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Friday 29 April 2011

Capriccio Met Opera Broadcast review

Metropolitan Opera House broadcast

There has been a very large hiatus since my last blog post, unintentional, but caused by my extreme busyness in the last few weeks. Reviews of Fidelio and the Tsar's Bride at the ROH hardly seem worth publishing in full, but I'll post a few thoughts in the future for the sake of completeness.

I had originally also planned to produce a series of posts on the complete operatic oeuvre of Strauss in preparation for this broadcast of Capriccio, and although most are almost finished, I didn't quite manage them on time - they'll be coming soon no doubt.

Capriccio is in my opinion Strauss most perfect opera, and as is suggested by my namesake, is held very dear to my heart. In some ways it's my favourite opera of all, and its gradual ascension into the fringes of the canon fills me with great joy. The fact that it has been presented in a Metropolitan Opera broadcast is further indication of its rising status.

Now I must confess that this was my first Met broadcast experience, and on the whole it was not a good one. Throughout the entire thing the sound was extremely muffled and quiet, which I blame the cinema for, and the transmission went awry several times during the glorious final scene, which I think is the fault of the Met. I'm seeing Die Walkure in mid May at the Barbican, so we'll see how that fares, but I'm now wary of the whole thing, where before I was wildly enthusiastic. For me it's clear that this is (or could be, or should be) the future of increasing opera's appeal and winning new audiences, rather than trying to make opera ticket prices less expensive, or mounting operas with self consciously tawdry "modern" themes.

I don't like this production by John Cox. The same set (by Mauro Pagano) has been presented in crinolines, notably with Kiri as countess, and with updated furniture and costumes several times - again with Te Kanawa at the Royal Opera house in the mid 90s, and here at the Met with the costumes again changed (this time the decor and costumes by Robert Perdziola). The whole thing is quite unimaginatively done, doing no more or less than what is in the libretto - characters just walk on and off, with little thought for how the thing will look on stage. In this opera, the Countess Madeleine has to be the focus of the production for the piece to make sense, and this means looking the part too - there has to be a reason that she arouses such excitement in the poet and composer. Unfortunately Fleming's dress, makeup and hair all conspired to look extremely unflattering and partly because of this, and partly because of the poor direction, she hardly seemed to register as the central figure of the action until the last scene, where it was all too late. This was an instance where one realises how important costumes (combined of course as good direction) actually are in opera. Compare this with Carsen's production where everything is just right in this regard - Fleming looking extremely beautiful here and being the firm focus of the action (the direction, while superficially similar, is also much better. The only thing that mars the Carsen production, and it's a big fault, is the horrible treatment of the final scene.)

Other things that grated were the pointless cuts - pointless because they hardly shortened the the thing, and annoying because what was cut was so crucial - first the discussion about the theme of the opera that they are going to write - The Count's felicitous suggestion comes far too soon, and hardly registers as the theatrical masterstroke that it is. Little cuts in La Roche's speech (it's meant to drag!), and the discussion of the opera after the counts suggestion again cut out further beauties, whilst hardly shortening it - Strauss' dramatic pacing is perfect here, and meddling with it because you don't know how to direct it is death. It also irked me that they changed the libretto (something which I've never heard of before) to fit with the updating as the Count leaves with Clairon - they're meant to talk about horses, and she said she is awaiting at least six (a possible sexual pun here), but instead a coupe and a limousine are mentioned. This last point is minor in some ways, but I'm sure will have annoyed many devotees of this work.

Renée Fleming is the world's reigning Strauss soprano. Twelve years ago she recorded what is to me the most gloriously beautiful and intelligently sung recital of Strauss excerpts on disc. The Marschallin's monologue on that CD is not only radiantly beautiful but has an intelligence and sensitivity to the text matched only by Schwarzkopf. The luxuriantly schmaltzy duet for the sisters in Arabella is sumptuous, and then the last excerpt, the final monologue scene from Capriccio is the most ravishing of all, the finest account of this scene on record, both in the breathtaking singing, and the peerless beauty of the Vienna Philharmonic under Eschenbach.

It's fair to say then that I am a Fleming fan. In fact she is unequivocally my favourite singer. How has the voice fared since that CD then? Fleming is now 52, and while the voice still is remarkable for her age, there are unmistakable signs of decline in the voice. This completely to be expected for a soprano of her age, and there are without question several years of very healthy singing ahead of her (plus two new Strauss roles - Christine from intermezzo, and the long promised Ariadne. More on these later) I won't go too much into this, as I want to do an overview of her career in a separate post. Her acting on this occasion didn't really do it for me, strange since it's so much better in her Carsen DVD performance. Bad direction? It was just too OTT and camp. That was a theme of the whole thing actually - for Capriccio to succeed, it cannot be a camp indulgence, but that is exactly how the Met presented it and as a result the whole thing was curiously uninvolving.

Joseph Kaiser's Flamand was a bit rough around the edges for my liking, and completely overacted (this is a subtle piece. Subtle!), though he delivered some quite considerable goods in his ardent monologue in praise of the Countess. Olivier, played by Russell Braun, was rarely anything but brooding and discontented, and again whether this was poor direction, or poor acting choices, is hard to say. This is always a risk in Capriccio, because although the Countess doesn't officially come to a decision at the end, Strauss hints at her choice of the composer in several ways (more on this in another post). If these hints aren't subtle, and she clearly is far more interested in the composer than the poet, as here, the central metaphor doesn't hold up, the little drama that there is falls flat, and the final scene makes no sense. Another major problem.

Morten Frank Larsen was a decent count, but largely unremarkable. La Roche was well played and sung by Peter Rose, and oddly became the centre of the action. Very good though he was, what was strange was that Olivier, a baritone, had a darker tone quality to his voice than La Roche, a bass, which really didn't work in terms of the roles they were meant to be playing, and the operatic conventions that Strauss is so clearly playing with. Real miscasting this. Sarah Connolly as the actress Clairon was again decent, but the comedy somehow failed to catch light - and Connolly really is a good actress, so one strongly suspects that this was the poor direction again.

The vignettes were mostly nicely done, even if the whole didn't flow like it was meant to. The scene with the ballet dancer was beautiful, and then the Italian singers duet was lovely, but seemed irrelevant, because the other characters were hardly seen reacting to them. The farewells were again badly handled in the direction (the countess here again clearly favouring Flamand). The scene with the servants, another joy of this opera, was brilliantly executed in its semi-choreography and humour. Unfortunately, the even more delightful following scene with the prompter was marred by the Bernard Fitch's complete lack of voice - the Met should maybe note that the fach "character tenor" still has the word tenor in it.

The orchestra under Andrew Davis was on absolutely magnificent form - I really have never heard this score played better - beautifully shaded, the details coming out wonderfully, and such warmth too. Occasionally a few of the orchestral "jokes" were smoothed over, but this is caviling. There was one excruciating horn flub in the exquisite horn melody that introduces the final scene - I wonder if they'll correct this if this performance ends up on DVD?

So an unsatisfying performance. What really emerged triumphant against the dull staging and poor acting, was the magnificence of the music: it's wit, intelligence and perfect, muted beauty. I couldn't help but fall in love with the piece again.

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