Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Met - Capriccio - 04/19/11

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Andrew Davis
Production: John Cox
Director: Peter McClintock
The Countess: Renée Fleming
Flamand: Joseph Kaiser
Olivier: Russell Braun
La Roche: Peter Rose

The Count: Morten Frank Larsen
Clairon: Sarah Connolly

I guess that it is somehow fitting to have for the last opera of my Met season (Sniff!) the very last opera of Richard Strauss’ career, the lovely Capriccio. Subtitled a “Conversation Piece for Music”, this curiosity leisurely mulls over the respective importance of words and music (and, to a lesser degree, theater) separate and combined for two and a half uninterrupted hours without drawing a final conclusion, therefore leaving this all-important question likely to keep my mind occupied until the beginning of the next season and its new dramas.
As her splendid Marschallin in last season’s Rosenkavalier made crystal clear, Renée Fleming has an innate affinity for Richard Strauss’ œuvre. At the peak of a remarkable career, her wide-ranging experience as America’s favorite soprano now allows her to provide the appropriate amount of weight and relevance to her character’s musings about the mysteries of art, and that sounded almost too good of a timing to be true. The rest of the cast was unknown to me and the name of the conductor did not ring a bell, but that did not matter. Yesterday, I happily braved the inclement weather and the late starting time for yet another new adventure at the Met.

The pace and mood of the evening were quickly established when the performance started with a refined, drawn-out string sextet for an overture, before going on and on as the story unfolded with the studied nonchalance, constant chattiness and understated preciousness of an Eric Rohmer film. Moreover, the fact that the action – if non-stop verbal exchanges can be called action – took place at a château near Paris in the 1920s added an unmistakable touch of aristocratic sophistication and trouble-free luxury. The dilemma between words and music was represented by the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand, both engaged in a friendly competition to win the Countess’ undecided heart. A no-nonsense theater director, La Roche, as well as her brother, an amateur actor, and his new paramour, a stage actress, were thrown in for good measure and readily joined in the on-going debate, which was occasionally disrupted by ballet or vocal numbers.
The whole production revolved, of course, around a luminous Renée Fleming who effortlessly graced the stage from almost beginning to end. Whether in a beautifully unfussy dress contouring her voluptuous curves or a sparkling outfit straight out of a Las Vegas closet, she reigned supreme and provided the perfect catalyst for the continuous elevated brain-storming. Her voice sounded ideally suited for the Countess’ subtle but insightful conversational singing, and she admirably nailed her final monologue, a magnificent showcase for the many possibilities of her soprano voice.
Her two suitors were two fine young men, indeed, if not without faults. Baritone Russell Braun was a humorless, brooding poet while tenor Joseph Kaiser made for a spontaneous, hot-blooded composer. Baritone Morten Frank Larsen was a dashing young Count and the object of his desire, mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, exuded all the star power of a real tragédienne. Last, but no least, bass Peter Rose was a powerful voice of reason in the form of the theater director who would rather diligently work on putting on his show than indulge in rethorical aesthetic reflections.
The set was the richly decorated salon of the Countess and contained all the expected amenities, including an impressive army of servants, who would eventually provide the one truly amusing interlude of the whole opera. The costumes were just as sumptuous and one more indication of the luxurious world in which the characters evolved.
The music was often as light as a summer breeze (Is it really the same composer that gave us Elektra?!), but still solidly supported the constant chatter and occasional outburst of actual singing, such as the traditional Italian duet. When the action (or lack thereof) dragged on, it was easy to become lulled by the polished sounds coming from the orchestra and the steady conversations coming from the stage. Another case in point that, as the Countess ultimately finds out, there is no ready answer to the central question. So the performance, the opera, Strauss' career and my Met season quietly ended as the major-domo delicately put out the last candle.

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