Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Strauss - Capriccio (La Monnaie, 2016)

Richard Strauss - Capriccio

La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels - 2016

Lothar Koenigs, David Marton, Sally Matthews, Dietrich Henschel, Edgaras Montvidas, Lauri Vasar, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Charlotte Hellekant, François Piolino, Elena Galitskaya, Dmirty Ivanchey, Christian Oldenburg

ARTE Concert - November 2016


"Primo le parole, dopo la musica" or is it vice-versa? There's obviously no definitive answer to the question of whether the words or the music are more important in opera. Even precedence is very much down to the practicalities and working methods of the creators and dependant upon the individual preferences of the listener. So on paper at least an opera about a composer and a poet, Flamand and Olivier, debating the subject with a Countess at a private concert soirée doesn't hold out much promise as a rivetting subject for an opera. And yet, Capriccio itself is a work of art that proves that opera can transcend such debates and distinctions.

There's a lot of truth then in what the boorish theatre director La Roche says; on paper both words and score are lifeless. It's a stage production that puts flesh and blood into an opera, that allows it to live and breathe, to reach out and touch the heart of an audience. Of course, even that distinction is academic if the work itself isn't of sufficient quality, insight and humanity, but Strauss's abilities and his work within opera are among the highest the artform has ever seen. Capriccio, his final work, might sound trivial and self-regarding, but it's a fitting testament that still has something important to say on the nature of people and the important role music and art plays in their lives.

Capriccio is indeed a masterpiece from a great composer but, in the spirit of the work itself, even Richard Strauss wouldn't be the opera genius he is without the collaboration of some great writers. His finest works are unquestionably those written by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but Stefan Zweig and Joseph Gregor clearly also contributed the ideas and texts that would inspire Strauss to greatness in Capriccio. The writers are important, but so too presumably is the audience those works were written for and the artists who would perform them. And life itself. The genius of Capriccio is that it is there in this exquisite little work which might seem frivilous, but in reality touches on some fundamental questions about art and its relation to life.

So it is always a risk, but it would be a bit of a crime if a production of Capriccio only managed to come over as trivial and self-important. The words and the music are not enough - although they are a great place to start and Lothar Koenigs certainly brings out the luminous beauty of the orchestral colours - but Capriccio does need attention paid to its characters and their personalities, and that rests on the ability of the director and the performers to bring it to life. Fortunately that's handled very well indeed in David Marton's direction of the work for La Monnaie, and it's also very evident in the singing, with Sally Matthews in particular finding all the beauty and anguish of life in the words and music written for the Countess.

Marton's production does well to strike a balance between the intimacy of the work (that has a basis in the small chamber orchestra performance that opens the opera) and its expansiveness that takes in all the sentiments that the work touches on in passing. There's no avoiding the self-referential nature of the work (which is an opera about a group of people discussing opera and making an opera about themselves discussing opera), so it's not surprising that the set consists of a stage on the stage in a side view of a theatre. A small private theatre obviously that explores the inner workings of the human heart and human interaction as much as it does the craft that goes into writing, directing and performing a piece of music theatre.

It's not just a tussle for artistic recognition and it's not even a tussle between two men trying to seek the affections the Countess; there are other parties involved that have a role to play, however small it might seem. It's not always easy to work out who each of them are at first, or where they are coming from, but Strauss gives them all consideration and blends them into the little world of Capriccio's complications. The prompter, for example, might not seem to be all that vital a role, but without him, the whole enterprise might indeed fail. The Major-domo, the Haushofmeister, also looks on here, clearly in love with the Countess. He might be vital to the smooth running of the household, but he knows he can never be a solution to the conflicts in her heart.

This master/servant role as a metaphor for the impossibility of the mastery of the heart is a device that has been used for a similar effect between the Marschallin and her servant in some productions of Der Rosenkavalier. It's possible to see Madeline, the Countess of Capriccio, as an extension of the thoughts and sentiments that plagued Marschallin, a recap if you like to summarise such themes in this comprehensive work. Marten also uses the young dancer here, showing her in three ages from child to young woman to old lady, to touch on those considerations of the passing of time as it applies to the hard choices that the Countess has to make. Ostensibly that's about how she wants the opera to end, but also evidently it's about where she wants her life to go, knowing that the decisions she makes now will determine the rest of her life.

The successful direction of Capriccio is all about bringing out such undercurrents. What takes place on the surface of Capriccio, in all the discussions of art and opera, is just a metaphor for life. It's what goes on beneath that is just as important; the personalities and the interpretation of them. It would be a shame to miss out on the applying some personality to the richness of the sumptuous music that Strauss has composed for even the most seemingly minor of characters, but it doesn't mean that there have to be any big revelations or deep psychological underpinning. The big things are already there and Marten and the performers concentrate on the little moments and the finer detail.

There is always the danger of the Countess appearing detached, too caught up in the technicalities of the musical debate and her personal love dilemma. Sally Matthews isn't the most expressive actress but her singing is beautiful here, carrying the essential warmth of the Countess and a wider sense of her conflict as being one that applies to life in general. It helps that the other roles are also well defined and sung, with Edgaras Montvidas in particular wonderfully lyrical and charming as Flamand, and Lauri Vasar posing a credible threat as his rival Olivier. Kristinn Sigmundsson is a fine La Roche. I still find it hard to really grasp what the role of the Count brings to the opera, but Dietrich Henschel sings it well alongside Charlotte Hellekant's Clarion. All the performances really count here however in contributing to the rich fabric of the work.

Links: La Monnaie, ARTE Concert