WHEN Richard Strauss set out to write ''Capriccio'' his intention was ''to do something unusual, a treatise on dramaturgy, a theatrical fugue. Rarely does even the most avid Straussian run across this elegant dramatization of the old debate about the relative importance of words, music and theatrical effects in opera. One could only be grateful, therefore, for last night's performance at Carnegie Hall, the first in a Richard Strauss Opera Festival. Grateful for the careful preparation lavished on this connoisseur's delight, even if the cast was not a dream assemblage. Grateful for the ambitiousness of the semistaged production, if not invariably for the results.
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WHEN Richard Strauss set out to write ''Capriccio'' his intention was ''to do something unusual, a treatise on dramaturgy, a theatrical fugue. Rarely does even the most avid Straussian run across this elegant dramatization of the old debate about the relative importance of words, music and theatrical effects in opera. One could only be grateful, therefore, for last night's performance at Carnegie Hall, the first in a Richard Strauss Opera Festival.
Grateful for the careful preparation lavished on this connoisseur's delight, even if the cast was not a dream assemblage. Grateful for the ambitiousness of the semistaged production, if not invariably for the results.
Grateful for the excellent libretto and program notes that were provided, too, although because of the stimulating stream of intellectual and esthetic argument that carries this opera along, the audience necessarily and rightly spent most of the night following the words and music, which meant that much of the acting had to go unappreciated. Courted by the poet Olivier Richard Stilwell and the composer Flamand Jerry Hadley , she finds both rivals irresistible but resolves her dilemma by bringing them together as partners in an opera to be staged by the renowned director La Roche Thomas Stewart.
The Countess's brother Walton Gronroos is on hand to provide the classic philistine's opinion. Miss Lott, a winning singer and singing actress in certain roles - I greatly admired her witty portrayal of Strauss's wife, Pauline, in Glyndebourne's ''Intermezzo'' three years ago - gave a respectable though somewhat awkward performance as the Countess.
Her slender voice dealt well with the cruelly high tessitura of the part, but there was not nearly enough force of personality in evidence. The final scene, a minute tour de force for any soprano who can carry it off, missed creating the hypnotic magic that Strauss knew so well how to work in the last pages of his operas, partly because of Jeffrey Tate's humdrum conducting.
I was not taken, either, with the incredible misdirection that had the Countess, apparently in the throes of frustration, adopting sensuous poses as if she were a nightclub chanteuse. The strengths of the performance included Mr. Hadley's ardent if somewhat callow Flamand, a composer who could sing his own music persuasively, and Mr.
Stilwell's older but no less passionate poet. As the personification of music and words, they made the debate believable. Stewart had the more difficult assignment of making La Roche, the director whom Strauss modeled after Max Reinhardt, not only ludicrous in his vanity but also ultimately touching in his insistence on the worth of his calling. Stewart no longer has the voice to convey all that he clearly wants to express, but he found some nobility in his great self-justifying speech, one of the opera's greatest interludes.
Evelyn Lear, as the actress Clairon, made rather too much of the broad humor in the role. So did the Italian singing couple, Reri Grist and Chris Merritt, for whom the director could find nothing to do but lame burlesque that made even their duets sound ugly. Strauss intended to poke fun at the Italian vocal tradition but certainly not to vulgarize it.
The minimal set, consisting of a few chairs, a piano on which a Spanish shawl was draped, a couch and other odd pieces of decor, did not attempt to evoke the opera's 18th-century period.
If any specific time was suggested it was the late 19th century, which could be rationalized as Strauss's own stylistic era. However, John Cox, who directed, muddled the mood of the work with incongruous jokes and contemporary allusions. The Countess, who at one moment would refer to her acquaintance with Rameau, at another would call her major-domo on a mobile telephone.
The Italian tenor, already a parody in Strauss's score, was made to wave a large handkerchief in imitation of Luciano Pavarotti. Getting such easy laughs would not seem to be a director's greatest challenge in Strauss's most subtle and understated work. Positive contributions were made by an octet of befuddled servants, Ruth Mayer as a dancer, William Wildermann as the major-domo and Hugues Cuenod as the prompter who sleeps through most of the opera.
The brief interchange between the two canny veterans, the somber Mr. Wildermann and the fey Mr. Cuenod, gave the night a special, witty lift. Epstein, artistic consultant; lighting designer, Kirk Bookman. At Carnegie Hall. View on timesmachine. TimesMachine is an exclusive benefit for home delivery and digital subscribers. To preserve these articles as they originally appeared, The Times does not alter, edit or update them.
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Capriccio - Capriccio
Remember me. It took up the quarrel waged in the 18th century by fans of the Italian composer Puccini, who advocated that words should reign supreme in opera, against the defenders of Gluck, for whom the music was pre-eminent. Out of this dry subject matter, Strauss created a magnificent work, crammed with musical and literary references, full of charm and intelligence, great lyricism and a startling vivacity. Elegance and virtuosity, humour and sensitivity are scattered throughout the text and score of this masterpiece; Strauss put a great deal of himself and his own philosophical ponderings into it. In this case, it is impossible to choose between the respective merits of words and melody. In the 18th century, a coterie of artists is rehearsing a performance arranged for the birthday of the lovely young Countess Madeleine soprano , who was recently widowed. Poet Olivier baritone and musician Flamand tenor are both in love with the Countess.
THE OPERA: 'CAPRICCIO,' BY STRAUSS, IN CONCERT
Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — La Gioconda , dramma lirico in four acts. Music composed by Amilcare Ponchielli — Don Carlo , an opera in four acts. Music composed by Giuseppe Verdi — Un ballo in maschera , a melodramma in three acts.
Even those who love and cherish Richard Strauss's ''Capriccio'' - perhaps especially those devotees - generally believe that his 15th and final opera can never be staged in such a way as to be taken to heart by the wide public. The recent concert performance at Carnegie Hall dramatized that belief, pointing up the audience's need to keep its collective head buried in the German-English libretto in order to follow the score's dialectical subtleties in any detail. And yet, in view of recent technological advances, specifically the growing use of supertitles in opera houses, should such old assumptions be rethought? Isn't it now possible to give an audience for any opera not only the sound of the words in the original language but a good portion of their sense as well? Perhaps, but the issue in regard to a loquacious work such as ''Capriccio,'' with its heavy reliance on poetic allusion, historical reference and dramaturgical debate, is by no means clear cut. Strauss set out to write what amounts to a theoretical dissertation on opera theory, planning it as a one-act curtain-raiser for his ''Daphne. As it stands, ''Capriccio'' is not only a lode of music in Strauss's richest late vein but an exhaustive and sophisticated discussion of the ancient debate over the place of words and music in opera.