By Andrew Patner
For Sun-Times Media
June marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of German composer Richard Strauss and last month saw the 65th anniversary of the long-lived man’s death. Commemorations have been odd and spotty as there is no neglect of much of his large orchestral, operatic and song output and his lesser performed works remain chiefly of interest to connoisseurs.
‘CAPRICCIO’ Highly recommended 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
There is also the question of Strauss the man, perhaps as irresolvable as the animating question of the piece Lyric Opera of Chicago has chosen for its salute, “Capriccio” — which comes first in opera, the words or the music? Southern German at his core, Strauss remained in Germany and the annexed Vienna as a wealthy and honored man throughout the Nazi years and World War II, yet despite many foolish statements in praise of his protectors and private comments criticizing them, he was never political, pro or con.
That for his last opera, composed at 78 in 1941, he created “a conversation piece for music” where a gathering of French aristocrats and artists debate and discuss the production of music theater is itself the subject of controversy: Was this Strauss’ way of avoiding patriotic or even nationalistic art? Or was he simply saying to the bourgeois operagoers of Munich and Dresden (where the work was performed in 1942) that all was well in their world and that what really mattered was parlor reflection, both farcical and romantic, on matters of theater performance?
In both Europe and Great Britain it almost has become the norm to present “Capriccio” in the 1940s with heavy reminders of world events around its creation and first performances. Lyric again presents New York’s Metropolitan Opera production (the work’s only other performance here was in 1994), in which original director John Cox moves the setting from just outside late 18th century Paris to the 1920s, a perfect fit with both form and content and a kind of wink at the human capacity to shut out the outside world from one’s own personal concerns and passions.
Strauss wrote much of the libretto himself after he was no longer allowed to work with the Jewish author Stefan Zweig who originally had suggested the story. A widowed young countess, Madeleine, entertains two suitors, the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand each of whom advocates the superiority of his art as well as his affection. Madeleine proposes that the three of them create an opera together. La Roche, the local impresario, is on hand to try to see that through, as are Madeleine’s bullheaded dilettante brother, the Count, a leading actress he fancies, Clairon, a loony pair of La Roche’s dancers and another of his caricatured Italian singers. All are gathered for a real time roundabout of two hours and 20 minutes (just under three hours at Lyric with an inserted, and not unreasonable, intermission).
The scenario can be winning on its own and in Peter McClintock’s revival direction it absolutely is — intelligent, tasteful, funny, serious, and with an animating tension of never over-the-top desire. The score is filled with some of the composer’s most exquisite music and Andrew Davis, always a superb Strauss conductor, and the Lyric Orchestra may have outdone themselves at the Monday opening. From the opening string sextet that drew a hush from the 3,600-seat house through the comic and passionate themes of the narrative to the sounds of principal Jonathan Boen’s horn — the instrument closest to Strauss’ heart — that set off the poignant final minutes of the piece. American designer Robert Perdziola, using the original wall paintings of the late Italian Mauro Pagano and lit by Duane Schuler, provides the wholly right setting. In such a text-heavy work, Francis Rizzo’s excellent supertitles (uncredited) deserve a salute.
But cast is key too. For this second installment in the new Lyric season is the return of supersoprano Renee Fleming to a fully staged operatic role at Lyric for the first time in six years. During that time Fleming, looking to her post-performance career as an impresaria, has been the active and influential creative consultant and a vice president of Lyric. As the Countess, she demonstrates that even at 55 she can use the beauty of her voice to match that of her stage presence and devotion to Strauss’ character.
Fleming would be the first to say that the human voice changes over time, but she marshals all resources, and benefits, too, from a work of crisp German diction and conversational quality. She fully delivers the famed 20-minute solo scene towards the opera’s end and makes it of a piece with all that comes before. Her solo curtain call drew a well-deserved ovation.
British bass Peter Rose offered similar magnetism and example of artistry as La Roche, the impresario both pompous and penetratingly insightful. Before the performance, it was announced he suffered from a throat bug, but he sang on and on unerringly with volume perhaps diminished but little else. Nearly all of Scandinavia was represented with Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen having a fine Lyric debut as the nervous poet Olivier, Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter returning to the company after 25 years and drawing on her esteemed recital career to develop Clairon and Danish baritone Bo Skovhus effectively sputtering as the Count.
American tenor William Burden captured the self-confidence and musicality as the composer Flamand. Young American artists tenor Juan Jose de Leon and soprano Emily Birsan, a Lyric Ryan Center alumna, were well matched as the Italian singing duo. Jennifer Goodman and Randy Herrara, alternating evenings with another pair, were spot-on character dancers, choreographed by Val Caniparoli. Ryan Center men, plus one, made up the servants and had a ball with their fourth-wall-breaking comic commentary on opera, artists and the rich late in the work. Bass-baritone David Govertsen is the haughty Majordomo who discovers tenor Keith Jameson’s wonderfully characterized prompter Monsieur Taupe after he has been forgotten when the guests have departed.
Some contemporary directors have seen this lost little man Taupe as a marked Jew in Nazi Europe. These questions about Strauss and this work come back regardless when one considers that the opera opened in Munich on October 28 1942, the same day as the first transport from Thereseienstadt, the so-called “artists’ show camp,” to Auschwitz. The premiere was under the patronage of Joseph Goebbels. Due to a feud with Strauss, though, the Nazi propaganda chief did not attend.