Cher Public

When I have sung my songs

Soprano Renée Fleming is certainly making the role of the Countess in Richard Strauss’s final opera Capriccio the focus of her late-career years.  After her Met run in 2010, she has made various stops in the role, including this 2013 Wiener Staatsoper production, released by Unitel Classica and directed for video by Brian Large, and she will bring her Countess to Chicago and Dresden in the coming months.  The role certainly suits her natural elegance and charm, and sits well in her current vocal estate. 

But Strauss’ “Conversation piece of an opera”, with its ad nauseam debate about the relative importance of words and music in the operatic art form leaves many an audience cold.  The story feels arch, overly intellectual, and somewhat limited to an audience that actually cares about all the elements that go in to creating great art.  From a human relationship context, it’s rather cold and brittle.  Only in the Countess’ final scene do Strauss and his co-librettist Clemens Krauss make the character into a three-dimensional human being with depth of feeling and real personal needs.

There is great Strauss music in this opera, but I find it mostly confined to orchestral interludes and the aforementioned final scene, where the rapturous music we expect from the mature Strauss finally erupts.  Here in this production directed by Marco Arturo Marelli, the opera’s tendency to fussiness and preciousness is ill served in a fussy, precious production.  Marelli’s sets and lighting, though ravishingly beautiful to the eye, simply reinforce the sense of the opera as a cold, brittle exercise.

Deep blues and décor resembling ice sculptures in the Countess’ salon are great hindrances to finding the humanity of the characters (this would be a great set for The Snow Queen or maybe a stage version of Frozen.)  The great danger here is allowing the Count and Countess to seem rich dilettantes dabbling and slumming with their favorite artists, and this production falls straight into that trap, despite the best efforts of Fleming and Bo Skovhus (The Count) to seem engaged and committed.  The interplay between the brother and sister in this production is sadly cloying and cutesy.

Three singers manage to rise above these concerns.  Michael Schade (as the composer Flamand) and especially Markus Eiche (as the poet Olivier) give impassioned performances both in the words vs. music debate and in their ardent romantic pursuit of the widowed Countess.  Fleming, too, is at her best in the scenes with these two singing actors.  I also was quite pleased by Angelika Kirchschlager’s feisty and fiery, take-no-prisoners approach to the role of the famous tragedienne Clairon.  Here was an actress who knew just what she wanted on and off the stage, and set about to get it.

The veteran Kurt Rydl plays the director LaRoche with too much bluster and not enough heart.  While he did rouse himself for the great monologue where LaRoche defends the traditions of the theatre, in much of the rest he was too much bark and not enough bite, delivered rather wobbily.

A few years back, I reviewed the Met DVD for this site in the 2010 production.  In that review, I found Fleming in good voice but rather remote in characterization.  In the Staatsoper DVD, something of that is reversed.  The voice has lost significant luster and creaminess in the upper range, and occasional lunging for high notes has begun.  The middle voice is still strong.  In this DVD, one gets the feeling that Fleming is “saving up” for her exquisite final scene, and doesn’t give her all until that moment (I had the same feeling about Leontyne Price in her final run of Aïdas, that she was saving up for “O patria mia.”)

I find Fleming’s acting somewhat improved—there is less generalized elegance and more specific reactions to other characters and situations.  But I still have the feeling that she’s crafting facial expressions rather than fully believing in the Countess’ longings and desires.  There is a lack of generosity in Ms. Fleming’s performances.  It’s all there, but she doesn’t seem willing to send it over the footlights.

Conductor Christopher Eschenbach does glorious work in the orchestral passages, but the tempos are languid to the point of distorting phrases during most of the singing.  This video runs 163 minutes.  The Met version ran 149.  While this conducting really brings beauty and clarity and subtle shadings to some particular moments, it harms the overall flow of the score.

  • Patrick Mack

    Leontyne ‘saving up’ in Aida? Oh sacrelige. O blasphemer.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    I’ll long remember my all-Richard Strauss weekend earlier this month when Mrs. DeepSouth was away visiting our grandson. What a wonderful time I had! (For some reason, that didn’t sound exactly right.)

    To start off (with a real bang, for sure!), I listened to the recent Salome with Nina Stemme at the Proms. This must be of the most spectacular live concert performances of any opera, ever. I watched the Blu-ray of Elektra with Theorin, Westbroek, and Meier, and the Met Capriccio with Fleming on Met Opera on Demand. Between operas I heard lots of orchestral music from the classic EMI nine-disc set, Rudolf Kempe conducting. (“Aus Italien” really is something of an embarrassment, isn’t it?)

