CapriccioCapriccio was a great pleasure on Friday night, March 4. This was a co-production of Opera Philadelphia and The Curtis Institute, presented in the intimate Pearlman Theater at the Kimmel Center.

Richard Strauss’ last opera, with a libretto by Strauss and the conductor Clemens Krauss, was premiered on March 24, 1942 in Munich. The decision at that time to play the piece in one act was made because the Allied air raids had become so intense that Krauss wanted to be sure audiences could be making their way home before the raids became most lethal, between ten and eleven PM. Sometimes the opera is broken roughly midway, but in Philadelphia, it was done without a break.

The opera can fill a bigger house—it was amusing to see the Curtis Symphony Orchestra packed into the middle sized pit—but the house enhanced the considerable musical pleasures to be had both from their playing and from a good, well-coached cast of young singers.

Richard Strauss’ astounding orchestration, his mastery of color, sonority, the amazing delicacy of many of his effects was heard effortlessly, naturally, without the over pointing and “maestro manipulation” that is typical in larger houses. The opening string sextet was played magically with perfect intonation, wonderful balance in a sophisticated style without sentimentality or mannerism. Throughout solo playing was virtuosic, and the many chamber music-like passages had an almost tactile glow.

Only when playing full out did one have a hint that this was not a mature orchestra used to playing together as a matter of course. The sound did not have an easy blend, and in transitions, it sometimes took a few measures for a new tempo to settle in. But even this had its advantages. This was not the gilded, slick Strauss one hears too often. The complex lines of his amazing counterpoint, lines full of allusions and quotes: Piccinni and his great rival, Gluck, Couperin, Rameau (dismissed for his bad manners in the text), Mozart. Verdi, Wagner’s Meistersinger and Tristan and Strauss himself were always audible and in balance.

Strauss was 76 when the opera premiered and it is consciously a summa of music he had known, loved and lived with over a very long life. Whether the nostalgia that suffuses the opera, its parodies, homages and memories reflect the devastation that had befallen the world he had known from childhood or is simply inevitable in an old man who knows his time is short is one of the puzzles of the work.

Krauss called it a “Conversation Piece” and the story is based on the question of which “comes first” in opera, the words or the music, debated by an arty group assembled by two aristocrats. But Strauss cheats; music is its own ambiguous, elusive language. Words are needed in opera, better they be good and effective words, but music is what makes a great opera live and a composer as phenomenally resourceful as Strauss can tell the story he wants for those who can hear it, regardless of the plot.

The conductor, Timothy Myers was superbly musical in presenting this opera clearly and keeping a tight control on the interaction of singers and players. Only in the astounding fugue was one aware that this was hard work and everyone was more focused on him than on maintaining their characters. That sequence didn’t quite flow as it should, although the clean, well-balanced execution of the complex “number” was much to his and his cast’s credit.

Capriccio is set in a Chateau with a theater attached outside Paris, sometime between 1770 and 1789. It was a time of heated rivalry between German opera with its rich instrumentation and emphasis on dramatic truth, personified by Gluck, who sealed his fame with Iphigénie en Aulide, and the Italian “melodic school” with its emphasis on tunes and voices personified by Niccolò Piccinni. It’s a little odd to think of post-1960s artists arguing over these two—both of whom are cited in the text and quoted in the music. But as with many contemporary productions of this piece the Opera Philadelphia/Curtis presentation was set vaguely in the late 20th century.

There is quite a big cast in Capriccio, but only two roles have huge opportunities. One is the Countess (I saw Heather Stebbins, at the two other performances the role was taken by Kirsten Mackinnon). The Countess’ birthday has brought most of the characters to the chateau which she shares with her brother (The Major Domo and servants are always there and all get wonderful opportunities).

