‘Capriccio’ remains a labor of love for Renee Fleming

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There are no deaths by consumption, no leaps off a parapet or no betrayals by villainous lovers. Indeed, high drama is all but absent in “Capriccio,” a 1942 opera by Richard Strauss that the composer called a “conversation piece for music.”

But if this work does not fit certain typical notions of opera and has not gained the fame of some of the German composer’s earlier works, it holds a charm and sophistication that has kept it in the repertory and made it a favorite of leading sopranos such as Kiri Te Kanawa.

Few people have done more to champion “Capriccio” in recent decades than celebrated soprano Renee Fleming and conductor Andrew Davis, who were instrumental in securing a place for it on Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2014-15 season. The company’s production, which showcases the two, opens Monday with six additional performances through Oct. 28.

“It’s a very special piece,” said Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, who will take on the central role of the young, widowed Countess Madeleine, who has two suitors competing for her favor — the composer Flamand (tenor William Burden) and the poet Olivier (baritone Audun Iversen). As the two gather at her home to celebrate her birthday along with a group that includes the director La Roche (bass Peter Rose) and the actress (mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter), an extended discussion unfolds about which is more important in opera — words or music.

“One is moved to one’s surprise by the whole idea of it,” said Davis, Lyric’s music director. “What is opera? It’s this magical fusion of all the things, and I think that is the conclusion we are supposed to draw at the end. The words aren’t more important and the music is not more important. It’s everything.”

Davis and Fleming both feel a close bond to “Capriccio.” It was the first opera Davis conducted — a 1973 production at Great Britains’s esteemed Glyndebourne Festival. And Fleming discovered it by chance when she traveled to Germany in the 1980s on a Fulbright scholarship and bought a $4 student ticket to the Frankfurt Opera, returning to see the opera at least three more times.

“Their particular student set-up was that you got whatever ticket was left,” Fleming said,” so half the time it was in the fourth-row center. The soprano was beautiful, and the final scene just absolutely made me dream of doing that role some day.”

‘CAPRICCIO’ WHEN: Oct. 6-28 WHERE: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House, 20 N. Upper Wacker TICKETS: $39-$249 INFO: (312) 827-5600; lyricopera.org ‘WORDS OR MUSIC,’ Discussion, Soprano Renee Fleming and Poet Mark Strand WHEN: 7 p.m. Tuesday WHERE: Poetry Foundation, 61 W. Superior TICKETS: Free, but seating is limited INFO: (312) 787-7070; poetryfoundation.org MASTERCLASS, Soprano Renee Fleming WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Oct. 27 WHERE: Northwestern University, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston TICKETS: $10 INFO: (847) 467-4000; pickstaiger.org

Fleming first appeared as the Countess in a 2004 production at the Opera National de Paris (also featuring von Otter), and she has performed it with many companies around the world since, including a well-received 2011 production at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with Davis in the pit.

“This is one of her signature roles, because of the glorious quality of the voice,” Davis said. “And she is quite subtle actress, too. She brings wonderful nuance to the little dilemmas of the part.”

The soprano, a frequent exponent of Strauss, said that her extensive experience as the Countess has strengthened her performance of the character. “This piece is as much about how you listen to the other people onstage,” Fleming said. “That’s a crucial piece of it that takes experience and time to get, even more than how you sing it — the final scene aside. Just finding the acting moments — filling every second.”

“Capriccio” was Strauss’ final opera and Davis, like many other experts, sees it as summation of everything the composer did in his career. It contains a similar wit to Strauss’ popular symphonic poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” he said, and some of the same striking writing for the horns and woodwinds as can be found in some of his instrumental works for those instruments.


VIDEO: Watch Renee Fleming in the final scene from Strauss’s “Capriccio” from the 2008-09 season opening night gala at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

It also deals with difficult resolutions of personal relationships like Strauss’ opera “Arabella,” the conductor said, and perhaps most important, it displays the composer’s affinity for the soprano voice, which can be found across his operatic output, especially in “Der Rosenkavalier.”

“The final scene is one of the most glorious monologues ever composed for the soprano voice,” Fleming said of the conclusion of “Capriccio.” “That’s why I love it.”

The soprano acknowledges that Strauss’ operatic reflection on words and music will never have the mainstream appeal of many better-known works in the form. “This isn’t ‘Carmen,’” she said. “This isn’t for everybody.”

But she urges audience members to take a chance on this rarely produced work (it was only done one other time at Lyric in 1994). “It’s never dull,” Fleming said. “There is a lot of activity in this piece. It’s not a stand-and-sing opera at all. It’s just that it’s more conversational. It’s very much like Noel Coward. It’s that kind of smart, sophisticated conversation — a type of conversation that a lot of us long for.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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