Fleming, Renée


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.

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.

RodelindaGeorge Frideric Handel - Rodelinda

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Harry Bicket, Stephen Wadsworth, Renée Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Andreas Scholl, Iestyn Davies, Joseph Kaiser, Shenyang | The Met: Live in HD - December 3, 2011

The challenges of staging a Baroque opera for a modern audience are difficult enough through trying to find a way to make the rather static nature of the drama more interesting to watch and bring the archaic musical conventions of the opera seria alive. By nature a more intimate drama, the difficulties of reaching out to a large audience in a major opera house, or even indeed to a worldwide audience watching live through a HD broadcast link must be even greater. With their production of Handel’s Rodelinda, the Met certainly made every effort to keep the drama and action moving through an inventive, appropriate, period set with direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and consideration was clearly given to the casting of strong singers to project the deeper emotional drama of the piece, but there was the feeling that the Met really isn’t the right venue for such works and the full impact of one of Handel’s most lyrical and dramatic operas was never fully achieved here.

Although it has a reputation for having a complex plot, the dramatic action of Rodelinda is actually not all that difficult to follow, and on the surface at least, it’s actually one of Handel’s least complicated situations. Updated in this production to Milan in the early 18th century, the King of Lombardy, Bertarido, has been deposed by Grimoaldo, and is believed dead. Grimoaldo, had been planning to marry Bertarido’s sister Eduige in order to gain a legitimate claim to the throne, but resolves instead to marry the queen, Rodelinda. Grimoaldo’s henchman, Garibaldo, puts pressure on Rodelinda, threatening the life of her son, and she reluctantly is forced to accept Grimoaldo’s proposal. Her husband Bertarido however is not dead, but has been smuggled into the city by his friend Unulfo, who still remains loyal. Overhearing Rodelinda’s agreement to marry Grimoaldo, Bertarido is forced to reveal that he is still alive, a selfless act that causes Grimoaldo to reconsider his intentions. The remainder of the storyline falls into conventional lines of resolution of both the political and, more importantly, the romantic situations that have become entangled.

Rodelinda
Even if it is fairly conventional in this respect, there is however still rather more dramatic action than you usually find in a Handel opera, with plenty of confrontations between opposing rivals and reunions between lost lovers. The real drama however goes on beneath the surface, the inner turmoil expressed, as it it often is in Baroque opera, through long repetitive da capo arias. Rodelinda is one of Handel’s most beautiful works for how these inner conflicts are expressed in the singing and in the music. It’s more than the usual, “I’ve been betrayed, how can I live with the shame?” type of situations, and the resolution is more than the person in the wrong coming to their senses and bringing about an honourable resolution that restores the political and romantic order of things. Superficially, it has to be admitted, Rodelinda does fit this template to a large extent, but it’s how those characters grapple with those difficult decisions, and it’s how those sentiments are expressed in the singing voice in some lovely poetic arias, through the achingly tender musical accompaniment, and in how the characters evolve over the course of the three acts, that the opera excels as one of Handel’s finest, most involving and most beautiful works.

From interval discussions behind the scenes during the HD-Live broadcast, it’s clear that the singers and conductor Harry Bicket are fully aware of the qualities of the work, of how those dramatic situations need to be presented, and how those deeper emotional conflicts and character development can be expressed in the improvisational coloratura of the seemingly rigid form of the da capo aria. Somehow, however, this never managed to be convincingly conveyed in either the dramatic staging, the singing or the performance of the orchestra. The Met’s Rodelinda treated Handel’s opera with skill, respect and consideration, but it just never felt like a Handel opera. As good as each of the singers is individually, the casting here was perhaps not the most appropriate for this particular opera. Personally, I’m not usually of the opinion that there’s only one way to present a work or that certain singers should only stick to a certain repertoire for which they are best suited – I like seeing a singer stretch their capabilities as much as I enjoy seeing a familiar opera transformed by a new interpretation – but few if any of the Met’s stellar cast seemed entirely comfortable in their roles here.

Rodelinda

Renée Fleming championed this work and helped get it performed at the Met when it was first produced in 2004, and she is a terrific dramatic singer who brings an attentive intelligence to the role of Rodelinda. Fleming demonstrated that she is capable of meeting the extraordinary vocal challenges in her own way, but – even though she is experienced in this type of opera – perhaps the demands of the Baroque technique got in the way in this performance, because she never succeeded in bringing the Queen’s drama to life. Neither did Stephanie Blythe fit well in the role of Eduige. She sang more than adequately, but you just didn’t get a sense that she was feeling her character’s predicament. Bertarido, with his deep reserves of love, honour and bravery, is perhaps the most interesting character in the opera, but Andreas Scholl’s light countertenor was too small for the Met production and didn’t always bring enough underlying steeliness of his character’s core. Iestyn Davies’ countertenor Unulfo however fared much better. Joseph Kaiser and Shenyang were good fits for their roles as the baddies, but even Kaiser failed to draw the full extent of Grimoaldo’s conflict and the change that he undergoes from the beautiful arias that Handel gives this character.