The other great role is the much older, tougher, more cynical impresario, La Roche (Tyler Zimmerman in all performances). They form two sides of the heart of Capriccio: the Impresario from the world of budgets and profits and the pure (artistically) Countess (who doesn’t need to earn a living), loved by both the poet, Olivier (Dogukan Kuran) and the composer, Flamand (Evan Leroy Johnson). She is left with the duty of finding an end to the opera they are going to write as her present.

In her glorious monologue that ends the opera, “Morgen mitag um elf”—given the circumstances under which it was written should one, dare one love this music so much?—she debates what that ending might be and which artist she should love. She doesn’t make up her mind, simply hoping her eventual solution won’t be “trivial.” Leaving aside moral and aesthetic issues it is one of the most stunning and improbably beautiful long monologues for soprano ever written. It also deliberately invokes the Marschallin from Der Rosenkavalier both in its musical rhetoric and its use of a mirror in which The Countess seeks some glimmer of her soul.

Before then she has functioned, amused, as the muse of each artist. She inspires Olivier’s sonnet to her and Flamand’s setting of it, the only gorgeous aria for tenor in all of Richard Strauss, which will form some of the material of her final scene (Mr. Johnson showed a firm, well projected lyric tenor here with some thrust in the ensuing trio). She has also been the perfect model of an aristocratic hostess for the others.

Ms. Stebbins, a handsome, earthy figure, did not quite have the aristocratic poise or hauteur for the earlier duties but in the final scene unleashed a glorious, voluptuous, soaring sound that was stunning. In this theater her voice sounded enormous, with power in reserve, the long lines spun out with a lush, utterly feminine sound that held abundant promise and more than a promise for the future.

Mr. Zimmerman had a difficult problem. La Roche is meant to be much older, wiser and tougher than the others. He shoots down their arguments about opera and their admiration of Gluck, arguing that Italian opera sells better. Like any good impresario he has brought along entertainers for his hosts, a ballerina (meant to be accompanied on stage by violin, cello, harpsichord according to the score, but that was not done here, the instruments were in the pit.)

She dances three pieces by Couperin, delectably arranged by Strauss and later to show up in his Divertimento Op. 86) and two Italian opera singers, greedy and hungry in equal measure (cue Italian opera love duet parody closer to the style of the lovers in Strauss’ Die Schweigsame Frau than an Italian. It was sung with more accuracy than fun by Ashley Milanese and Roy Hage.) Since the Count (Jarrett Ott) likes to “act” as a way of luring young ladies, La Roche has brought along a star, the famous sexpot Clairon (Lauren Eberwein). There was, in fact, a famous actress called Mille. Clairon at the time (christened Claire Legris de Latude), who wrote a lubricious memoir as a way of funding her old age.

La Roche is in equal measure amused and annoyed by the games, the aesthetic jousting, and the preaching of the two inexperienced artists and the cynical Count who allows that he hates opera! The cliché is that the character is based on the great producer Max Reinhardt who had saved Der Rosenkavalier from a disastrous production at its world premiere, but as a Jew had fled the Nazis. Maybe. But the many references to his own operas, some of them joking, suggest this character is based on Strauss himself.

When just before, La Roche has floated grand though somewhat extreme mythical ideas as possible bases for the Countess’ birthday celebration, he is mocked and becomes defensive. One can’t help remember Strauss’ own excursions into mythological themes from Ariadne and Daphne to a work he had just finished, Die Liebe der Danae. In La Roche’s monologue lamenting the public’s preferences for low comedy. Strauss brings in one of the themes associated with the comedians in Ariadne—and indeed, Strauss himself was above all practical, committed to writing music accessible to a large audience, though, given his great fame understandably a bit grandiose now and then.

In his massive ode to the theater (it’s a lot more than an aria) “Hola, ihr Streiter im Apoll” La Roche lectures the others based on a life spent surviving the grubby, disaster-plagued destiny of producing plays and operas. He is quick to rebuke their pretension and unrealistic, self-promoting ambition, he loathes their easy dismissal of the past and what he knows works yet he begs them to create not new postures but new works—works that display “the truth” of actual life—as Strauss had retreated from his great works about monsters, Salome and Elektra, to the more human Der Rosenkavalier. In fact, when La Roche again mentions the many monsters that seem to show up in operas and plays “nowadays,” there are ghostly allusions to works by Richard Strauss!

