Richard Strauss’ 1942 conversation-piece opera Capriccio skates along on a fine line between a fascinating idea-driven debate about the purpose of art in the wider world and a rather fussy narrow debate about text and music interesting only to those interested in opera as theatre. 

The Met’s HD production, now available on DVD, has moments of both sides of that line.

The opera is set on the eve of the birthday of the Countess Madeleine, who with her brother the Count are wealthy patrons of the art of the stage.  The widowed Countess is passionately wooed by both the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand, desperately trying to gain advantage by extolling (at length) the virtues of text vs. music. 

Also in attendance is the theatre director LaRoche, who brings a practical, audience-pleasing viewpoint to the proceedings and demands “flesh and blood characters” to populate the stage.  The famous tragedienne Clairon enlivens the proceedings and gains the affection of the Count, who fancies himself an actor as well.  Boisterous Italian singers and ballet artists also perform.

But the central issue of the piece, infused with some of Strauss’ most lush and moving music, is the fundamental, unsolvable question suggested by Salieri’s 1786 comedy Prima la musica, e poi le parole: which is more important, words or music.

Director John Cox has sought to enhance this rather static operatic conversation by moving the setting to 1920’sParis.  This works very well in terms of the production’s look—the set and costumes are quite elegant and beautiful—but also causes some odd disconnects.  Cox has chosen not to change any of the eighteenth century references, and they are indeed jarring.  Instead of referencing composers of the time, Cox stays with the references to Gluck, Lully, and Rameau; perhaps the most jarring is LaRoche’s line “I met old Goldoni in a café the other day.”  Has he a Time Machine?

In his director’s notes, Cox says he wants to avoid that “So often with Capriccio, one gets the impression of a group of silk and satin dilettantes idling their way affectedly through a vacuous afternoon;” he seeks to please LaRoche’s desire to populate the stage with “creatures of flesh and blood.”  Unfortunately, the DVD performance seems vacuous indeed; only in moments of high passion do we feel very much for these artists and their patrons.  The words/music debate grows wearying, the performances grow increasingly precious and cloying, and the great heart needed at the center to make this opera work is simply not there.

The male performers carry the day here.  Joseph Kaiser gives the finest vocal and histrionic performance I have seen from him as the composer Flamand, passionate and desperate in his love for Madeleine and in his desire to create great music.

Russell Braun as the poet Olivier hasn’t Kaiser’s multi-faceted character work, but he comes into his own with a vivid and exciting declamation of the love poem he has written to the Countess.  Peter Rose as the director LaRoche commands the stage with power and grace; his aria defending the needs of the theatre is splendid.  There is also a very fine cameo as the Major-Domo from the veteran Michael Devlin, whose deadpan approach is perfect.  Morgan Frank Larsen is charming and amusing as the love-struck Count.

Sarah Connolly as the tragedienne Clairon scores with her haughty attitude and lusty demeanor, but she seems a bit frumpy and matronly in the role.

This brings us to the Countess of Renée Fleming. This has been a signature role of hers for quite some time, and it must be said that she is still capable of absolutely ravishing singing.  Much of the creamy tone is still present (especially in the middle voice), though a little acid has entered her upper register of late.  Her command of the Strauss line remains superb.  She looks glamorous and stylish in her blue and silver gowns.

But something is missing: dramatic involvement and real heart and vulnerability.  Fleming spends much of the conversational part of the opera playing a rather vague and general quality of elegance; nothing seems to be going on behind her eyes.  I expect her performance looked better in the house, but on HD all her expressions and gestures seemed calculated and manufactured, as if to say “this is what it would look like if I was really feeling something.”

She rarely looks at her colleagues in conversation; she attempts to convey emotion by hands-on-face or hands-on chest, but on HD it is utterly clear that there’s nobody at home.  And because of this, the opera seems trivial and affected.  Even in the wonderful final scene, the Countess’ showcase, she cannot seem to rouse herself to real passion or honest emotion.  It’s a shame—Fleming remains an important artist but for whatever reason, dramatic involvement seems to have left the building.

There are a number of delights in this production—the ballet dancers are hilarious as are Barry Banks and Olga Makarina as the Italian singers who eat their way through the evening.  But one leaves the DVD with only a sense of emptiness and artifice, wondering what might have been.

Happily, Sir Andrew Davis leads a spirited performance by the Met Orchestra in this unusually lush score.  If only the performance had matched the shimmering delicacy and frenzied climaxes of Strauss’ complex music.

[Henson Keys is the critic formerly known as actfive.]