Strauss, Richard


IntermezzoRichard Strauss - Intermezzo

Buxton Festival, 2012 | Stephen Barlow, Stephen Unwin, Janis Kelly, Stephen Gadd, Andrew Kennedy, Jonathan Best, Njabulo Madlala, Robert Poulton, Richard Roberts, Colin Brockie, Susanne Holmes, Martha McLorinan | Buxton Opera House - 13 July 2012

Intermezzo is, of course, an opera notoriously based on the real-life domestic circumstances of its composer Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline de Anha, a turbulent but happy marriage between two quite different personalities. The reason we know so much about the nature of their marriage is that Strauss depicted it in frank and some would say vulgar detail in his symphonies and in aspects of his operas. There’s no disguising the fact however that Intermezzo is unprecedented for the level of detail in which the composer’s domestic affairs, specifically two notable incidents, are exposed to the full view of the public. Whether the opera is vulgar or not is open to question and undoubtedly interpretation, but if there’s a case to be made for it, it was made here with the wonderful production at the 2012 Buxton Festival.

Coming after such important works as Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Intermezzo can’t help but appear to be a minor work with a rather trivial subject unworthy of a composer of Strauss’s stature. A light comedy, a farce, a domestic drama of minor disputes and marriage difficulties, played out in short chapters like edited scenes from a movie (cinema an influence to some extent on the work, and reflected in the staging here), played out in music that accompanies and supports conversational arrangements rather than imposes its own expressive presence, Intermezzo hardly seems like a subject that would appeal to the lofty ambitions of Strauss’s regular librettist at this time Hugo von Hofmannstahl. Yet, in taking this unexpected direction with a new librettist, Strauss himself shows himself to be just as ambitious and willing to experiment with a subject and a style that is far from what is traditionally expected of an opera work.

Adapting to this new form, Strauss’s glorious compositions prove to be surprisingly musical and dramatic. It’s a typically detailed score from this composer, attuned to the smallest emotional gestures as well as to the broader ones called for by the farcical situations that ensue when Christine, the temperamental wife of a famous composer, Robert Storch (not much disguising of identities going on there), reads a love letter sent mistakenly to her husband and promptly, to the complete bewilderment and distress of Storch, sues for divorce. Working in another incident drawn from real-life where the lonely Christine - her husband frequently away working and conducting - is deceived about the nature of a friendship she strikes up with a young man who claims he is a baron, but is really looking for someone to pay his bills for him, Strauss balances our sympathies in his depiction of the complex and difficult personality of Christine with flashes of humour and compassion.

Despite the apparent triviality of the subject and autobiographical content that seems a little self-aggrandising - particularly in the manner in which it is richly scored here by Strauss - Intermezzo is by no means vulgar entertainment. It’s thanks to this work that we have real insight into the Strauss household, the personality, temperaments and the passions that fuel the composer’s work, but it’s not entirely self-regarding and self-important. These are fully-fleshed out characters, their personalities, whims, mannerisms and deeper natures expressed with tremendous skill by Strauss. The extraordinarily detailed score may be aligned with a very different kind of dramatic content to the classical subjects of earlier works - to humour, to flashes of wit, jealousy, rage, love and passion rather than the death lust of Salome or the revenge fantasies of Elektra, but really, the scoring is no less precisely nuanced. These are much more human emotions, glorified (perhaps more a little over-glorified) by Strauss’s perceptive, impressionistic swells and rhythms, but it’s honest, it’s witty, it’s human and it’s real.

It’s surprising then that Intermezzo is not more frequently performed on the stage, as it is undoubted much more of a theatrical work than is it musical. The fact that this theatrical conversational drama can come across with such musicality and works so well on the stage however depends entirely on the nature of the production, and in just about every respect, this Buxton Festival production was simply outstanding - fully aware of the potential of the piece and capable of putting it across. The stage design, the costumes and the direction were an absolute joy. Every single scene struck the exact right note, with simple sets that were nonetheless pinpointed with delightful period detail. There was also remarkable precision in the setting of tone and circumstance through the use of lighting, the drama able to slip between a drawing room and a brief encounter on a ski slope with barely a pause for the cinematic intertitles to indicate the scene change. Everything about Stephen Unwin’s direction was perfectly in line with Strauss’s score and the dramatic tone and intent of the work.

Even so, Intermezzo is a work that would still be rather difficult to pull off effectively were it not able to make the characters seem human and sympathetic. In this respect Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Christine, a tremendously challenging role that despite the surface impression given is actually much warmer and human than just about any other character to be found in Strauss’s work. Utterly mesmerising, her attention to detail was evident not just in the terrific singing, but in her bearing and in the manner and timing of her delivery, which was that of a consummate actress. This was a delightful performance that drew all the potential out of the role, as well as giving something personal to it as well. Stephen Gadd was also exceptionally good as Robert Storch, similarly finding warmth and humour in the personality of the composer, singing the role well and in perfect accord with the performance of Janis Kelly. The two roles are the obviously the most vital, supported well by the reminder of the cast, all of them achieving a wonderful rapport with the fluid performance of the orchestra conducted by Stephen Barlow. Intermezzo was undoubtedly, the most accomplished achievement of this year’s Buxton Festival.

ArabellaRichard Strauss - Arabella

Opéra National de Paris, 2012 | Philippe Jordan, Marco Arturo Marelli, Kurt Rydl, Doris Soffel, Renée Fleming, Genia Kühmeier, Michael Volle, Joseph Kaiser, Eric Huchet, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Thomas Dear, Iride Martinez, Irene Friedli | Opéra Bastille, Paris, 10 July 2012

You might detect a small note of annoyance in the tone of Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s letter of the 22nd December 1927 to Richard Strauss at one review of Der Rosenkavalier which criticised the failure to make the best use of the opera’s strongest character, the Marschallin. It’s tempting to think that, in this letter to Strauss discussing the composition of Arabella, Hoffmanstahl was indeed suggesting revisiting the 18th century world of old Vienna and addressing that criticism as well as improving the overall dramatic structure that was a little wayward in the earlier work. In many ways Arabella is indeed a more “perfect” version of Der Rosenkavalier, but it’s a work nonetheless that few would consider better than the earlier work, magnificent even with all its glorious imperfections. Given a sympathetic production, with the right kind of cast to draw out and linger over its elegance - such as the one assembled here for the Paris Opera - one would however have to seriously consider whether the latter isn’t worthy of comparison to its earlier incarnation.

