Friday, April 15, 2011

One Man's Caprice - Capriccio at the Met

Merriam Webster defines “caprice” as something sudden, impulsive, unmotivated and unpredictable. Does Strauss’ cleverly thought out, well-reasoned and predictable opera named “Capriccio” meet those criteria? Not! Better they should have stuck with the title “Prima la musica, poi le parole”. What we have here is a slightly dramatized aesthetic debate being held among allegorical characters, each representing a different aspect of the art form we call opera. It takes place during The Enlightenment with references made to Gluck’s stripped down modernity replacing The Baroque. Here we have eight characters in search of a grinding-stone for their axes.

First we have the charming young composer Flamand, perfectly cast and sung by the appealing tenor Joseph Kaiser; next we have the poet Olivier sung by the warm-voiced Russell Braun; both men are vying for the affections of the Countess. We have the charming Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen debuting at the Met in the role of the entertainment loving brother of the Countess and we have the always lovely Renee Fleming in a role she is deliciously suited to--that of the Countess herself who is being fought over by the composer and the poet. The British mezzo Sarah Connolly perfectly overplays the part of a famous actress; Olga Makarina and Barry Banks represent the forces of the vocal talent, and powerful English bass Peter Rose takes the part of the impresario who brings everyone together and, as he points out in his prolonged aria, without whom the show could not go on. Oh, and I almost forgot number nine, the prompter, sung by Bernard Fitch. There are also two non-singing dancers to argue their case terpsichorialy. All very formulaic, no?

Unlike other Strauss operas, the massive forces of the orchestra, skilfully conducted by Andrew Davis, are here used almost as a chamber group. There is lots of talk, yes, lots of talk with music but not OF the music. There are a few highlights, one being the composer’s setting of the poet’s sonnet which demonstrates the richness music can add to words, in spite of the poet’s belief that his sonnet has been ruined.

Another highlight is the Impressario’s long aria with his rather convincing argument for what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk; no one art can claim opera as its exclusive province. We need the music, the singers, the librettist, the acting ability, and--WHOA--what is left out here??? No character represent the set designer which in the case of this production deserves much credit for recreating a lavish European drawing room in 18th c. style. Updating this opera to the period entre les deux guerres is a mistake, especially with all the chat about the modernity of Gluck’s music.

Another highlight occurs at the end of the opera when Ms. Fleming sings a beautiful aria about her indecision in choice of a lover. She appears to be accompanying herself on the harp and this is beautifully done. But there are these longueurs in Strauss’ final opera--too much argument and not enough story to hold one’s interest. Too much allegory and not enough flesh on the characters’ bones. No wonder it is not often performed.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

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