    I’ve written here before that the April 2011 HD Met Capriccio with Fleming put me in a “mellow mood” for days. Not even Salome or Elektra could shatter it completely. When I especially need musical warmth, gentleness, wistfulness, and solace, I’ll turn to this Capriccio again.

    • uwsinnyc

      Nice review. I agree that Capriccio, for all its beauty, can be a tedious opera to sit through. The final scene is mesmerizing, but it’s too little too late.

      One thing that Fleming has going for her-- and always has-- is that the voice records well. In the house it often sounds (to me at least) underpowered but the creaminess and beauty come through well on CDs and DVDs.

    • John L

      DSS have you listened to the other BBC Proms Strauss operas? You gotta listen to the Elektra with Christine Goerke. If she continues to have good vocal health and sing these kind of roles, I might put her in the same vocal class as Nilsson. I’m still divided on the Ariadne with Karita Matilla. There was some glorious singing though, maybe another listening is needed. I haven’t listened to the Salome yet, but I’ve seen Nina Stemme sing it as a concert performance and she was amazing. That will also have to be another scheduled listening. Not sure who I would have to put on top as Salome: Karita Matilla or Nina Stemme…

  • I actually enjoyed this production. It’s such a stagnant piece that it can be stultifying to watch at times. The continual movement and flow of the set and staging here helped tremendously. Great cast, although I felt that Fleming sounded least successful in the final scene; pretty ragged, actually. Having Olivier and Flamand in a separate time period was an interesting idea, but one that petered out after a while and didn’t amount to much. And can someone explain Little Red Riding Hood to me? Is something tacky a requirement in every production these days?

  • I’ve seen Capriccio on TV thrice (twice the Met telecast and once another one which may have also been with Fleming). I’ll admit that I’ve never been able to sit and pay full attention to it but have rather had on it on whilst doing other things, so my attention has been intermittent. With that caveat, I have to say I find it rather tedious.

    It always seems to me that, insofar as the opera makes the point, music wins out over words hands out. The best parts of the opera are the gorgeous sextet, the orchestral interludes and the final scene which soars because of the music.

    I’m sure, one day I’ll be discerning enough to appreciate the opera fully!

    • “hands down” instead of “hands out”

    • DeepSouthSenior

      I wonder if full appreciation of Capriccio has something to do with one’s age, or even the “biorhythms” of the moment. I wasn’t bored for a moment, nor did my attention wander. Then again, by “a certain age” one becomes easier to please. (That would be maybe three days out of five, in my case.)

      • DeepSouth: FINALLY, I’ve found the opera to save for my old age! LOL

        • Clita del Toro

          Well as I get older, I have less patience and am harder to please.(DUH!)
          I have never been a big fan of Nozze and thought I would in my old age. No such luck. I adore, adore, adore Mozart’s orchestral and other music, but I like his operas less and less. È strano.

          PS I would love to see Schwanewilms in Capriccio!!!!!

      • I love it. Perhaps it’s an old fogey’s work. Fleming sang it in Paris in Carsen’s production (to which, unfortunately, silly additions were made in the video version). I think it suited her better than anything else I’ve seen her in.

  • SF Guy

    My favorite Capriccio on video remains the 1993 SFO production (Te Kanawa, Hagegard, Troyanos, Kuebler, Keenlyside), in which the central triangle generates considerably more heat than usual. It’s on YouTube, complete:

    • Clita del Toro

      Thanks SF Guy. I will watch Kiri’s.

      • perfidia

        I treasure that DVD for Troyanos. To think she was so ill when she did that production. Nobody did tortured boys like her, in my opinion.

  • Clita del Toro

    I will see Capriccio on 6 October. To reacquaint myself with the opera, I watched part of the video from the Met with Renay. I enjoyed the composer and poet section at the beginning (and the music), but when Renay walked in I had to turn it off. Mush-mouthed singing and some scooping + that smarmy personality. I will need some sort of medication to get through the 6 October performance at LOC! ;)

    • CwbyLA

      Clita, alternatively, you could choose not to attend the performance but thanks for letting us know about your masochistic side. :-)

  • Clita del Toro

    LOL Well LA, I do want to see the opera. This will be my first one only chance to see Renay in person as well. Perhaps a few vodkas might help! ;)

    • John L

      I was considering seeing Capriccio and Trovatore at the LOC, but opted for Trovatore and Porgy and Bess. I’ve seen her quite a few times live, in HD, or DVD. Maybe now her affectations have started to annoy me lol.

