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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Opera Review: First the Words, then the Diva

Renée Fleming Reigns as the Met revives Capriccio.


Renée Fleming as the Countess in Capriccio at the Met, 2008.
(No, that's not the dress she wore last night.)
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 Metropolitan Opera
The first-ever revival of Capriccio at the Metropolitan Opera bowed on Monday night. This is a connoisseur's opera, heard only when a prima donna decides to tackle its length and difficult mix of witty dialogue and all-out soprano singing. Right now, Renée Fleming is that diva. On Monday night, she reigned supreme as the Countess Madeleine.

In just the seventh performance of this work in the company's history, Ms. Fleming brought intelligence and candor to the complex, ambiguous role of the Countess. Her voice isn't quite as golden as it once was, but she still sings Strauss with a burnished sheen and an intelligence of articulation that has become the trademark of her later career.

She was surrounded by a strong ensemble cast, and expertly accompanied by the Met orchestra, led by Sir Andrew Davis. Mention must also be made of the string players and chamber musicians who populated the Countess' salon throughout the opera.

If operas are meals, Capriccio might best be described as an exotic, rarely consumed dessert. It is Strauss' final opera, written in the midst of World War II. Amidst the horrors of Nazi Germany, the composer and his friend, conductor-turned-librettist Clemens Krauss found comfort in constructing a complex work that looks back to the days of Mozart to answer a series of intellectual questions about opera. The most important of these forms the work's plot: Which is more important? Words, or music?

The Countess represents the center of this debate, a widowed woman torn between her love for the composer Flamand (Joseph Kaiser) and the poet Olivier (Russell Braun). Judging from this performance, Mr. Kaiser won the contest with a pure, clear tone and a vivid characterization of the ardent composer. Mr. Braun, who excelled earlier this season as Chou En-Lai in Nixon in China, is a characterful singer. Last night, he seemed disconnected from the events onstage, and he didn't get a handle on Olivier.


Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen impressed as the Count, as did mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who lent a movie-star vamp to her performance as the actress Clairon. As La Roche, the opera impresario inserted into the conversation as a thinly-veiled portrayal of Strauss' friend and producer Max Reinhardt, bass Peter Rose was effective, but ran out of gas in the middle of his big monologue. Finally, character tenor Bernard Fitch was both nasal and charming in the tiny role of M. Taupe, ("Mr. Mole") the prompter who spends most of the opera asleep under the stage.

At two hours and twenty minutes (with no intermisson), Capriccio is almost as long as Das Rheingold. And like that Wagner opera, it ends with a tremendous payoff: the Moonlight Music and the final scene for Madeleine. For this, Ms. Fleming had the stage to herself in a dazzling silver gown. More importantly, she brought out her full arsenal of voice, flooding the theater with that signature, silvery sound. Her voice rose and swelled with the orchestra, rising to a climax as she considered her character's romantic dilemma. Then she turned, singing her last words to the rapt audience, whose patience had been rewarded as Strauss' last opera came to a glorious end.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.