Returning to the 18th century Viennese operetta setting, Arabella does indeed demonstrate the hand of a more experienced team capable of improving many of the elements that were slightly awkward and much too self-consciously clever in Der Rosenkavalier. The romantic Mozartian intrigue with identity problems and its cross-dressing farce fits better within the tone of the later work, the introduction of waltzes placed more naturalistically within the setting of a balls at a grand hotel. Everything runs smoothly along the narrative line laid out for the drama, with a musical continuity that effortlessly glides one right through the three acts. There’s always the danger of the music being a little too smooth with Strauss in this register, but there is an awareness of the darker side of the Vienna of Maria Theresia beneath the surface glamour.

This is one further significant difference between the conception of the two works. Der Rosenkavalier was composed in 1911 before the Great War, Arabella after it in 1933, and although both seem to wallow in a nostalgia for an idealised past, there are hints in the latter work - with its specific 1866 setting just after the war with Prussia - of a more meaningful reflection on the state of the post-war Austria of Hofmannshahl and Strauss’ time. There’s nothing too dark, just the hint that the world reflected in the monetary ruin and fall from grace of former military officer Count Waldner, is unable to sustain the illusion of living in the past much longer. What is wonderful about the work is how it manages to keep this within the spirit of what is essentially a comic melodrama, where one daughter Arabella will have to be married to a rich man, while the other daughter, Zdenka, must dress and act as a man, since the family cannot afford a marriage for two daughters, and Arabella is the better prospect.

Arabella moreover, despite the apparent light tone of the work, is indeed a more fully rounded human person that the Marschallin - who was more of a concept to embody the passing of time in the more philosophically-leaning Der Rosenkavalier, although fully and poetically developed in that respect - was never allowed to be. Arabella still has all the lush romanticism that Strauss and Hofmannstahl want to capture in this lost Viennese world for a time that, after the Great War, was ever more in need of it. Without denying that times can be difficult, that sacrifices need to be made, the opera offers up the hope that fairytales can happen, that goodness, fidelity and happiness have the chance to exist. With that kind of concept, Arabella can be played as too lushly romantic, too formally classical and over-elaborate in a manner that smothers the delicate balance that the music and the drama treads. Not so in this production at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, one of the final works of the current 2011-12 season.

The staging by Marco Arturo Marelli didn’t appear obviously special, but it worked wonderfully with the intended tone of the work. The whole purpose of Arabella is to create this world of 18th century Vienna in all its glamour - idealised though it may be - so there’s not a lot of point in changing the period or the setting. Marelli’s sets looked like the typical Opéra Bastille production, bright, with coloured lighting, filling the stage and making full use of the height of the stage, yet the luxury, smoothness and cleanness of the designs suited the tone of this particular work. The set was wonderfully designed also to match the flowing nature of the work, slipping elegantly from one scene to the next, although the actual stage direction for the characters within this was a little bit walk-on/walk-off. The cleverest touch was the fall of a blue silken curtain at the end of Act I, which managed to romantically set up the first wordless encounter between Arabella and Mandryka, to be taken up from the same position at the start of Act II.

With Philippe Jordan at the helm, there were some truly astonishing sounds coming out of the orchestra pit from the remarkable Orchestra of the Paris Opera. It seemed directed with a Wagnerian punch and heft that ought to be out of place with this light comic drama, yet it only served to underline the dramatic and romantic tone to its fullest extent. It was the intelligence of the wonderful singing performances however that really carried through the full beauty of the work and the complex depths that are suggested in Hofmannstahl’s libretto and Strauss’ music. Renée Fleming’s silken tones graced Strauss’ music with warmth, glamour and sensitivity, although her performance was certainly enhanced by Jordan’s direction and in her well-matched interaction with the other singers. Alongside Michael Volle, the pairing of Arabella and Mandryka felt every bit as perfect as it should, bringing the full romantic content out of the work, but Kurt Rydl as Waldner and Genia Kühmeier as Zdenka also impressed on every level, contributing to the overall richness of the piece and showing what it can be capable of in the hands of a strong team. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a spontaneous standing ovation for a production as a whole at the Paris Opera, but it was well-merited here.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Opernhaus Zürich, 2005 | Christoph von Dohnányi, Martin Kušej, Eva Johansson, Marjana Lipovšek, Melanie Diener, Rudolf Schasching, Alfred Muff, Renhard Mayr, Cassandra McConnell, Christine Zoller, Andreas Winkler, Morgan Moody, Margaret Chalker | Arthaus Musik

I don’t know if Electra’s age is recorded in Sophocles’ account of ancient Greek mythology that forms the basis for the play and the libretto that Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote for Richard Strauss’ one-act opera, but in Martin Kušej’s 2005 stage production of Elektra for the Zurich Opera, at the time when she is plotting the death of her mother on Mycenae, Electra is a surly rich-kid teenager in a hooded top, with a shock of punkish blonde hair, who is contemptuous of the world around her and everybody in it, not least of which her parents. As far as this Electra is concerned, they can all just f-off and die. So when her sister urges her to grow up and get real, make life easier for herself otherwise her parents are going to ground her, she regards Chrysothemis as nothing more than a sell-out who has forgotten her principles and has bought into the glamour of her rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

This Electra evidently has a bit of an attitude problem, but that’s understandable even without the director’s modern interpretative touches. She has seen her father Agamemnon murdered by her own mother Clytemnestra, who has since gone on and married Aegisthus, so there’s no love lost between her and her mother and undoubtedly she nurses a deep hatred for the step-father who has taken his place, to say the least. There’s also undoubtedly considerable trauma involved in the events she has witnessed and experienced as a young child, and it’s this psychological element that is delved into deeply in Hofmannsthal’s writing, under the influence of the studies and the artwork contemporaneously being undertaken by other Viennese artists, intellectuals and philosophers around the turn of the 20th century. Richard Strauss would likewise reflect this psychological mindset in the most expressionistic and clinical musical language of Elektra that matches the traumatic experience in all its disturbing complexity.