This is a tremendous set piece and it needs someone who can bring to it age, authority, and grandeur touched by pathos and a passionate love of art. It’s a lot to ask of a young man who looks the same age as all the other young men in the show. Mr. Zimmerman was not helped by the director to find a way to differentiate himself in class or in age from the others and the little physical mannerisms he used were college theater stuff.

And yet he sang with courage. As of now he owns a lovely high-set bass with a beautiful spin to it. He was brought downstage, didn’t force and got his words out clearly and with the right intention. It was not ideal but it was curiously touching and on Friday he got solid applause after the monologue. The role was like a tightrope walk for him—he was now and then in danger of losing his footing but he got across, triumphant.

Ms. Eberwein looked smashing and moved with flair, her attractive light mezzo was perhaps not as biting or present as the role of Clairon needs. She didn’t make enough of her little song breaking up the party where a theme associated with her is colored by two versions of a phrase that usually accompanies the Count—he has won her over.

Capriccio 1Mr. Ott, late of Cold Mountain, though in a much smaller role here, had wonderful flair, command of the stage and a most beautiful sound, though only modest opportunities to use it. The director once again didn’t help him. The Count is surely intended to be cynical, elegant but tough—a masher with impeccable manners. The director played him as a frat boy. Mr. Ott was game enough to go along but managed to sneak just a bit of the right quality in when he and Clairon speak a scene from Olivier’s play.

Mr. Ott had a very good time doing this and understood that he’s really mesmerizing and seducing the cynical actress with the beautiful text ending with the sonnet later set by Flamand (actually a sonnet that Pierre de Ronsard wrote in 1524 found and beautifully translated by Hans Swarowsky, who, considered politically suspect and banished from his job in Berlin, had been saved from the Nazis by Clemens Krauss.)

After the party breaks up there are two scenes before the Countess’ monolog. The servants have their say in a complicated ensemble (Strauss at first had wanted something simpler and cited the chorus of assassins from Verdi’s Macbeth as an example). Krauss wanted to characterize each of the servants, which Strauss thought too elaborate.

A compromise was reached in an engaging ensemble, where different points of view are expressed by individuals. The idea of spending a social evening talking about opera shocks them but then again, maybe they should come up with their own opera, a comedy to rebuke what is sure to result from the two pompous young men besotted with the Countess (to the theme of the Comedians from Ariadne that sneaked into La Roche’s monologue is added a sally from the overture to Rossini L’Italiana in Algeri).

They scatter for their duties and a strange little old man wanders in from the theater. This is the prompter, M. Taupe (French for “mole”) who has fallen asleep during the rehearsal for the play. He is unsure if he is still dreaming, or if this is the play or he has awakened in a new reality. Strauss mutes all the instruments (including those that aren’t usually muted) and uses unequal bar lengths to dramatize the character’s confusion but also to quietly raise a question of how real anything ever is—have we seen a dream, a humble theater worker’s fantasy, or an escape into a reality more reassuring than what appears to be real?

It’s a complete surprise, and under the right circumstances can be eerie, haunting. Here, though, once again a talented young singer, Jamez McCorkle, though shabbily dressed and instructed to shamble around, hadn’t been helped to create a character and the scene fell a bit flat, despite his magnetic presence.

The Major Domo, Thomas Shivone who was correct but blander than the role can be, comforts him and gets him offstage before the Countess appears for her long final meditation.