Ultimately however, the singers were competing with an enormous stage set that was certainly inventive and brilliantly designed by Thomas Lynch to keep the action flowing, providing a sense of realism and spectacle, but – like Wadsworth’s production for Iphigénie en Tauride last season – it was much too elaborate for the smaller intimate scale of the human drama that is played out in such a work. The same can be said for the Met Orchestra, which played the score of Rodelinda well enough, but only partially using period instruments and arranged to fill a larger opera house, it lacked the rhythm, the simplicity, the beauty and the delicate touch of a Baroque orchestra. As ever with the Met then, we got a typically top-class opera production, with top-flight singers and an intelligent and considered approach to the work, but either the venue, the occasion or the medium of HD-Live is all wrong for Baroque opera, because this version of Handel’s Rodelinda just never came across as movingly, involvingly and lovingly as it should.

OtelloGiuseppe Verdi - Otello

Opéra National de Paris | Marco Armiliato, Andrei Serban, Aleksandrs Antonenko, Sergei Murzaev, Michael Fabiano, Francisco Almanza, Carlo Cigni, Roberto Tagliavini, Renée Fleming, Nona Javakhidze, Chae Wook Lim | Opéra Bastille, Paris, France - 28 June 2011

The relative restraint and respect for the source that Verdi and his librettist Arrigo Boito afford Shakespeare’s drama is all the more apparent to me for having a few nights previously watched a production of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet (and also relatively recently, a Blu-ray recording of Verdi’s Macbeth). While Shakespearean drama suits the familiar big Verdi subjects of romance, jealousy and revenge, Otello (1887) however marks a change in Verdi’s approach to opera composition, moving away from the bel canto tradition in Italian opera that has been influential in his composition of great arias to express the blood-and-thunder nature of the subjects, towards a more dramatic focus with emphasis on psychologically realistic characterisation and a musical integrity that doesn’t stop at intervals to let the diva show off her vocal talents.

The amount of effort that went into consideration of the nature of the drama and the make-up of the characters is clearly evident in the way the drama plays out and in the respectful reading in the performance by the Opéra National de Paris at the Bastille that adhered to these intentions with a relatively low-key approach to a highly emotive subject – jealousy. The programme however revealed detailed notes made by the librettist Arrigo Boito on each of the characters and on how they out should be played. In the case of Desdemona, for example, he notes that “the serene and chaste figure of Desdemona must present a profound experience of love, purity, nobility, goodness, innocence and devotion… the more natural and measured her playing, the better she will arouse the sympathy of the spectator”. There could hardly be a better description than that of the performance of Desdemona in this production by Renée Fleming, although I would also add that her honey-inflected voice brought out another level to the nature of her character that was thrilling to see played-out to its inevitable and moving conclusion. Unfortunately, while Fleming came out of it better than most, I don’t feel that the direction or the dramatic staging in the revival of this 2004 production by Andrei Serban helped her or any of the other performers.

Otello

There’s a need to remain controlled and restrained, but there’s also a need to let go in Otello, even if it’s just a flash of emotional torment, rage, desire, jealousy or cruelty. It’s certainly there in the musical composition, which is measured and calculated both within the score and the libretto to achieve the maximum impact of the necessary condensation of the original drama, we saw it also in some of the performances, but it wasn’t brought out or enhanced by the sets or the stage direction. Visually, the sets looked fine during each of the three acts, in a typically tasteful Paris Opera fashion, making good use of the full width and height of the stage through a mixture of uncluttered props, organised choreography, strong colours and lighting and a considered amount of projections. It was however, too brightly lit, too colourful, too clean-cut and smooth-edged to be appropriate for the sombre tone of the opera itself, and there consequently remained a disparity between the content of the opera and how it actually looked.

