What a gift. I was beginning to wonder whether Strauss' final and most perfect opera Capriccio simply was too rarely put on and too demanding in live performance for it to be likely that I'd ever see a really good one, but this was great. I was astonished to discover that the ROH has staged the opera fully only once - that was in 1991 with Kiri Te Kanawa. (In 1953 the Bavarian state opera came with a visiting production). This evening was a "concert performance" but it verged heavily towards "semi-staged" - Fleming and Skovhus, both of whom have done the opera many times, sang without music, and there was plenty of moving around and interaction from everyone. In fact it was an object lesson in how little has to happen for an opera to feel like it is being dramatically (rather than just musically) realised. It's probably my favourite opera so it's hard to be objective about how effective the set up was, but its cherished status for me means that it's also easy to be critical and I must say I was riveted and entertained throughout, which is more than I can say for some productions I've seen of the piece. How revealing to have Strauss' music for stage and scenery, with much of the action in the minds eye. Strauss gives us it all in his wondrous score which (as with all his operas) is so rich and detailed that it actually can become a challenge to stage.
The ROH used their "Royal Festival Hall" concert shell, with the orchestra on stage, the singers in front, and conductor Andrew Davis amongst the singers, a considerable distance from the orchestral musicians (many of whom weren't facing him as a result.) The concert shell does wonders for the ROH acoustic, at least for the front stalls where the sound can be poorly balanced and muffled. The ROH orchestra with Davis made for an interesting comparison with the Wiener Staatsoper orchestra (ostensibly the Vienna Philharmonic) and Christoph Eschenbach who I saw doing the piece last month (also with Fleming - see my review here). Individually, the playing of the ROH orchestra was sometimes questionable - the opening string sextet had some ropey moments (the offstage sextet sounded magnificent though!) and the gorgeous horn solo that introduces the famous final scene was hesitant and contained at least one crack - but overall this was by far the more convincing performance. The orchestral sonorities were more beautifully and warmly achieved, the underlying flow and momentum that links the fragmentary orchestral writing more convincing here, and the chiaroscuro contrasts of texture were more ably handled by Davis and his orchestra. Davis has a superb measure of the score, and conducts it with obvious love and affection - there were things in the orchestration that I'd never noticed before, and the vocal octets were more brilliantly performed than I have ever heard them before. The pacing always felt right and throughout the words were fully understandable from all - all in all then a superb ensemble achievement, niggles aside.
Renée Fleming did some wonderful things as the Countess Madeleine, proving she still has the goods when it counts. In Vienna last month she sang much better than she did here however - the line was firmer and purer, the text not so exaggerated. It is a common criticism of Fleming that she overinflects the text, and uses expressive portamentos to excess. As a Fleming fan (to put it mildly), these things have never bothered me in the past because the legato is so utterly flawless and in such perfect equipoise with the diction, the basic sound extremely firm and well supported, the phrasing pliant and sensitive, and the text so beautifully coloured by the voice. It's a voice I know supremely well, and here, I sadly felt that she was overcompensating for a slight loss of control that must be disconcerting for her - the scoops were often very extreme, even becoming yelps at times, especially in the more conversational moments where the line is harder to maintain, and sometimes the word stresses became so emphatic that the line was distorted. But then she'd whip out the trademark legato for one of the extended arioso moments and we'd hear the Fleming that we know and love from her recordings. In the final scene, she came on "dressed for dinner" in her Vivienne Westwood sequinned gown, now with a massive gold and silver overcoat, and we got her best singing of the evening - the huge dramatic outpourings which follow the recapitulated sonnet soared with powerful abandon, and the floating pianissimos of her final few phrases were magically dispatched. Fleming can be a very moving actress, but left to her own devices without a director her acting here felt unfocussed and even hammy - lots of pouting, posing questioningly with the sonnet, arm shaking, and the like. Again, she was at her most moving when she opted to do less, simply letting the music flow through her and naturally illuminate her expressions.
Christian Gerhaher was an almost perfect Olivier - I simply cannot think of a currently active singer who could be more ideal for this role. His precision and extraordinary way with the text is totally fitting for the character, but the beautifully balanced timbre and wonderful legato mean that Strauss' music is also fully served. It's a much bigger voice than I remember hearing when he did Wolfram in Tannhauser here back in 2010. Bizarrely and almost amusingly he totally muddled up the words for the sonnet when he was addressing Fleming in plain speech, but even before he went wrong, I thought his delivery of this spoken text wasn't quite heartfelt enough - the only weak part of an otherwise superb vocal assumption of the role. His head was mostly quite buried in the score, so I wonder if this was his first performance of the part?
Andrew Staples, standing in for an indisposed Joseph Kaiser, made an excellent Flamand. His pointing of the text was not quite as nuanced or touching as Gerhaher's but his vocal contribution never felt out of place next to his stellar colleagues, and his beautiful scene in praise of Madeleine was sung with Mozartian clarity and refinement but with Straussian surge when the music asked for it. The timbre is not the most distinctive, or at least not yet, but it is nevertheless very pleasing. A very fine showing for a very fine young singer. Peter Rose was an equally excellent La Roche. It's not the biggest or juiciest bass voice, but his German is excellent, he "gets" the role fully, is funny without buffoonery, and his legato is very good. He seemed to tire a bit towards the end of his climactic speech, but this was another very pleasing performance.
Christine Rice was in such beautiful voice in her recent Minotaur appearances that I was quite sad about her having to cancel these performances of Clairon due to a quite serious illness. I hope she gets better very soon. Her replacement Tanja Ariane Baumgartner made more of this role musically than one might have expected in what is traditionally seen as an actress's role (Strauss makes sure she could never musically upstage his heroine, just as he had with Zdenka/Arabella a decade before). She has a dark coloured mezzo voice that contrasted very nicely with Fleming's silvery soprano, and meant they were never "in competition" as sometimes can seem the case. Bo Skovhus sounded better here than he had in Vienna, less gruff and with a fuller tone, and though arguably the role doesn't require, or even shouldn't be cast with a beautiful voice, the voice is sounding quite hardened and monochrome at this stage, and Skovhus was never the most finessed singer. That said, this wasn't a bad performance, certainly not a disservice to the role. Barry Banks and Mary Plazas made a good pair of Italian singers, Banks being particularly impressive. The female singer is almost always cast with a very light voice, as here, and I never quite know why, because the first entry sits very low for a long time, and the coloratura requirements are hardly demanding.
There's a small but painful cut which the ROH, Vienna and the Met all practise, coming just before the Count suggests his brilliant solution to the other characters' quandary as to what subject to make into an opera. It always jars, because the Counts suggestion simply comes out of the air, and not from the discussion, and so seems out of character for such a professed opera sceptic. Am I the only one that misses this part? Probably.
All in all, a very satisfying evening and a wonderful close to the ROH season. I will (obviously) be at the next performance as well, so will report back on that if I have more to say.