Elektra

Electra is a victim of profound psychological damage, so when she talks about “the child who will never return… lingering there in chasms of horror”, it’s reflected in the discordant notes of the score and it’s reflected here in the stage direction where Electra buries a younger child version of herself within the dark cavern that she literally and metaphorically inhabits. Mixed in with this trauma are also feelings of rage, obsession and a desire for vengeance, which she believes will be carried out by her brother Orestes, even though she is told that her brother is no longer alive. But she has to believe in it, as it is the only thing that keeps her going. Once those drives are sated however, she has nothing left to live for and expires in a mad dance of release.

Despite the fact then that there is not a great deal of action that takes place on the stage, there is evidently then considerable complexity in the characterisation and psychology that represents a challenge for the stage director as much as putting it across in musical terms is a tremendous challenge for the musical director and the performers. Other than the dramatic events of the conclusion however, there’s not much room left in the extraordinarily intricate and acute characterisation of Strauss’s music for any additional interpretation to be imposed on the work, but there are certainly layers of sociological and psychological relevance that can be teased out of the work and can be explored without compromising the integrity of the piece as a mythological subject.

Elektra

Not unsurprisingly, considering his treatment of the De Nederlandse productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and Der Fliegende Höllander as well as his particular take on Schumann’s Genoveva, Martin Kušej also sees some kind of class conflict in the make-up of Electra. Certainly, she’s the daughter of a rich, noble family, but she’s been relegated to the status of a servant, who resides in what appears to be the cavernous basement of the house that is filled with mounts of dust, among the “rabble living in a cave”, and it’s from this lowly position that she sets herself up in opposition to the bloated self-interest and corruption of the elderly elite class. Whether this is meaningful or appropriate or even relevant is a matter of interpretation, but it’s an element that is worthy of consideration, putting the ancient mythology and feelings into a modern context that one can relate to.

At the very least then, the staging of the dark cavern with mounds of dust, with doors connecting this dark underbelly to seemingly every part of the house, is visually striking but it also seems to capture the expressionistic tone of the music and the dark undercurrents that can be read in the libretto. The performances work well in conjunction with the production, hitting all the dramatic and confrontational high points with requisite force and intensity, building in pitch towards that powerful conclusion that releases the ecstasy and the disillusionment in a frenzied dance of joy and death. Whether the inclusion of Brazilian Mardi Gras dancers at that stage at that point is appropriate or not is another matter however, but it fits with the stage invasions that occur throughout, showing perhaps that the pathology is more widespread than the confines of Electra’s mind and the cavern.

All the main roles are exceptionally well sung - Eva Johansson as Elektra, Marjana Lipovšek as Clytemnestra, Melanie Diener as Chrysothemis and Alfred Muff as Orestes. Rather than consider them in terms of individual qualities, it would be better to note that they constitute a relatively strong cast who work well with each other and match the tone of the production and the score. The sound recording or mixing doesn’t always allow them to be fully audible over the orchestra playing in the first half of the recording, but the full force of the work singing and the orchestration is evident certainly by the latter half and the conclusion. The new Arthaus release would seem to be a direct port of the previously released TDK edition (the disc itself retains the TDK labelling and artwork on my copy), with PCM Stereo and DTS HD-MA 7.1 audio options. On a BD25 disc, the 1080i full-HD image quality is excellent. The disc is All Region and subtitles are available in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian. There are no extra features other than a booklet that has an essay and synopsis.

AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.

Ariadne

Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.

Ariadne

Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.

Ariadne

It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

SchattenRichard Strauss - Die Frau ohne Schatten

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg 2011 | Christian Thielemann, Christof Loy, Stephen Gould, Anne Schwanewilms, Michaela Schuster, Evelyn Herlitzius, Wolfgang Koch, Marius Brück, Steven Humes, Andreas Conrad, Thomas Johannes Mayer, Rachel Frenkel, Peter Sonn, Maria Radner | Opus Arte

Die Frau ohne Schatten has long been considered one of the Strauss’s most challenging works to perform, and it’s such a magnum opus that one attends a performance of the opera – rare though they are – with a sense of high expectation. If you’re going to undertake such a work, it’s reasonable to expect that the production is going to pull out all the stops. The fairytale nature of Die Frau ohne Schatten however presents some challenges for the more experimental stage director used to modernising works, so it was always going to be interesting to see how Christof Loy was going to rework the story for the 2011 Salzburg Festival. Even by Loy’s standards for courting controversy through a very personal conceptual approach, the Salzburg Festpiele Die Frau ohne Schatten must be one of the strangest conceits ever applied to any opera production.

Not unsurprisingly, Loy dispenses with the fairytale setting entirely, ignores the stage directions, would appear to pay scant heed to the libretto, and instead sets Die Frau ohne Schatten in a recording studio in Vienna in 1955. Now, the idea of making the performance the performance, so to speak, isn’t anything new by the standards of Loy’s minimalist semi-staged productions, but this really takes the idea to another level altogether. The set is built to resemble, in meticulous reconstructed detail, the legendary Viennese concert hall, the Sofiensaal (destroyed in a fire in 2001), where, dressed in frumpy 1950s clothing, the singers here appear to recreate the studio sessions for the first recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten by Karl Böhm in 1955.

Schatten

Well, it does and it doesn’t, because although Die Frau ohne Schatten was indeed recorded in Vienna in 1955 by Karl Böhm, it was actually recorded, I believe, in the Musikverein, but, well, doesn’t that just add to the perversity of the concept? The theory behind the concept is considered in the booklet enclosed with this DVD/BD release, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be to anyone. I can’t make head or tail of it myself, and I’m used to and quite enjoy trying to figure out the often bizarre theories applied to modern opera productions. Are we supposed to be interested in the historical performers of the work and relate the tensions of the drama in the opera in some way to their lives? Or is it supposed to operate on a deeper philosophical level on the nature of art and performance? Whatever the rationale, there seems to be little justification for having singers stand at a podium and sing out to the audience in a work as rich and wonderful as Die Frau ohne Schatten.