For all the “student opera” limits this was an intensely rewarding evening. The production was by Chas Rader-Shieber, set and costume design was by Robert Perdziola. Mr. Rader-Shieber had a very interesting idea. The sitting room in the Chateau was very elegant and all white, and most of the characters were dressed in white. Except for a huge mirror at the back, there were no walls, only blacks. Around the periphery of the set were piles of wreckage and ruins.

The idea, I think, was that the aristocrats and their hangers-on are indifferent to the ruins around them, floating above them like angels (already dead, debating a dead art form?). When the prompter comes on in rough 1940’s clothes he’s a reminder of the nightmare underground (prompter’s box equals bomb shelter?) and perhaps he meets not a butler but an angel who will succor him with food—already scarce in Munich when the opera was premiered—and send him on to his reward (for the Major Domo promises transport away from the dark of that coffin the prompter’s box).

However, this wonderful concept was not clearly dramatized. No one acknowledged the wreckage around the perimeter, of course, there was no speech about it or the differences in clothing. One had to guess at this meaning and I might be wrong—though the wreckage was, at least, a “director’s note” about the realities of the time during which the opera was written.

Otherwise, Mr. Rader-Shieber used the stage well, found interesting groupings and kept the various musical set pieces clear. His biggest challenge was getting his performers to stay in character in ensembles when they dropped everything to stare terrified at the conductor.

Anyone who studied music in the 1960’s and 70’s knows that during that time Richard Strauss was widely despised with varying degrees of intensity. If all acknowledged his incredible facility and productivity, they would have used the Countess’ word “trivial” about it. He knew every trick in the book and used those illusions to seduce and fool audiences. The more radical theorists hated Strauss’ conservatism, the use of his music to make war on those who wanted to leave the Nazi era behind with its totalitarian hatred of change and experiment. He was a Nazi sympathizer, in their eyes (and despite latter-day resistance the case can still be made as it is in the very well documented biography Richard Strauss by Matthew Boyden), not only for personal reasons but spiritually, a supplier of gilded, complex monuments to banality.

The great composer Hans Werner Henze hated Strauss’ music. “He lacks all moral force,” he wrote, “even human decency. He was the fraud as a genius.” Henze, who had had to fight for all of his musical training and joined briefly with the Darmstadt School, befriended Pierre Boulez and Bruno Maderna who loathed what Strauss stood for, ultimately found them as Totalitarian in their way as those they hated—and they rejected him when he went public with that insight as a very young composer.

He felt it was an artist’s duty to take political stands when he could and they were serious enough and he did not believe, as the Strauss defenders still do, that talent even greatness in the arts is possible when the artist is indifferent to terrible suffering and injustice in the world.

Strauss wouldn’t have cared. He was interested in his work, status, family and in fame and money. And documents from Hitler to his various Lieutenants show that though the local Nazis where Strauss and his family lived had complained bitterly about the composer and his wife (who was feuding with them) all the highest Nazis spoke well of Strauss—he’d been in touch with them regularly and orders from on high went out to leave him and his family alone.

As the explosion of experimental music in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s petered out, angered a larger public and yielded up no great public heroes, an effort began to rehabilitate Strauss as a person and as a creator.

Alex Ross has argued that the contempt of the radicals was wrong, that with the Four Last Songs, Metamorphosen and Capriccio Strauss had redeemed himself and the variable, often bombastic and sometimes deafening but cynical exercises written from the death of Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1929 to the start of work on Capriccio in the late thirties.

Great fame is like a heavy stone laid over a rat’s nest. Kick it aside and who knows what horrors can be found there? The “Genius” and “Masterwork” cults that grew up after World War Two canonized a lot of people who were not heroes in any sense, and some who were villains. But to experience Capriccio as Opera Philadelphia/Curtis did it is to take a vacation from easy judgment and the mysteries of being human in bad times, and simply be transported into a world where tremendous mastery meets transfiguration. For those two and a half hours we can afford to leave our judgments of people we didn’t know aside and understand that even if it’s fleeting and saves no lives, there is something else and something better.

Photo credit: Cory Weaver