sun 23/02/2020

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera

Lively staging, stylish singing and a welcome intrusion of wartime reality

August Schreitmüller's sculpture 'Goodness' surveys Dresden after a firestorm started by Allied bombers in 1945
By far the most uncomfortable – perhaps the only uncomfortable - thing about Richard Strauss’s last opera is the date of its first performance. In October 1942 the battle of El Alamein was raging and the British were bombing German cities while the Munich opera audience were entertained by a rambling disquisition on the respective merits of poetry and music as art forms, set in an eighteenth-century French château. What modern director could resist this provocation? Stephen Medcalf positively draws attention to it in his new staging for Grange Park Opera by transplanting it bodily to – wait for it – 1942, and having the singers arrive in forties gear before climbing into their rococo outfits.
Crude maybe. But the idea has interesting consequences. Capriccio is a costume drama about staginess and artistic effect. At one point, after seemingly endless arguments about words, music and the theatre, Strauss’s heroine, the Countess Madeleine, instructs the participants to collaborate in an opera; and what will the opera be about? Naturally, the scenes we’ve been witnessing – in other words, Capriccio. The apogee of all this meta-play-acting is reached when two of the singers playing the German forties performers dressed as rococo Frenchmen act out a scene-within-the-scene composed by Olivier, Strauss’s poet figure. By the end of a long evening of such stuff, it’s rather a relief when the characters reappear one-by-one in their original wartime clobber, and the Countess delivers her punishing final monologue about art and love in a bombed-out house (designer Francis O’Connor) with a backdrop of Dresden in ruins.
There are different truths about Capriccio. One is that it is simply unendurable. Another is that it was an extraordinary comfort in 1942 to be reminded that there was music as beautiful as Strauss’s and higher things in life than Lancaster or Dornier bombers, just as the men in the trenches in 1917 had read Prufrock to be reminded of toast and tea. I’m somewhere in the middle on this. Strauss (and his librettist, Clemens Krauss) made a mistake, in my opinion, to get bogged down in disputes about prima la musica, dopo le parole – music or words first - when the real core of his music is sensual passion. Capriccio comes to life when the Countess and Olivier, who is in love with her, launch into an emotional exchange allegedly about the composer Flamand’s having set Olivier’s sonnet to music, and in the trio that follows, in which Flamand (also in love with the Countess) sings it. For much of the rest the piece meanders self-indulgently and at length, the old master brooding over past costume romances and soprano aristocrats and operas-within-operas. Strong theatre it rarely is for long.
Lively staging and stylish singing can invigorate it, and Grange Park provides them here. Susan Gritton’s Countess is outstanding. The role has grande dame written all over it, but Gritton plays it with freshness and wit and persuades us that she is, as Flamand raves, young and radiant, though a widow. She has just that silvery sheen on the voice, without edginess, that Strauss seems to have liked in the first Countess, Viorica Ursuleac, and her line is superb until the monologue, where traces of tiredness perhaps show, understandably. Andrew Kennedy’s Flamand and Roderick Williams’s Olivier are likewise nearly faultless, well-observed portraits of characters whose differences reflect more than those of their trades – at least one hopes so.
The third personage in these disputes, the theatre director La Roche, is finely taken by Matthew Best – a suitably raffish figure but majestic to excess, as required, in his big solo about the birth of Athene and the fall of Carthage, musically the most original pages in the score. I also enjoyed very much Sara Fulgoni’s larger-than-life Clairon, the Count of Quirijn de Lang, an interesting and promising young baritone, and the inevitable Italian tenor and soprano, Wynne Evans and Sally Johnson - the most factual image of musicians down the ages, battling for their fees and meanwhile stuffing themselves with cake and sherry.
Stephen Barlow conducts, stylishly enough, though the performance takes time to get into its stride and the playing of the English Chamber Orchestra has its rough edges early on but soon improves. I wonder, also, whether keeping the German text was a helpful decision. Krauss’s libretto is wordy, to put it mildly, and needs to be heard, precisely for reasons that supply one tier of the drama being played out, ironically, in the music.



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