First of all, it’s a little bit misleading to say that the singers just stand at a pedestal with the score in front of them and sing out to the audience. Replicating the activity in a recording studio, the performers stop to have coffee from a flask, drink a glass of water, take a smoke break, take off their coats, and walk in and out of the concert hall when not required on the sound stage that is marked by a red light during recording. Technicians meanwhile run around and adjust settings or place the singers into position, and there are numerous other extras and choruses filling the stage. Still, there’s not much there to suggest that the production connects in any way with the opera itself. Over the course of the performance however, while the action never moves outside the Sofiensaal concert hall, the story seems to take over the characters, possessing them, drawing them into the powerful emotions expressed in the drama and the score, and the distinction between the singers and what they are singing becomes blurred. It’s bizarrely fascinating to watch, but clearly not everyone will think so.

Schatten

There does seem to be some parallel drawn, perhaps, between the post-WWII setting of the recording of the opera and the time of its composition during the First World War. It seems no less extravagant to be recording such a work at a time of great privations (the concert hall is clearly unheated and there are no luxuries in the conditions or the sandwiches laid on for them), but like Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s intentions (whether you judge them misguided or not, since the work was not well initially received), Die Frau ohne Schatten is an attempt to reconnect through art with the finer qualities of human nature in response to the horror going on in the world at that time. It’s perhaps – and this is entirely my response to the work – the same recognition on the part of the performers in the post-war years of that deeper element in the work that hits the characters so hard, no more so than the confused Empress who is longing to regain a sense of humanity through the acquisition of a shadow, and the horror of the price that has to be paid for it.

Whatever the reason may be, Loy’s production does in some way achieve a strong connection with the intent of a work whose purpose and meaning has always been elusive and enigmatic. In the way that it mixes musical references, asks self-reflexive questions on the nature of art and dramatic representation and has definite philosophical and humanitarian leanings, I can’t help but think that the composer and librettist of such works as Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier and even Capriccio (based on an idea by Hofmannstahl) would approve of such an approach. The model for Die Frau ohne Schatten according to the composer and librettist was Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but to all intents and purposes the approach is Wagnerian and it’s specifically Parsifal-like in its spiritual dimension and its theme of sacrifice and redemption. “There are higher powers at work” .

Those higher powers are there of course in the music, which, as Strauss intended, takes over where words cannot adequately express. It’s Wagner rather than Mozart that also influences Christian Thielemann’s conducting of the orchestra and the singing performances. Scored for an orchestra of one hundred and seven, Thielemann controls every element of the huge sound that is created by the astonishing performance of the Wiener Philharmoniker, sweeping and powerful at times, and yet full of incredibly intricate, virtuoso touches and more sensitivity and heartfelt emotion than you would expect to find in the strange fairytale nature of the work. It is utterly, utterly beautiful – as fine an account of Strauss’s most extravagant work as you could imagine. And as complete an account as well, the entire three and a half hours of the work presented here in full and uncut. Act III benefits most from this fuller presentation, particularly in relation to the roles of the Nurse and the Empress, restoring a balance to the work as a whole.

Schatten

This is not an opera for discussing the individual qualities of the singing voices. You don’t put on this particular opera unless you have singers capable of meeting its extreme demands, and you certainly don’t put them in front of Thielemann when he is doing Strauss. You could question the casting and singing that is also more Wagnerian than Mozart, but that seems to me to be appropriate for this work, regardless of what Strauss may have claimed were his intentions for it. All of singers are exceptionally good. Anne Schwanewilms and Michaela Schuster, as mentioned above, bring new depths out of the fuller roles of the Empress and the Nurse, but I was particularly impressed by Evelyn Herlitzius as Barak’s wife, who sings the role with extraordinary conviction and power. Along with Wolfgang Koch’s Barak the Dyer, the two of them manage to create that all-important sense of humanity in their relationship that lies at the heart of the piece. That’s evident also in Stephen Gould’s magnificent Emperor, the emotional depth of his ‘Falke du Wiedergefundener’ almost unbearable, forging a connection directly with the music score in a way that makes the intent comprehensible even if the fairytale context of the work does not.

As does Christof Loy’s staging, even if likewise it isn’t immediately apparent how or why. Either it works for the audience or it doesn’t (and clearly it doesn’t for a large proportion of the audience in Salzburg judging by the booing that greeted the production team at the curtain call here), but personally, I found it extraordinarily powerful and moving. It certainly won’t work for everyone and may prove to be a distraction while you try and figure out what point he is trying to make with its 1950s concert staging, but whether you think it works or not, it operates hand-in-hand with Strauss, Hofmannstahl, Thielemann, the Wiener Philharmoniker and with the singers to create the right kind of environment that draws the majesty and mystery out of the work and the music-drama experience. It’s all there and if you don’t feel the full force of it in this production, then you must indeed have been turned to stone.

While this must have been extraordinary to experience live in the Salzburger Grosses Festspielhaus back in July 2011, it’s to the credit of the recording that it’s also an incredible experience in High Definition on the Blu-ray from Opus Arte. The image quality is impressive, but not clinical, with a slight softness that suits it. With a full four hours compressed onto the BD50 disc, there are a few instances of minor wavering and fluctuation in lines, but only if you are looking for them. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 and both are resolutely clear and powerful, with a gorgeous tone to the orchestration. There’s a certain amount of reverb evident in the acoustics of the stage, which seems to be more pronounced in the stereo option, the surround mix spreading the sound a little better, I found. Extras on the disc include a Cast Gallery and Thielemann in Rehearsal, an interesting 25 minute look at the preparations for the production with interviews. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Spanish.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

English National Opera, London, 2012 | Edward Gardner, David McVicar, Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson, Sophie Bevan, Andrew Shore, Madeleine Shaw, Adrian Thompson, Jennifer Rhys-Davies, Jaewoo Kim, Mark Richardson | The Coliseum, 24 February 2012

If the previous night’s production at the Coliseum of the Richard Jones directed The Tales of Hoffmann was an example of throwing everything at a production to less than optimal effect, David McVicar’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier the following night was a lesson in the virtue of understatement. Understatement is not a quality you often associate with either Richard Strauss or indeed David McVicar, and the use of the term is indeed relative. This revival of the English National Opera’s 2008 production is by no means minimalist, the stage lushly decorated in authentic-looking period design and costumes, but it makes the most effective use of that set design across all three acts with thoughtful arrangements and little fuss.