It’s hard not to identify that the principal theme of Otello is jealousy, but what is marvellous is the subtle way that Verdi and Boito handle the potentially melodramatic situation that develops between Othello and Desdemona. The composer takes time to establish all the courage of the Moorish governor of Cyprus, all the charm, beauty and innocence of Desdemona and the love and devotion that they share, but he shows the utter devastation that jealousy can wreak on even the most stable of personalities and relationships, and this slow-acting poison is introduced brilliantly in the form of Iago. We were perhaps fortunate that on the performance I attended we had Sergei Murzaev in the role of Iago, since on alternate nights, Lucio Gallo took over the role and, by most accounts, played the part in his usual baritone baddie manner that was ill-suited to this particular role. Murzaev was a much more subtle and insidious presence, which is really how it should be, because, regardless of the order of billing or the actual amount of singing, it’s Iago who has the most important role in determining the course of events.

Otello

In an opera that doesn’t have any particularly big moments – apart obviously from Desdemona’s death scene, which was indeed extraordinarily moving here – one of the most famous arias in the opera (one not directly drawn from Shakespeare, it must be noted) is Iago’s Credo, where he lays out the nature of his cynicism in a powerful manner that the subverts Christian belief system. Wonderfully, and clearly thought through by Verdi and Boito, even if it does adhere to familiar stereotyping of the tenor, soprano and baritone types, the declamatory nature of the baritone villain in this section is balanced by the lyrical beauty of the soprano and the noble tenor elsewhere. They too each have their moments, but they are far from the usual playing of such roles. It’s Iago who runs this show, and his presence, his very existence, removes any trace of romantic idealism. If there is necessarily less ambiguity in the characterisation within the compressed libretto, Verdi makes these colourations in the score and in the very structure of the opera that refuses to play according to type.

All of this came through marvellously in this Paris Opera production, the orchestra finding those subtleties of shading, and the singers by and large finding and expressing the nature of their characters, particularly Sergei Murzaev and Renée Fleming. Aleksandrs Antonenko sang well and was a strong presence, but I would have liked to see him let his mask slip on occasion, as he appeared to suffer from the operatic version of the some Shakespearean actors’ gravitas and solemnity, intoning the scared words and going through the motions on cue, without ever hinting at any deeper understanding of his character. True, Othello is manipulated throughout by Iago like a puppet, but there should always remain the deeper resolve within Othello that the character exhibits earlier in the drama, which is not so much broken down as twisted into a perversion of its original nature in a way that reflects Iago’s Credo. The stage direction was somewhat lacking in this respect, failing to suit the drama or find a unifying theme or concept that would support the wonderful coherency and intelligence within Verdi’s opera, but the performance alone, aligned with the strong themes of the original work, was strong enough nonetheless to carry this through.

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.

TraviataGiuseppe Verdi - La Traviata

The Royal Opera - Covent Garden, 2010 | Antonio Pappano, Richard Eyre, Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja, Thomas Hampson, Monika-Evelin Liiv, Sarah Pring, Haoyin Xue, Eddie Wade | Opus Arte

Renée Fleming has matured into one of the finest sopranos around at the moment, a true star with a sparkling personality and a velvet-toned voice that is capable of wringing the finest emotions out of works by Strauss and Tchaikovsky that from a lesser singer could sound rather cold and clinical. I wouldn’t have thought her voice would be so well suited to Violetta Valéry in La Traviata, and it does take some getting used to, but I think she at least brings a distinct quality to the role with an emotional heart that isn’t always necessarily there when a leading diva uses it primarily as a display for her vocal talents. It’s served well also by Antonio Pappano’s conducting of the Royal Opera House Orchestra in a traditional but effective production by Richard Eyre.

There’s only one way to really measure the true performance of La Traviata however, and that is by the qualities of the soprano. Renée Fleming does seem a little faltering in the first act, the warm enveloping richness of her tone perhaps not quite bringing out the clarity of the Italian diction. The production also seems a little disjointed in Act 1, setting up the great arias well (and is there any opera that has quite so many memorable, technically and dramatically impressive arias?), but not really sure what to do with the performers in between. Fleming’s ‘È strano …ah forsè’lui‘ however is excellent, the soprano most definitely singing it her own way, putting a different complexion and personal interpretation on the opera.

If Act I doesn’t flow as well as one might hope, Act II however is superb in every respect – singing, dramatic representation, the precision and timing of the orchestration all played to perfection in both scenes. Fleming’s duet with Hampson’s Germont Sr., ‘Ah! Dite alla giovine‘, is technically stunning, but at the same time full of heartfelt emotion. I’ve rarely seen it done so well and it’s capable of leaving you dead in your tracks. Much as I sometimes find Act III a little gruelling in this opera, here it also comes across with great emotional force, again primarily down to Fleming’s superb acting talent, but also to how well she blends with Joseph Calleja. Calleja is a tenor very much in the classic mould of a Pavarotti or Domingo, and as such is perfectly suited to a role such as Alfredo. There is some maturing to be done in his voice, and he certainly doesn’t have the personality or range of the greats, but his voice has a beautiful tone and blends well with Fleming here.

