Did you ever read those ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a child? The one that I remember the most was a story about children going back in time to the Triassic (or the Jurassic or the Cretaceous – somewhere in the Mesozoic, anyway) and having adventures. If you made a wrong choice over the course of the narrative, you ended up being eaten by dinosaurs.
Capriccio is a sort of operatic ‘choose your own adventure’ story, but with stakes that are either much higher or much lower, depending on your perspective. Certainly Renée Fleming (the Gräfin/Countess) is not eaten by dinosaurs in this production, which was performed in Paris in 2004. Then again, the Countess never chooses.
The adventure, of course is ‘words or music.’ According to the libretto, the story of this opera is set in 1775, near Paris. This production updates it to 1942, the year when the opera itself premiered in Munich. The idea behind the change of date is not explained in the insert but if I had to hazard a reason it would be this. First, this opera is a bit of a confection. It can seem precious. Moving the action from 1775 to 1942 is a way of acknowledging and/or explaining this preciousness, because one of the implications of the 1942 setting is to contrast the rather rarified aesthetic question the opera asks with the horrors of war assumed to be taking place close by. Putting the setting of the drama into the ‘setting’ in which its original audience would have experienced it gives the central ‘words or music’ question more weight. It’s not just an intellectual question asked for the sake of asking – rather, the fact of it’s being asked at all is an argument for the importance of thinking about art and beauty even when these might seem the furthest things in the world from daily experience.
But the production is slightly more complicated even than this. This was filmed at the Palais Garnier, which appropriately enough would have been the house of the Paris Opera in the 1940s. The theater itself is used as a way of communicating the story.
What happens is that the introduction places Flamand, Olivier and several of the other characters on a bare stage for the rehearsal of Flamand’s music that begins the story. We are treated to a long sequence of the Countess (Fleming) entering the theater and moving to a seat in the hall to watch/listen to them. The action takes place on this stage, which sometimes resembles a set and sometimes is left empty. During the last section of the opera, shots of Fleming/the Countess watching from one of the boxes (along with all the other characters) are interspersed with her performance on stage. At the end of the opera, the second-to-last thing we see is the scenery being moved away and assistants hurrying to bring our leading lady a bottle of water and help her with the enormous dress she’s wearing. Here is the introduction:
So, the idea that Flamand and Olivier are going to collaborate on an opera about the day’s conversation, and that our characters are going to be re-represented as characters in this opera, is presented in a very striking way. It can be a bit strange at times, as the theater the Countess enters is empty, but there is audience applause at later points in the performance. There has obviously been some splicing here. But it doesn’t matter – the thing makes sense, and since DVDs are often spliced together from several different performances to begin with, I’m not going to argue with a slightly different version of the same process.
It has one other interesting effect. The libretto taken plainly simply indicates at the end that the Countess has not decided. She can’t tell the two artists how their opera is to end because the decision is impossible and/or meaningless. She can’t choose, and that’s the point. In this production, where the ‘opera’ has been ‘staged’ she’s evidently articulated this very thing to them – or they’ve worked it out on their own. Either way, their work has been finished. Her not-choosing has been moved from being presented as something the Countess arrives at alone, which ends the story, to something she has arrived at, explained to the boys, and which has been represented to an audience, which ends the story. I mean, this is true in both cases, because the straight-up story in the libretto is still, well, a story in a libretto and thus a thing presented to an audience – but you see what I mean.
So obviously this is a great deal of fun for people like me. However, the intellectual games would not be nearly as entertaining if there were no music. More on that later.