This is undoubtedly the best way to approach Strauss’s most extravagant and lushly detailed work. Every single word and gesture is already expressed, enhanced and accompanied by carefully considered notes and instruments to add layers of meaning and significance, and what they don’t need is for the stage direction to ignore them or work against them. That approach might be valid for introducing or bringing out notes of irony in relation to the subject in another opera, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s playful farce set amongst the nobility of mid-eighteenth century Vienna is already loaded with ironic intention and musical references to Strauss waltzes and to Mozart’s comic operas of lecherous nobles. It doesn’t need any other layers to confuse matters or disrupt the delicate balance in a manner that tips it over into being far too clever by half.

Rosenkavalier

Surprisingly for this director, McVicar even chose to figuratively draw a veil (or stage curtain) over any on-stage visualisation of Strauss’s famous musical expression of the opening bedroom romp between the Marshallin and her young lover Octavian, preferring to let the stage bask in the golden afterglow of the morning after. Without any further stage devices other than the subtle shifts of golden light, Act 1 serves up the gorgeous luxuriousness of Strauss’s expression of those moments, the subsequent encounter with Baron Ochs and the Levée without any unwelcome distraction, intrusion or interpretation. Simply creating an appropriate environment for the detail of the score and the libretto of Der Rosenkavalier to work its own magic is sufficient, and that is brilliantly achieved here.

That makes it sound easy, but there is actually a lot of consideration put into actually understanding what the opera is about. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere in a review of a recent Baden-Baden production, the opera is more than just a satire of 18th century Viennese society or a fond tribute to the Mozartian class comedy, but, setting it in an idealised past, it’s very much concerned with the passing of time, with the ways of the old making way for the way of the new. That’s not only expressed directly in the libretto, particularly in Marschallin’s reflections at the end of Act 1, or in the tradition of the Rosenkavalier itself for arranging marriages of convenience, but it’s reflected in the very fabric of the music, each of the long three acts taking place in real time where every second and every nuance of every moment, every expression of every character, individually and sometimes together, is crystallised in the most exquisitely detailed musical arrangements. Occasionally, it can feel excessive and over-elaborate, over-generous in its emotional expression to almost Puccini-like levels, leaving little for the listener to interpret for themselves, and leaving them merely as observers, but, my goodness, what brilliance to simply sit back and luxuriate in!

It’s a willingness on the part of director McVicar and conductor Edward Gardner to refrain from adding any personal touches or interpretations and simply take the cues from the score and the libretto, that serves the ENO’s production so well here. That’s not a matter of stepping back however and not being involved, but rather directing their efforts to where it is best employed, and that is in service of the performers on the stage. The drama moves along here so fluidly, with all its enjoyable little moments of visual humour and personal interaction, that it’s clear just how much consideration has been placed in giving the opera its best possible presentation, never getting bogged down in the cleverness of the detail, but with an eye to the bigger picture. Never in my experience of this work have those three acts of Der Rosenkavalier felt so perfectly a whole, with not a note out of place, not a gesture unwarranted, not a single moment that wasn’t simply thoughtful, delightful and entertaining.

Rosenkavalier

A very great deal of the success of the work, no matter how thoughtful the attention given to the other elements of the production, lies in the casting, and the ENO’s current line-up delivered performances of astonishing quality. Individually, it would be hard to improve on a cast that includes Amanda Roocroft, Sarah Connolly, John Tomlinson and Sophie Bevan, but collectively they also work well together, giving appropriate weight and balance to the characters. A high-profile soprano in the role of Marschallin can tip the balance too much towards sentimental reflection, but while Amanda Roocroft is undoubtedly one of the top English sopranos she never let her character’s dilemma over-dominate proceedings. Marschallin’s self-sacrifice to the happiness of the young couple at the end was consequently deeply moving, particularly in the light of the perfection of how the production handled Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s setting of the scene.

The overbearing nature of Baron Ochs can also lead to this character dominating the show - the opera was indeed originally conceived with Ochs to the forefront and even went under the title of Ochs auf Lerchenau while it was being written - and that is certainly a possibility with as fine a singer as John Tomlinson in the role. Not only was the diction of his bass clear, musical and beautifully resonant, but his playing of the role of Ochs made the old goat genuinely sympathetic, without contradicting the less pleasant aspects of his character. He played Ochs not as a buffoon but as a throwback to the “old ways” of the privilege of nobility, formerly secure of his position, dishonourably regretting the reduction of his influence, but ultimately accepting of it as being in the nature of the passing of time and the way of youth to usurp the place of their elders.

The fact that Roocroft and Tomlinson impressed so greatly without over-dominating the proceedings is not only testament to the fine handling of the stage direction, but to having equally fine and impressive singers in the roles of Octavian and Sophie. Sophie Bevan was a spirited Sophie, her youthful innocence and purity matched by the depth of her feelings expressed so beautifully in her words to Octavian and in their delivery. Fitting in with the overall approach to the work, Sarah Connolly’s Octavian was a model of how to make an impact and have presence through understatement, or at least without overstatement. There’s a balance to be maintained between the comic and the serious elements in Octavian’s make-up, between his youthful enthusiasm and growing maturity, his sensitive delicacy and his hotheadedness, and as performed by Sarah Connolly, you could see that character develop in real-time over the course of the opera. She was in fine voice.

Certainly one of the best all-round performances I’ve ever seen of Der Rosenkavalier, the ENO production was also one of those all too rare occasions when the full potential of a great opera was fully realised and its impact could be felt throughout the house.