It’s hard then to find fault with the production or the performances, but there are so many versions of La Traviata out there that a new version really needs something special to entice you into reconsidering it anew (such as in the fascinating Willy Decker production with Anna Netrebko). This is a straightforward, traditional, period staging – it doesn’t add anything new, it doesn’t make the viewer reconsider the whole tone of the piece or allow them to plunge into its emotional heart – but it has Renée Fleming, and it’s worthwhile for that alone. Other than for Fleming however, one can’t help but feel that this would indeed be just another La Traviata.

The quality of the Blu-ray release is good, but not great. The lighting is rather soft, so it doesn’t have the clarity you might expect, but it does seem to capture a sense of the ambience of Covent Garden. The audio likewise doesn’t really have a full depth of tone. The violins dominate, but feel slightly detached from the rest of the orchestration in the 5.1 mix, only occasionally achieving the thunderous tone that is often demanded. The PCM stereo mix however is excellent and may be the better option. The extras on the disc consists of a worthwhile 21-minute interview of Fleming by Pappano, where the soprano acknowledges the personal challenges the role represents, and describes her technical approach.

RosenkavalierRichard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier

Baden-Baden Festspielhaus, 2009 | Munich Philharmonic, Christian Thielemann, Herbert Wernicke, Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau, Franz Hawlata, Franz Grundheber, Jonas Kaufmann, Jane Henschel | Decca

The staging for this Festspiele Baden-Baden production, directed by Herbert Wernicke and conducted by Christian Thielemann, is as sumptuous as Richard Strauss’s score and, surrounded by mirrors that amplify the stage, it’s as languidly self-reflective as Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto. The choice not to stage it as strictly period in the setting of Marie-Therese’s Vienna around 1740 is somewhat contrary to the composers’ desire to recreate a sense of the light indulgence of the period (and in the process break away from the dark dissonance of Strauss’s previous operas Salome and Elektra), but the libretto and score are, in most sections, strong enough on their own, and so well thematically constructed that Der Rosenkavalier can stand up to a modern, or, in this case, an almost fairy-tale pantomime-like setting.

There is a richness of means by which to enjoy Strauss’s most popular opera, which flits from moment to moment, slipping from happiness into despair, from love into comedy, but principally, it is indeed about being in the moment, living in the moment, but that even within the moment, there are many contradictory thoughts and emotions pulling at one. All this is contained within the playful storyline and within the music that underscores it. Like all Strauss’s work, Der Rosenkavalier takes the language of post-Wagner late-Romanticism opera another stage further into modernity, not just accompanying the voice, not just heightening the emotional tone of the drama or just using leitmotifs to form a musical coherency and symbolism, but presenting the phrasing with an infinite number of meanings and inflections, hinting at deeper underlying psychology and richness of character, living in the moment and crystallising it in melody, but with a deeper consideration for the personality of the characters and particularly in the intricate web that is created through human interaction.

In Act One of the opera, the Feldmarshallin, Princess Marie-Therese, is living in the moment of bliss in her boudoir with her young 17 year-old lover Octavian, heedless of the clamour outside, but dealing in her own time with the levee visitors, including Ochs, the Baron von Lerchenau, who is looking for a relative to deliver a traditional Silver Rose to his young 15 year-old fiancée Sophie. Over the course of the morning, the Marschallin comes to a recognition that she will get old and that Octavian will also move on in time and become like the boorish woman-chasing Baron himself. All these thoughts crowd into the moment at the end of the first Act, leaving her melancholic and reflective, the whole morning flowing to this point and then unstoppably beyond, aided by the lush, evocative scoring by Strauss that draws on a wealth of references and motifs.

Rosenkavalier

In Act Two Sophie is also living in the moment as a young bride-to-be, but when the rose is delivered by Octavian the two young people fall in love with each other, the two of them also caught up in the moment, living for the wonder of the sensation, Octavian begging of Sophie to “remain as you are”. As Octavian plans to rescue Sophie from the clutches of the decrepit Baron, donning his disguise from Act 1’s bedroom farce as the Marschallin’s maid Mariandel for Act 3’s comedy situations, Der Rosenkavalier becomes – for me personally – rather less compelling, at least up until the reappearance of the Marschallin (which here has the additional benefit of some exceptional singing and subtle acting from the ever-wonderful, self-possessed and appropriately regal Renée Fleming), ending with a set of the most exquisite duets and the opera’s incredible trio. In between however, as the characters self-reflexively note, it’s “a farce and nothing more”, “a Viennese masquerade and nothing more”.

