.

This operatic ur-scene has (in Strauss' rendition at least) words, music, romantic complication -- but these turn out to be secondary. What's needed, for him, is the eternal-feminine, the central female figure contemplating her feelings and fate. What exactly those turn out to be doesn't much matter.

*     *     *

This first revival of John Cox's 1998 Met premiere production is, thankfully, done in one long act -- without the intermission both the premiere and the 2005 City Opera production inserted at the serving of chocolate. We therefore see the piece in its full shape, as artists' inspiration turns to the vagaries of realization before we witness the mysterious climax-cum-origin. There are, unfortunately, a few cuts -- including references to Strauss' Ariadne (itself revived next month) and Daphne -- presumably to keep the piece from running too long without a break.

Strauss, never much of a conquering modernist, has shrunk both of his creative figures -- poet and musician -- to salon dimensions, giving the impresario and Countess full opportunity to seize the show. Neither does so here, so it remains basically an excellent ensemble piece with the main personality that of conductor Andrew Davis. He does a fine job, but I would have liked to see either a stronger La Roche (Eric Halfvarson was magnificent at NYCO) or a more engaging Countess: Renee Fleming, as usual, tries hard but doesn't quite know what to do with herself when she's alone up there. It's not quite as awkward as the 2008 opening night, but the business with the rose, the business with lying down on the seat... these come off as exactly the contrived bits of business they in fact are. Fleming, too, wants the piece to be simpler, to be about romance or choice or something she can use her full-bore tone to hit, but it's unfortunately not. She gives a nice approximation of what the Countess' role would be if it were that sort of opera, but this doesn't much engage the currents of what actually does go on in the piece.

Still, with a nice ensemble all around, Mauro Pagano's handsome sets, and Andrew Davis' impressive work in the pit, it's a nice rare chance to see Strauss' masterpiece in full.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.