Lyric’s ‘Capriccio’ embraces ensemble flair, patrician milieu of Strauss’ high-minded lark
Review: “Capriccio,” by Richard Strauss and Clemens Krauss, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, starring Renée Fleming, conducted by Andrew Davis, through Oct. 28. ★★★★
By Nancy Malitz
Richard Strauss’ sophisticated drawing room comedy “Capriccio,” an opera that was first performed in war-stressed Munich of 1942, must have seemed as much of a refuge from the world’s dangers as Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” which delighted blitz-weary Londoners in 1941, or “The Gay Divorcee,” which lit up the screen for beleaguered Depression era crowds.
To watch Lyric Opera’s “Capriccio” is to put one’s mind inside a blissful dream of wealth and privilege, where the toughest choices facing a glamorous Parisian countess concerned which adoring, handsome and talented young man to endow with her philanthropy, and her bed.
How wonderful to be one of her cosseted special guests and sit silently on a Deco sofa, surrounded by high ceilings and ancestral frescos, while smart and often silly people flirt with each other and dabble with sexy ideas such as whether music or words are superior in expressing the most profound sentiments. And then to experience, through the effortless elegance that is quintessential Strauss, that intimate flowering of what had seemed ridiculous into something absolutely sublime.
The gilded domicile of the Lyric Opera of Chicago is as sumptuous and evocative of privilege as the Countess’s drawing room. But it’s too big, alas, for us to persuade ourselves that we’re really on that sofa, part of an intimate soirée just arm’s length from the beloved soprano Renée Fleming, Chicago’s countess, as other guests play mind games with each other and reveal themselves for the imperfect delights they are. Even so, there were stunning moments when that sense of intimacy was achieved, chiefly at the hand of Lyric’s music director Andrew Davis, who has a magic touch with Strauss, and whose Lyric Opera Orchestra has developed impressive delicacy and sheen under his direction.
The music of “Capriccio” works its way into one’s heart over time, and it is a rarity to be recommended. But the extended string sextet that was performed with such finesse at the opera’s onset was doubtless lost on the audience in the performance I attended partway into the run. Expectations are what they are in 2014. Broadway and other operas have taught people that overtures are usually short pastiches that end with a bang, and that it’s perfectly all right not to pay all that much attention quite yet.
A quiet number involving only six players that continues more than seven minutes in a partially darkened house is going to be confusing in such a rarely performed piece – the first among several challenges that a stage director has to solve if “Capriccio” is going to take its rightful place in the opera canon. This John Cox production (revived here by Peter McClintock) has been around a long time and is owned by the Metropolitan Opera, where this issue was only really solved in an HD broadcast performance starring Fleming herself that underscored the sextet with some nifty camera close-ups.
Another hurdle to “Capriccio” popularity is witty, rapid-fire dialogue in German, which even with surtitles can exhaust an English-language audience. And there is the problem of the centrality of the Countess herself. Her big number comes at the end of the opera, and it is smashing. But while the great lady is a magnet in the room, for the most part she is a quiet magnificence of whom all others are constantly aware, her smallest gestures of huge import, yet not one who dominates the action.
Thus the cast surrounding the Countess is of crucial importance, because it is through them that we come to understand her, and in this the Lyric surpasses itself with a droll and stylish bunch of singers who, one after another, deliver hilarious and vocally splendid performances. McClintock’s revival direction felt very fresh, the whole thing evocative of the nervous splendor of the 1920s in which this production is set. William Burden, as the swooning composer Flamand who’s constantly bursting into song, has a ringing and articulate high tenor of bright color. To hear him sing would be to root for him in the Countess’s favors, except that baritone Audun Iversen, in his Lyric debut, makes an equally ardent case as the intensely passionate poet Olivier, whose lines of love the lady so admires.
The bickering of Flamand and Olivier is a high-minded hoot, but they’re just amateurs compared with the world-tested opera producer La Roche (bass Peter Rose), who knows how to “improve” what dreamy composers and librettists create into something that audiences will actually tolerate. Rose is charming and crass, exuding confidence as the very model of a modern impresario with a casting couch, his buffo flexible and accurate all the while.
As a dramatic counterpoint to the Countess’s ménage à trois, there is her brother, the Count, sung by baritone Bo Skovhus, who brilliantly plays the part of a man who cannot act at all, and whose definition of love extends no further than the meaningful quickie. The Count’s interest of the moment is the actress Clairon, with whom he will attempt to saw the air onstage in the furtherance of his cause, and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter does a glamorous send-up of the diva who knows exactly how to manage him while corralling the spotlight. Hers is as delicious as a performance gets.
Add to these abundantly adept artists two amusing pairs of characters who resent their “hired help” status – “Italian” opera singers Juan José De León and Emiliy Birsan, and ballet dancers Jennifer Goodman and Randy Herrera – along with a suite of grumbling servants whose after-party cleanup is one of Strauss’ loveliest strokes of whimsy, and the essential comedy of this opera is in good hands.
Indeed, the melding of music and comedy is at its peak in the opera’s second part, as Lyric stages it. In this latter section there are two irrepressible octets by the main cast, including the Countess, around the central debate of whether music or words — or neither — is paramount in opera. The first is a laughing octet – the group’s guffaws in response to the major domo’s description of his opera plot. Then comes their furious dispute octet, in which a discussion of aesthetics erupts into an eight-voice smackdown over the suitability of ballet and other issues of seeming import. In this physical free-for-all that used pretty much all of the stage, the Marx Brothers are channeled and escape from reality is complete.
Will “Capriccio” ever become a mainstay of today’s opera stage? Hope for it probably lies first with the sopranos who love it. Chief among these today is Fleming, who continues to sing the final scene with that combination of fierce intelligence and luxurious bloom in a voice that is now mature and evolving with age — not quite what is was several years ago at the Met, but still capable of a delivering a performance to treasure. This scene was hypnotically lit by Duane Schuler. The atmosphere glowed as if moonlight, and Jonathan Boen‘s French horn seemed heaven sent.
- Some upcoming performances of “Capriccio” will provide big-screen magnification in the first balcony and upper balcony: Go to lyricopera.org for details.
- Music director Andrew Davis shares a brief “Capriccio” synopsis and excerpts: Listen at lyricopera.org
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreInChicago.com
Tags: Andrew Davis, Anne Sofie von Otter, Audun Iversen, Bo Skovhus, Capriccio, Duane Schuler, Emiliy Birsan, Jennifer Goodman, John Cox, Jonathan Boen, Juan José De León, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Peter McClintock, Peter Rose, Randy Herrera, Renee Fleming, Richard Strauss, William Burden