SalomeRichard Strauss - Salome

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, 2011 | Stefan Soltesz, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Angela Denoke, Alan Held, Kim Begley, Doris Soffel, Marcel Reijans, Jurgita Adamonyte | Arthaus

It’s somewhat difficult to grasp the nature of the concept behind director Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s 2011 production of Strauss’ Salome or understand quite how it works, but it is delivered so powerfully in this Festspielhaus Baden-Baden staging that it’s not so hard to get a sense that he’s doing something absolutely right. The best thing you can do – and this ought to come naturally anyway if it’s done properly – is just focus on the singing and the music of this extraordinary, ground-breaking work of opera and the rest will fall into place, even if you don’t really understand why. There’s certainly a sense of dislocation then when you initially view this production, which has none of the superficial visual reference points that you would normally associate with its biblical Judean setting, and little even of the stylised imagery of moonlight nights and shadows of death suggested by a text derived from Oscar Wilde’s beautifully decadent overwrought imagery. Yet, as the opera itself takes shape, the surroundings fall into the background and instead simply provide an appropriate environment with space that allows Richard Strauss’ music to take centre stage.

In some respects you can see Lehnhoff’s work here as an extension of his approach to the symphonic tone poems of his Strauss and Wagner productions, most notably in Parsifal and, as a companion piece to this work, his Baden-Baden production of Elektra. Partly, those productions are representative of an interior mindset – particularly the latter – but they also are abstractly expressive of the tones and textures of the music itself and the themes that arise from the subject. The fractured, slightly titled landscape here in Salome suggests a psychological imbalance, while the contrasts that are expressed in the music and the characters are reflected in the textures of the walls and floors of the unconventional stage arrangement, with a dark glossy reflective centre-stage surrounded by crumbling plaster, broken tiles and rotting whitewashed wooden panels.

Salome

It’s far from naturalistic, but then there’s nothing naturalistic about the situation or the aggressive music that pushes the boundaries of the tonal system. Strauss’ Salome (drawn from imagery suggested by the paintings of Gustave Moreau and elaborated on by Flaubert, Mallarmé and Wilde) is far from a straightforward biblical tale, but rather an expression of dark sexual pathology, of the fulfilment of dangerous desires, of obsession and lust, a lurid study of the power that those perverse drives confer on both the object and the subject of those desires and how it differentiates men and women. That dark fascination of this Liebestod situation and conflict is there in Strauss’ orchestration, the composer scoring directly in response to the flow and the tone of Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Wilde’s drama, and the music is accordingly intense, intimate, perverse and disturbing, but with a romantic sweep that captures the grander epic nature of the lurid melodrama.

In his notes for the production – included in the booklet with the DVD/BD – Lehnhoff refers to the idea of the setting as taking place on the edge of a volcano. Whether this is meaningful to the viewer or not, it proves to be an effective analogy that not only suits the music and the drama, but gives it the appropriate space to work within without becoming over-imposing. Initially, the characters and the action take place on the outer rim of the stage, but gradually, as the focus of the drama and the music tightens on the nature of Salome, Jochanaan and Herod, the drama moves to the centre of this cauldron towards the centre piece Dance of the Seven Veils and a conclusion that shocked the censors back in 1905 and which still has a tremendous impact today. The tone of the production is vital to support the impact of these two key scenes, which should be dark, melancholy and perversely sordid as well as erotically suggestive, and that’s certainly the case here. The head of Jochanaan is also, I have to say, one of the most frighteningly realistic I’ve ever seen in a production of Salome. Theatrical prosthetics have come a long way over the years.

Salome

The approach to the tone of the drama and the music and how it is reflected is important, but equally as important is how it is interpreted. The cast assembled here for the Baden-Baden production deliver superb performances to match the attentive detail that is brought out of the score by the orchestra under Stefan Soltesz. Angela Denoke plays Salome as if she is in thrall to the bizarre situation and the potential that it suggests, and that suits the production perfectly. There’s a rising intensity in the performance that is in line with the score and she seems to be attuned to the slightest variations of tone within it. Alan Held is a rather more animated Jochanaan than others I have seen, less mystical and more of a firebrand prophet, and that works well with the heightened aggression on display. The singing is extremely good elsewhere, from Kim Begley as Herod and Doris Soffel as Herodias, but Marcel Reijans and Jurgita Adamonyte also make an impression in the smaller parts of Narraboth and the Page.

The Blu-ray from Arthaus is of the usual exceptionally high standards. The image is crystal clear to catch the full lighting, colour and contrasts of the set. The audio tracks are PCM Stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.0, breathtaking in High Definition clarity. This is really an amazing way to view and listen to this extraordinary work. The production, incidentally, is clearly a live performance, but there are no signs of an audience being present at the opening or close of this one-act opera – much like the Lehnhoff sister production of Elektra for Baden-Baden, already available on DVD. There are no extra features, but the booklet contains a good essay on the work, a full synopsis and notes on the production by the director. The disc is BD25, region-free, 1080i full-HD, subtitles are German, English, Italian, French, Spanish and Korean.

DanaeRichard Strauss - Die Liebe der Danae

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, 2011 | Andrew Litton, Kirsten Harms, Manuela Uhl, Mark Delavan, Matthias Klink, Thomas Blondelle, Burkhard Ulrich, Hulkor Sabirova | Arthaus

The penultimate opera by Richard Strauss, Die Liebe der Danae was written in 1940 before his last opera Capriccio, but withheld until after the war for fear that the time wasn’t right for its rich, extravagant orchestration of a mythological tale that seemed to have little relevance to the times. The time it seems has never been right for Die Liebe der Danae, the opera only receiving its premiere in 1952 after Strauss’ death, and it would appear to have had even less relevance in the post-war years and in an world of German opera that was embracing the earthier, discordant sounds of Berg, Hindemith and Weill. Consequently, Die Liebe der Danae has rarely been performed (according to the notes on this release there have been only 16 productions worldwide in the last 60 years), but at a time when economic concerns have banking institutions and large countries teetering on the brink of crisis, perhaps the time is finally right for Strauss’ neglected late masterwork. This 2011 production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin certainly makes a persuasive case for it.

