Strauss: Capriccio / Fleming, von Otter, Trost et al. / Paris, 2004 (2)

(Part one here.)

I think Renée Fleming is great, of course. She can at times be a little affected on stage – she’s got a very specific type of performance style. I find it more congenial in some cases than I do in others. But I thoroughly enjoyed this performance.

The Countess is the same flavor of Strauss heroine as the Marschallin. She’s witty rather than intellectual, but clearly a person of discernment. She’s tactful, gracious and while she feels strongly, she is nevertheless in control of her emotions. Fleming pulls this off masterfully. Here is the final section of the opera:

My favorite parts of this were where the volume drops and it’s softer but no less powerful, e.g. the section beginning at 09.00 or so. Or the bit right before that, between about 8.30 and 9.00 where the way the music sounds when she mentions death evokes (at least to me) bits of the Four Last Songs. Throughout, there’s a naturalness to the phrasing – I can believe that these are the Countess’s spontaneous thoughts. This is one of those clips that I find myself listening to over and over as I’m writing about it. I think I’m going to have to find another recording of this opera, perhaps with Schwarzkopf or someone else in this role, just for contrast. I never really feel like I understand a piece of music (and obviously not even then in any kind of final way) unless I’ve heard a few different versions of it. The differences in interpretation tend to bring out the nuances of the music.

Then there is Anne Sofie von Otter as Clairon. I have not seen a great many productions of Capriccio but my sense is that this role can be a scene-stealer. Von Otter doesn’t, but not because she couldn’t. I have always loved her voice, and this performance is no exception. Also, the spoken section of ‘acting’ with the Count is fantastic.

The rest of this sounds just as good. One thing that I noticed in particular was the first section when Flamand (Rainer Trost) and Olivier (Gerald Finley) are conversing (“Bezaubernd is sie heute wieder!”) was how neatly Strauss captures the rhythm and phrasing of conversation in music. And in general, these are two voices I like hearing in any context. The same goes from Franz Hawlata as La Roche, who despite being mercilessly mocked by Olivier and Flamand, makes a convincing case for opera not being about just words and music. La Roche is the one who argues not only for the importance of the director, but also for the audience and its wants, a point that is underscored with the little scene with the servants before the Mondscheinmusik. La Roche’s big moment, “Holà, ihr Streiter in Apoll!” is well worth hearing.

So. This is a very nice performance of an opera that can at times border on precious. The libretto is painfully self-aware – for example, during the discussion at one point about possible topics for the opera that the poet and composer are to write, the subject of Ariadne on Naxos comes up, and is dismissed as having been done to death already. Or the complaint that I think La Roche makes early on about how with opera ‘these days’ you can’t tell the arias from the recitatives, and it confuses people. This criticism makes less sense in the setting described in the libretto (1775) than it does for the twentieth century, which is probably what Strauss and his librettist were really speaking about. And when you get down to it, the whole ‘what part of opera is more important, words or music?’ question can verge on silly. I like complicated intellectual questions as much as the next person, but the reason one asks questions is that on some level, they can be answered and one does not yet know what the answers are. The answers don’t have to be permanent, or universal, or impervious to criticism, but one can at least make an argument in response to the question. With things like ‘words or music?’ you go into it knowing that the answer is ‘well, both – duh.’ So the conversation can very easily turn into a circle jerk.

It doesn’t, in this case. The performances are good enough and the staging is clever and interesting enough that it doesn’t. But it could.

(Next section here.)