Well, it is and it isn’t – nothing is so straightforward in Der Rosenkavalier. Strauss is fully aware of the buffa conventions he is playing with, all of which are complementary to the period in opera terms – not least in the Cherubino-style cross-dressing of a female singer playing a male character who dresses up as a female – and he approaches the scoring of the farce with no less detail and underlying thoughtfulness than anywhere else, knowing that – as Ariadne auf Naxos made explicit – that the strength of the work is in how the diparate elements work off each other. Personally, I feel that it’s often rather too clever for its own good however and, like much of Strauss’s work, it’s rather distanced, controlled and too precise, allowing in little real human feeling or ambiguity, creating a perfect semblance of life like the crystallised silver rose that this production rather ambitiously replaces with a real one at the end.

I’m not entirely convinced by Herbert Wernicke’s production, created for Salzburg and played here at the Festspiele Baden-Baden in 2009 with the Munich Philharmonic under Thielemann, but it does at least create a productive environment for the singers. The 1962 film version starring Elisabeth Schwarzkopf casts a long shadow over the work, but no opera work should ever be considered definitive, and every one of the main performers here – an exceptional cast that includes Renée Fleming, Sophie Koch, Diana Damrau and Jonas Kaufmann – brings something interesting to their characters, with fine performances in both singing and acting terms, as does the ever interesting Thielemann when interpreting Strauss. The Blu-ray edition from Decca/Unitel Classica looks and sounds marvellous, the performance directed for the screen by the ever reliable Brian Large. Audio tracks are the usual LPCM stereo and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1. Subtitles are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese. The Blu-ray also contains a 32 minute look at the opera from the perspective of the conductor and the main singers, who all provide interesting views on the piece, and a booklet with synopsis and a superb essay on the opera by Bryan Gilmore.

OneginPyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Eugene Onegin

Metropolitan Opera, 2007 | Valery Gergiev, Robert Carsen, Renée Fleming, Ramón Vargas, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Elana Zaremba | Decca (Universal Classics)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as Russian as they come - from an impeccable literary source (Pushkin), filled with all the classic situations of fatalistic romances, fabulous balls and a duel over a question of honour. The Met’s 2007 production, recorded for their HD-Live series, retains a strong underpinning in the casting and the sensitive conducting of the opera by Valery Gergiev that brings these elements brilliantly to the fore.

Perfectly in line with Tchaikovsky’s original intentions, Robert Carsen’s staging is straightforward and simple, the set uncluttered, with only the bare minimum of props required for the settings, while the all-important tone - primarily an emotional one - is set by the lighting and colouration of the stark backgrounds that tower over and enclose the performers. It gives the opera a truly unique feel, one that is perfectly in tune with the emotional chords struck by the music and the libretto, a tone that is dominated by the interpretation of Onegin here - cold, austere and aloof, calculating even, certainly with a touch of arrogance, but carrying within himself his own torments, distancing himself from others in a remote and self-involved manner that doesn’t take anyone else’s feelings into account.

It’s remarkable then how this chimes with Tchaikovsky’s own personal circumstances at the time, unable to bear the gossip surrounding him over his sexuality, entering unadvisedly into a marriage for convenience where he is unable to offer anything more than “brotherly love”. Accordingly the music in Eugene Onegin is often as heartfelt and emotional as anything Tchaikovsky has composed, but with that customary detached, intellectualised translation of it into pure, precise musical terms. Consequently, it’s utterly gripping when converted into the drama of Onegin, involving the heart as much as the mind.

One couldn’t ask for anything more out of the performers - the starkness of the sets allowing the audience to focus solely on the singing without distractions while the lighting supports the emotions and motivations lying behind them. The singers meet the demands of the roles and the action admirably, Dmitri Hrovostovsky indeed presenting a fine cold, aloof figure in Onegin, contrasted with the fiery passions of Ramón Vargas’s Lenski and the romantic purity of Renée Fleming’s Tatiana.

On Blu-ray, the staging looks magnificent in its colouration and tones. The audio is generally fine, but there are a few issues with microphone placements that don’t give adequate presence to the voices, neither in the LPCM 2.0 or the DTS HD Master Audio 5.1, though this is only an occasional issue particularly in the first act of the opera. A 16-minute Behind the Scenes featurette presents an interesting look at the rehearsals for the opera. Overall, this is a strong presentation of a magnificent performance of a wonderful opera.