The Spectator
Michael Tanner
Strauss: Capriccio, Edinburgh, 22 August 2004
Edinburgh 2004, 2
Usher Hall, Edinburgh

(….) Then, at the Usher Hall, in yet another concert performance, Richard Strauss’s operatic swansong Capriccio, which needs at least half a dozen stars, and a conductor with a strong feeling for where it’s all going, came to animated life in nearly every bar. While Weber failed to fulfil his tremendous promise, Strauss, it used to be felt, and some of us still feel it, outlived his, in the opera house, and by several decades – with the exception of Capriccio. So carefully prepared and confidently executed an account as this gives the best opportunity for thinking about the nature of Strauss’s achievement in his last flowering.

It’s a great relief, as it must have been for Strauss too, to find him being non-mythological, even greater to find him not emphatically celebrating the virtues of Peace – which he no doubt felt keenly, but they only inspired musical platitudes.  The evocation of a not-too distant past of elegance, and leisure for art and love was so obviously what he was best at that it’s amazing he spent so long avoiding it.  He didn’t really believe in his inheritance, which was the transformative power of art; really he is as far removed from Wagner in what he wanted to accomplish as it is possible to be.  Though Capriccio resembles in clear ways Die Meistersinger, in that in both of them affairs of the heart and matters of aesthetics are worked out in tandem, Capriccio takes its subject far less seriously; and not because the question it poses, whether music or words take precedence in opera, and thus whether the Countess fancies the composer or the poet more, is left without a clear answer.  The whole debate is what Strauss enjoys, not someone winning it, just as the Countess loves her indecision more than she does either of the people between whom she is torn.  Indeed, she shows no particular affection for either of them at any stage; all the ardour comes from them, especially from the composer Flamand. Madeleine will no doubt dedicate herself to a life of perpetual flirting, until she is old enough to begin reflecting on the youth that she has lost.

So a great part of the charm of Capriccio  is that without being arch, with odd exceptions, it portrays a group of unserious people enjoying playing at seriousness.  The cast in Edinburgh seemed to realise that, though there were times when the conductor Leopold Hager seemed to want something more.  He created a few noisy climaxes which don’t belong in this opera, including the one at the end of the moonlight music, which was otherwise magically played, as was the whole score, by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.  The opening sextet was exquisite, never for a moment trying not to be pastiche, so that the characters’ own emotional pastiche flowed naturally out of it.  Jonas Kaufmann frowned and looked forlorn, but not as he had in Freischutz; his singing of Flamand’s tuneful music was continuously pleasurable, and showed how much his voice has grown.  His rival Olivier was Christopher Maltman, another beguiling singer, though here he occasionally huffed.  But the two made an excellent sparring team, providing the foundations for everything that happened.  Perhaps it’s right that they should be on a larger scale than the Countess; anyway, they were.  Soile Isokoski has acquired the reputation of having the perfect Strauss voice, and that may be right.  Yet she makes less of her words than she should, and in this of all his operas.  Every sound she made was gorgeous, but quite a few of them didn’t seem intimately connected with what she was singing about.  She is a wonderful soarer, she hovers and floats, moos and coos, but the finest Countesses do all that and also, and in order to, communicate their mock-desperate plight. This Madeleine didn’t have a personality.  The Count her brother is denied one anyway by Strauss, but Stephan Loges could have done rather more to repair the omission.  Siegfried Vogel, a true veteran, made La Roche’s long apologia for the role of the producer as it used to be seen – essential but not overbearing – as interesting as it can be from someone with great intelligence but not a great voice, while not being able to conceal that Strauss is self-indulgent in every scene, and particularly here.  Capriccio  is an enchanting entertainment, but an elongated one.  (…)


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