The classical subject of the opera relates to another of Jupiter’s mythological liaisons (Semele, Leda and one or two other conquests also appear in this opera), in his attempts to seduce Danae, the daughter of King Pollux of Eos. With the kingdom of Eos near bankruptcy through the extravagant lifestyle of the King, Jupiter knows that Danae’s weakness is gold, and since the king is keen to marry his daughter to a rich suitor in order to restore his fortunes, how could they resist an offer of marriage from Midas, the legendary King of Lydia, whose touch will turn anything into gold? Jupiter disguises himself therefore as Midas, and forces Midas himself to act as his messenger Chrysopher and make the necessary arrangements. Danae however, against the odds and her love of gold, rejects the disguised Jupiter and falls in love with the real Midas instead, unaware of who he really is. It’s a choice that is to have grave repercussions.

Danae

The libretto for Die Liebe der Danae was written by Joseph Gregor, who was never as successful in his collaborations with the composer as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but based on some original ideas by Hofmannsthal, there are more interesting themes within the storyline than are obvious on the surface, and inevitably some amount of operatic references and self-referentiality on the part of the composer. The mythological elements have some similarity to Die Walküre – the allure and the power of the Gods diminishing, the strength of human love that takes its place expressed in the union of Midas and Danae – and the score accordingly sees some of Strauss’ most Wagnerian touches, certainly in Act II at least. It’s tempting to see, as the author of the booklet notes on this release points out, Strauss in the role of Jupiter, considering his position at this stage in his life and concerned about his legacy in a world that may no longer need him.

There is however it seems to me something of Strauss in Midas also, “cursed” with a gift that turns everything to gold – Die Liebe der Danae is scored as beautifully, extravagantly, lushly and with infinite levels complexity as some of the greatest of Strauss’ works – but it’s a gift that carries with it the danger of turning whatever it touches into something cold and lifeless. Much of Strauss’ operatic work could certainly be considered as being too intellectualised and self-referential, as cool and lifeless as the golden rose in Der Rosenkavalier – an image that is even used again in this opera with the turning of a natural flower into a beautiful but lifeless gold object. But, considering the nature of opera again in his final work Capriccio, the composer seems to come to an accommodation that the underlying truth and life in his work will endure and still find a way to reach out and touch the human spirit. All that glitters may not always be gold, but sometimes it is.

Danae

It’s taken a long time for recognition to be given to this particular opera, which makes this release all the more welcome. The Deutsche Oper production of this beautiful but rarely performed work is an absolute delight and a real treat for fans of Richard Strauss. Directed by Kirsten Harms, there is perhaps some attempt to make a personal identification of the opera’s themes with the composer by hanging an upturned piano over the set in all three acts with falling pages of a music score instead of golden rain, but otherwise this is a relatively straightforward and faithful staging of the opera, set in a timeless mythological world that is neither period nor modern. It looks marvellous and comes across well on the screen, the sets perfectly appropriate for the scale and the nature of the subject. The casting is good and the singing excellent with Manuela Uhl as Danae, Mark Delavan as Jupiter and Matthias Klink as Midas. If there are a few minor areas where the strength of the singing is competing to be heard above the sumptuous, layered score, it’s nonetheless as good as you could hope for from a live performance.

The High Definition PCM Stereo and DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 audio tracks on the Blu-ray however really work marvellously, the mixing giving the voices adequate space, while putting across the full splendour and luscious beauty of a score that, superbly performed by the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Andrew Litton, ranges from delicate, sparkling playfulness to brooding, contemplative melancholy. Consummately Richard Strauss then, and this performance amply demonstrates the qualities and strengths of an opera that, like much of the composer’s late work, remains largely unknown, underperformed, underrated and surely ripe for rediscovery.

ElektraRichard Strauss - Elektra

Wiener Philharmoniker, Salzburg Festspiele, 2010 | Daniele Gatti, Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Robert Gambill, René Pape, Oliver Zwarg | Arthaus

The 2010 production of Elektra for the Salzburg Festspiele is an impressive production, Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s staging as intense and claustrophobic as a staging of Strauss’ opera ought to be. In addition, this production also benefits from a superlative cast including Iréne Theorin, Waltraud Meier, Eva-Maria Westbroek and René Pape, with Daniele Gatti conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. It doesn’t come much better than this and it does live up to expectations …unless you already have a strong preference for another production.

Unsurprisingly, for a director like Lehnhoff working with such an opera, the stage setting is a reflection of the internal torment of Elektra, fixated as she is on the death of her father Agamemnon and the desire for vengeance against his murderers, her mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. She’s waiting on her brother Orestes to exact that vengeance for her, but, hearing of his death from her sister Chrysothemis, she prepares to carry out the foul deed herself. Lehnhoff envisages the tempestuous fluctuations of Elektra’s state of mind as a grey barren landscape, undulating and tilted, full of fractures and chasms from which horrors torment her and into which she is about to drop into at any moment. It’s reminiscent of his 1999 stage setting for Wagner’s Parsifal, forcing one to draw interesting comparisons between Wagner’s score for that opera and Strauss’, the themes being similar in respect of Elektra in an eternal state of suffering and torment seeking release or purification.

If the stage setting is highly effective in this respect, it’s impact is somewhat lessened by the lack of wide-shots to take in the whole stage, the filming for television focussing for the most part on close-ups of Iréne Theorin’s fixed mask of madness, which is powerful, but limiting and not quite so effective as what is evoked by the stage set as a whole, and by her position alongside the other characters within that space, since Lehnhoff is very considered about the movement and placement of characters in relation to one another. Fortunately, there is much more expressed in this opera through the score and the singing than through the acting, and here Theorin is terrific, cutting an imposing figure vocally and through her physical presence that dictates the whole tone of the piece. Elektra is a notoriously difficult role for a singer, Theorin having to sing pretty much for an hour and a half without break in the one-act opera, and she rises to the challenge, seeming to grow in strength and intensity right up to the devastating conclusion.

