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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Capriccio

This is a preview of Capriccio, with a brief summary and CD recommendations. To read the Superconductor review of the March 28 performance, click here.
The final scene from Capriccio. That's Renée Fleming at center.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2008 The Metropolitan Opera.
"Frau Gräfin, das Souper ist serviert."
Renée Fleming sings the leading role of Countess Madeleine in this rare revival of Capriccio, the 15th (and final) opera by Richard Strauss.

Capriccio was labeled as a "conversation piece for music." The subject of that conversation is the art of opera itself. Set in a big house in 18th-century France (when the musical reforms of Christoph Willibald Gluck were sweeping Europe) the work takes the form of a day-long debate about the importance of words vs. music in the construction of opera. Eventually, the participants decide to write an opera based on the day's events. It's very "meta."

The debate is framed as a romantic comedy, where the Countess is torn between the passions of the poet Olivier (Russell Braun) and the advances of the composer Flamand, (Joseph Kaiser) two best friends who are playful rivals for their hand. Also present at the house are the impresario LaRoche, (Peter Rose) the actress Clairon, (Sarah Connolly) and the prompter, M. Taupe ("Mr. Mole") who lives under the stage.

While there is only one really memorable aria in Capriccio (and it comes at the very end!) the opera is two hours of beautiful music. It is written in Strauss' late, post-Mozartean style, combining complex harmonic techniques with the galant music of the 18th century. This is an intricate score that opens with a string sextet and retains that chamber-music characteristic all the way to its final bars.

Watch Renée Fleming sing the final scene of Capriccio.
And then go get tickets.

Recording Recommendations:
There are just three recordings of this opera in  the catalogue, with several more on video. But the best video of the opera, a film from Vienna starring Anna Tomowa-Sintow, has never been put out on VHS or DVD in the United States.

Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI, 1957)
Countess Madeleine: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
Flamand: Nicolai Gedda
Olivier: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
LaRoche: Hans Hotter
This was EMI producer Walter Legge's last-ditch effort to ignore the rise of stereo technology by producing opera recordings in monaural sound. Yes it's in mono. but this is a benchmark recording with a near-unbeatable cast of great opera singers in top form. Look for a young Christa Ludwig as Clairon, and the maestro himself making a rare appearance as the Servant in the final scene.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Karl Böhm (Deutsche Grammophon, 1972)
Countess Madeleine: Gundula Janowitz
Flamand: Peter Schreier
Olivier: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
LaRoche: Karl Ridderbusch
This is a comparable reading of the opera, with an excellent Countess in Gundula Janowitz and its own all-stars (Hermann Prey, Tatiana Troyanos) in smaller roles. Fischer-Dieskau reprises his performance as Olivier. The underappreciated Karl Ridderbusch is also featured as LaRoche. If I had to choose between the two, I'd take Böhm--I like his conducting, and it's in pristine DG analog stereo

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