Capriccio - Opera by Richard Strauss

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
A co-production by Cologne Opera and Edinburgh International Festival
Gabriel Fontana (Countess); Ashley Holland (Count); Hauke Moller (Flamand); Johannes Beck (Olivier); Michael Eder (La Roche); Dalia Schaechter (Clairon); Johannes Preissinger (Monsieur Taupe); Katherine Leyhe (Italian Soprano);Ray M. Wade jr (Italian Tenor) Ulrich Hielscher (Major Domo); Luise Sancho Escanero(Dancer); Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne, Markus Stenz (Conductor); Christian von Gotz (Director)

It is to be hoped that opera companies in general do not adopt this spurious practice of billing a new production of a well-seasoned work as a World Premiere. Especially in cases like this when the extent of the new production is solely to introduce confusing non-Strauss additions to the staging.

The pre-performance hype led the festival-goer to expect a production that placed the opera firmly in the time of composition -- wartime Nazi Germany far removed from the courtly belle epoque France of the libretto.

Admittedly, the opening front of stage gauze of Nazi troops entering Paris was thought-provoking. But the tableau during the overture of an obviously unsavoury character supplying official documents in return for jewels was meaningless. Equally inapt was the entry of sinister threatening black-leather coated characters, who doffed their coats to change into period costumes as servants.

Strauss's own concept -- and we must remember that the libretto was largely his own workand his own words -- was of an opera comedy about the making of an opera, dwelling on the perennial problem of the relative importance of music or words.

Sometimes there is a real problem here. Strauss did not resolve it, though the music in Capriccio was of much higher quality than the words and it would seem that it the on-stage exchanges between Flamand and Olivier, the musician also had the better words.

It has to be said too that the comedy element in this production veered towards pantomime, an impression heightened by the costumes of Olivier and Flamand.

The pity of it all is that the music of Capriccio tops much of Strauss's earlier work.

"The music at the end of the first act was beautiful," was one enthusiastic comment as both cast and audience took a break. The gist of it was heard repeatedly.

The plot of the opera is relatively simply and originates with the "First the music, then the words" theme of the Salieri opera heard in the Usher Hall earlier in the festival.

Gabriele Fontana
© Klaus Lefebvre

An opera is being written for the widowed Countess (Gabriele Fontana) in a chateau near Paris. The maestro Flamand ( Hauke Moller) and poet Olivier (Johannes Beck) are enamoured of the countess and hope also to secure primacy for their work. -- their early trio is one musical highlight of the opera.

Things are complicated by the impresario La Roche (Michael Eder) who maintains that the most important thing is a magnificent production ( "Good or bad, the text is unimportant, no-one can understand it anyway") and introduces an Italian tenor, soprano and dancer to make his point. A further complication is the countess's brother the Count (Ashley Holland) and the actress Clairon ( Dalia Schaechter). She scoffs at the whole affair and the Count departs suddenly with her to Paris, leaving the Countess to fend for herself.

The interplay of these disparate characters makes a complicated scenario with both dramatic and
comedic elements. Not least in the pastiche vocal performances of the Italian singers and subsequent antics.

In the end, Gabriele Fontana salvages the production with a coruscating but desperately sad final
monologue. For more than a quarter of an hour she holds the stage, musing over the poet's sonnet and Flamand's musical setting of it. Eventually she realises that choosing either the poet or composer means losing the other. And as for an ending to the opera -- Is there anything that isn't trivial?

Markus Stenz handled the notoriously intricate score expertly, extracting rich tones from the Gürzenich Orchestra.

A puzzling evening.

The attempt to place and explain the opera in the context of its 1942 Munich wartime premiere was confusing rather than explanatory. It was insufficiently explicit to add clarity and detracted from the musical excellence of the composer's last opera.

"I was wondering all night when the Gestapo influence would become clear," said one departing man.

Concert Date 28 August 2007

© Iain Gilmour August 31, 2007 First published on