The other singers likewise live up to expectations. René Pape, as you would expect is a strong Orestes, even if he lacks the necessary dramatic qualities here. Westbroek sometimes seems to be danger of going a little shrill and harsh, but shows nevertheless fine control and manages to remain a lyrical Chrysothemis, contrasting well with Theorin’s Elektra. Theorin is also well-pitted against Waltraud Meier, but sparks don’t fly as they might between Elektra and Clytemnestra, the production here finding a sense of deep mutual like-mother-like-daughter recognition in the two figures, both in the nature of their own internal conflict and in the depths that they are prepared to sink to. It’s an interesting variation on the mythological relationship, but it doesn’t capture the fullest extent of the conflict within of their relationship that is a little more “complex” (sorry!) and expressed with greater precision in the discordance of Richard Strauss’ score.

Although it’s hard to justify a preference for Linda Watson and Jane Henschel over Theorin and Meier, Watson’s acting in particular being limited to the adoption of a haughty expression that is no match whatsoever for the brooding anguish of Theorin’s interpretation, the 2010 Baden-Baden production is sung and played terrifically well with a striking staging, and I feel that Christian Thielemann’s conducting brings out the dynamism in the opera and an edge that is missing here. That’s a personal preference however, just as others might equally prefer the Karl Böhm version, since otherwise there’s little to fault about the performances, staging or conducting of this fine production.

Other than the predominance of close-ups, there’s little to fault with its presentation on Blu-ray either, the opera looking and sounding terrific in High Definition. Audience applause at the start and bows at the end have been eliminated, and I rather liked the dramatic integrity this gave the opera. Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish and Italian, but no German. Other than trailers for other releases, there are no extra features and only a brief essay and a synopsis in the booklet.

CapriccioRichard Strauss - Capriccio

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Andrew Davis, John Cox, Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser, Russell Braun, Morten Frank Larsen, Peter Rose | The Met: Live in HD - April 23, 2011

In a short pre-performance interview before the Live in HD performance of Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, Renée Fleming spoke about the role of the Countess in the opera and, with no false modesty – although she would of course be the star of the piece – said that she considered the opera a true ensemble piece. This is true in more than one sense, for while there are equal roles for the other performers in Capriccio, the Countess no more prominent than any of them, opera itself is, by definition, an ensemble piece, and as an opera about opera, Capriccio really ought to be nothing else.

In that respect at least, Capriccio is a masterfully constructed opera, but you would expect nothing less from Richard Strauss, whose approach to opera I personally find sometimes a little more frustratingly intellectualised than truly emotional or from the heart. Even at his most emotionally intense, in the deep discordant personal trauma of Elektra, every single emotion seems to be dissected and analysed, every note perfectly attuned to the resonance of the mental state of its characters, leaving little room for interpretation or genuine feeling to come through. Strauss’ other most famous operas co-written with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, similarly demonstrate the composer’s ability to portray more than feel character behaviour, each of those operas self-reflexively really saying more about opera and the role of characters in an opera than anything meaningful about life and reality. Well, almost. What redeems all those operas are the little moments of heartfelt truths that are reached and expressed, principally, though the music itself.

One would not expect there to be a great deal of the warmth of life to be found in Capriccio, since the opera is indeed another of Richard Strauss’ intellectual exercises, the entire opera nothing more than a drawing room conversation between rich artists and intellectuals in an elegant Parisian chateau who talk endlessly about one subject; which is more important – words or music? The question comes up between the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier, two guests at the birthday party of a widowed Countess Madeleine at her chateau. Each hoping to win the favour of the Countess, they seek to impress her with their arguments and force her to choose between them, but Madeleine is not swayed, recognising the beauty in both, particularly when they are brought together, each enhancing the other. The theatre director La Roche says that neither of them would have any value were it not for the director to interpret and stage the works, which leads the conversation onto the value of opera, and eventually the Count, the brother of Madeleine, suggests that they should all work together on an opera, the subject of which should be the events of that very evening and the conversation they have all had together.

Capriccio

That sounds like a fairly fruitless exercise on the part of Strauss, writing an opera that is about writing an opera about writing an opera – to say nothing about it having a distinct air of triviality for the time it was written, in Germany in 1942 during the Third Reich – but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the qualities of Capriccio are, well, in the opera itself. As Renée Fleming noted, it’s an ensemble piece, and since each of the main characters are practically personifications of Music, Poetry and Drama, it’s the ensemble that is important in a work of opera. The role of the Countess may not seem to be as important as those other elements in the scheme of the composing of an opera – even Monsieur Taupe, the prompter has an important role to play – but she has perhaps the most vital role of all. What that role is isn’t exactly defined and it’s left for the listener to determine what that magic element is, but she could be, in hard-edged practical terms, the financer, or, more mystically, she is in some ways the inspiration, or even the harmony that brings them both together. She is also the audience, on whose reception, personal interpretation and personal identification the success of the drawing together of the various elements counts most. It’s not by chance then that the ending of the opera (and on a notionally dramatic level, her choice of the two suitors), which is left for the Countess to decide, is left open. The ultimate meaning and value of an opera lies with the listener.

It’s appropriate then that the weight of the argument is perfectly balanced on all sides, and this is where the brilliance of Capriccio lies. It opens with a string sextet – the music that is being played for the Countess – and it even stops the music to allow words to be spoken. Each of the characters then has their role, their chance to impress, expressed through the voice and in the words of the singers. Strauss even introduces an actor, Italian opera singers and a ballet sequence – all vital components that may go into an opera, particularly in the ideal of opera (considered to be Gluck here, as elsewhere), and each of them individually show their worth in Strauss’ beautiful flowing compositions. The Met’s production, a single act opera in a period room, itself demonstrates the value of staging, and it’s perfect. But in order for the opera to be more than the sum of its parts, it needs more than just the ensemble bringing them all together. It needs the Countess. It needs the magic. It needs that receptive audience. To be specific, it needs Renée Fleming. And this is the genius of Strauss’ work in Capriccio, in that he knows that the opera work is not complete, is never static – it’s alive. It’s as if Strauss had composed the opera for Renée Fleming, for a singer who in those final moments can bring something unique and special to that vital closing aria where she reaches out to the audience and communicates something ineffable, meaningful and personal. It’s a blissful moment that opens up everything that opera is and should be about.

Next Page »