      • Clita del Toro

        I am doing Capriccio, Anna Bolena, Tannhäuser and The Passenger.

        • John L

          I’ve only been to Chicago once and have never been to the LOC. I hear there are alot of great places to eat there. Between Trovatore and Porgy and Bess, my partner (unwilling opera parter, but very willing culinarian) and I will try to sample as much as possible/feasible during the long weekend.

    • Buster

      You missed it last time the Lyric did it, Clita, with the excellent Felicity Lott? Loved her!

  • Clita del Toro

    I do adore Betty Blackhead’s old recording of the final scene from Capriccio.

    • Bill

      Well Schwarzkopf, della Casa, Watson, Janowitz were masters of this genre and what they had, and Fleming does not, was the ability to enunciate the text
      so that every word could be heard. I have not
      watched this DVD but had attended the premiere
      of this production and several subsequent performancees over a few year period (always wih
      Fleming). The production was interesting --
      perhaps not as stately as the 1960 new production which had Schwarzkopf as the Countess. There is an Orfeo CD of this 1960 production as produced in 1964 with della Casa and an all star cast to supplement the EMI Schwarzkopf and DGG Janowitz CDS. Interestingly Te Kanawa, who did not speak the
      German language, is easier to understand auf
      Deutsch than Fleming was in Vienna even though
      Fleming spent some of her earlier operatic years
      singing and living in Austria. As to the opera,
      I never tire of it, orchestrally it is magical even
      when accompanying the many parlando passages. The opera is not for everyone but this production has
      sold very well in Vienna when it has been done and
      one looks forward to Schwanewilm’s assumption of the role of the Countess -- in which opera house it may be. She, intellectually inclined as an artist, should be magnificent. Here in this Vienna production Skovhus plays the Count as particularly ditsy -- perhaps a bit overdone, but loads of fun
      to experience on stage.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Yes and Schwarzkopf is also superb in the Sawallisch recording. For me she is the best Gräfin on record. Today I would like to hear Schwanewilms and Harteros and until one of them records it for DVD I will wait and listen to my ES and della Casa recordings. No need for Fleming or te Kanawa.

      • Bill

        Fekdmarschallin -- Did you or any of your
        acquaintances ever hear Lilian Sukis sing
        the Capriccio Graefin in Munich -- There is a photo of her in the role by a harp looking ravishing and enchanting. She had a career at the Met some of it in minor parts but moved
        to Munich with some performances in Vienna (premiere Luisa Miller -- her blonde looks absolutely perfect for the Kabale und Liebe role
        at least) and then kind of disappeared from the scene. I just wonder if she was a fine exponent in Capriccio in Munich or more of a fill in when della Casa, who was soon to retire, or Claire Watson were not around. Sukis sang 10 varied roles in Vienna from 1970-1984 but no Richard Strauss at all.

        • Feldmarschallin

          I never heard Sukis but of course know many who have heard her.

      • danpatter

        I love Schwarzkopf in this recording (as well as the earlier Final Scene she recorded). I also love Janowitz singing this music. It may well be music for oldsters, because I didn’t pay the opera much attention until I was about 50. But now it’s one of my favorites. I’ve only seen live performances with Te Kanawa and Fleming, and I really like every minute of the opera. Tomowa-Sintov was glorious on television, I remember.

  • Doctor Octavian

    All this Capriccio talk and no comment about the Salzburg production in the early 90s. The one that introduced me to the work on TV. Yeah, the “time travel” aspect was confusing. No one toned down the Italian singers’ overacting. Theo Adam had but shards of a voice left (though his presence was still riveting). But Tomowa-Sintow, my goodness. Staring with the Vienna Philharmonic oozing out the moonlight music to ATS’s Slavonic gleams in the monologue, the last 15 minutes are just endorphin-producing. For me, anyway.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Well I heard ATS and Popp both in Salzburg but around 1985. Popp also in München in 88. They were both fine but not in the same category as Schwarzkopf. ATS had too much vibrato at that time.

  • Pia Ngere-Liu

    From the title of the thread:

  • RudigerVT

    Oh, my stars and garters, that was astounding. Thank you so much for pointing us to this amazing document.


  • actfive

    Actfive will see TRovatore, Anna Bolena, and Tannhauser at LOC.