For some opera-goers, Richard Strauss’ final work for the stage, “Capriccio,” is as bubbly and refreshing as the flute of champagne the resplendent Renee Fleming downs at the end of the evening at the Vienna State Opera. For others, it’s a potent sleeping potion. At 78, Strauss knew the work would be his swan song as an opera composer, and decided to pen the text himself with conductor Clemens Kraus. What they came up with is so tightly scripted, so exquisite in its language, so ingenious in its plot, and so magnificently droll it could stand as spoken drama.
Their “conversation piece with music” is centered around six characters — a boorish young Count (hunky Bo Skovhus getting a rare chance to play comedy), his elegant, widowed sister (Fleming, in glorious voice), the actress Clairon (Angelika Kirchschlager, appropriately glamorous but sounding a bit worn), wise old theater director La Roche (Franz Hawlata, scintillating), composer Flamand (Michael Schade, pouring his heart into music for the Countess), and poet Olivier (Ardian Erod, ardently composing a sonnet to win the Countess’ hand).
That group debates the age-old question: Which is more important? Words or music?
For diversion, two Italian singers (bubbly Jane Archibald and elfin Cosmin Ifrim, a head shorter) are presented, showing off the worst cliches of Italian opera.
With an all-star cast gifted in verbal comedy, every brilliant word shines through due to the lithe, clear conducting of Philippe Jordan.
“Capriccio” has three unforgettable numbers, all done to perfection: La Roche’s 10-minute monologue extolling the glory of theater; a great octet in which each character takes his stand; and the Countess’ ravishing final scene in which she looks into her mirror and tries to decide if her lover shall be Olivier or Flamand.
The octet reveals the gimmick of the work: the frustration over boring old operatic pageants yields a desire for something totally new. The Count suggests this very argument could make an opera. At that moment, we realize we are watching an opera about the creation of an opera.
Any snooze potential is shattered by helmer Marco Arturo Marelli’s magical production, perhaps the most beautiful in the company’s repertoire. In addition to his deft direction, Marelli designed panels which revolve and glide on and off the stage to show various locations, from the chateau’s elegant drawing room to La Roche’s red-draped theater to the final coup — the Countess’ silvery music room, covered floor to ceiling in etched crystal and mirrors.
Dagmar Niefind’s stylized period costumes are enough to rival “Sex and the City” (Clairon’s dress has Carrie Bradshaw written all over it).
Strauss and Krauss poke fun at every aspect of the “absurd thing” which is opera, as the Count describes it, but there is great charm, too. When the Countess’ guests depart, a befuddled old man shows up. He is the prompter, Monsieur Taupe (Peter Jelosits in a sweet cameo), who fell asleep during rehearsal and was forgotten by the rest of the company. Like him, we are never quite sure what is theater and what is reality in the world of “Capriccio.”