Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Höheres gilt es als Zeitvertreib

Kaiser and Fleming; (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Wort oder Ton? Ton und Wort... The Met's elegant Capriccio helped me understand better how Richard Strauss' last opera could be both a concatenation of playful jokes about the operatic genre, with heavy helpings of Straussian irony, and a thoughtful exploration of some of the unresolved (unresolvable?) questions of how opera--and all art--moves us, and why.  In the hands of an accomplished cast, the conversation in this conversation piece seemed both witty and genuinely-felt, rather than merely self-absorbed (this was a problem I had while merely reading the libretto and listening to recordings, I admit. And yes, I realize how funny it is that that should be the case with this particular opera.)  I may never become a devotee of Renee Fleming, but I think she's at her best in Strauss, and her diva-charisma was of not insignificant importance to creating a credible Madeleine.  Those in the countess's orbit ranged from creditable to excitingly good, so I had a lovely night, though I never experienced the quasi-mystical emotional release Madeleine extols.

Before attending the opera, in addition to getting this glorious recording from the library, I felt obliged to research its genesis, as well as its musical-dramatic structure.  As Jonathan Miller, towards the end of a 2008 lecture, observed, "What's [he] up to?   In 1942, writing an opera about the relative importance of words and music?"  There's a typically thoughtful piece from Mark Berry on the matter; I think a recent piece by Likely Impossibilities may be relevant here as well.  (Yes, of course I turned to scholarly collections as well.  There is no consensus.) What is the relation of all Capriccio's cultured folk to the world around them?  To ours?  Does their artificial isolation vitiate the value of their debates?  To the last question I would respond with a joyous 'no,' for if the debates are to be considered honestly at all, they must be related to who we are, and if we are to examine ourselves honestly (as Madeleine does in the last scene) we must examine and engage the world.  As for Strauss... I think there may be more autobiography in the figure of La Roche--earnest, colossally vain, unsure how to cope with the changes in the world around him--than the composer knew.  The pomposity of the director's dictating his epitaph drew a laugh from the audience, but I was closer to tears.

John Cox's 1920s sets were elegant (predictably, I coveted the pillows,) but I felt the production--pictures here--gained its charm and poignancy from the singers, directed by Peter McClintock.  In their hands, the characters seemed like the sort of people I'd enjoy spending an afternoon with, clearly not superficial (well... the Graf is sort of superficial, but he can be teased.)  Andrew Davis drew warm sound from the orchestra, and subtle, delicious irony (as well as appropriate bombast when complaints are made the singer-drowning orchestra.)  I occasionally had a suspicion of not-quite-perfect coordination with the singers, but the rest of the performance was so satisfactory that I am inclined to attribute that to my imperfect knowledge of the piece.  Coming from a large orchestra, the sound was remarkably delicate, and the moonlight music was absolutely lovely.

In praising the singers, I really can't omit the fine work of the servants in their octet, vocal and comic timing precise.  (Monsieur Taupe didn't make that strong an impression, but I'd feel guilty leaving him out since everyone else forgot him.)  Michael Devlin was a suave and sonorous major domo.  Olga Makarina and Barry Banks were good sports as the Italian singers, with broadly exaggerated vocal mannerisms.  Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen made his Met debut as the count, with expressive singing and fine comic acting.  Peter Rose brought to La Roche all the vocal and dramatic subtlety I'm used to not getting from Ochs, whom he also frequently portrays.  He was, of course, exaggeratedly fussy and pompous at times.  But for me, Rose accomplished a gradual but poignant revelation of La Roche's complexity.  I liked his rich bass, and was impressed by his German.
Braun, Connolly, Kaiser (c) Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera

Sarah Connolly was so good I doubt my ability to be coherent about her.  I thought she was magnificent in every way (and perhaps she could consider 1920s-inspired concert attire? She looked amazing.)  Her Clairon was smart, sexy, and in control, and I loved it.  She commanded the dramatic nuances of the situation beautifully, and I am in love with her voice, strong, focused, and rich.  The sensuality of her gravi was palpable; Olivier was understandably uncomfortable and I was delighted.  Canadian Joseph Kaiser had his house debut as Flamand.  He has a very bright, warm lyric voice, and the unenviable task of singing a Strauss tenor role.  He was committed, but not, to me, thrilling; still, it was the first night, and he may loosen up vocally and dramatically over the course of the run.  Russell Braun's Olivier was a delightful surprise.  I was impressed with his performance as Chou En-Lai, but the longer lines of Strauss displayed both the power and beauty of his instrument to great effect.  He also gave, I thought, a beautiful dramatic portrayal of the conflicted Olivier, both through expressive singing and expressive gesture.  Need I say that his German made me very, very happy?  It did.

(c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
You need an elegant soprano to flirt with and accept flirting from two men all evening without losing audience sympathy?  Enter Renée Fleming.  What I liked best, perhaps, about her Madeleine was her warm sensuality: Fleming portrayed the countess as a vibrantly passionate woman--and that includes intellectual passion.  Fleming was vocally and dramatically expressive, differentiating nicely the dynamics of her relationships with the different men.  Although accomplished, I didn't find her performance transcendent; I know, I'm asking a lot.  Her polish strikes me as considered in a way which keeps my attention split between the artist and the art.  And I wish I could catch all of her German consonants.  But I am nitpicking, and she did do a beautiful job of communicating Straussian sensuality in the final scene (her 2008 Met performance of it may be found here and here.)  When her unknown decision dawns, she laughed with delight, extravagantly pleased with herself.  The audience, as well as the orchestra, entered into that contentment with her.  And she does look great in that haircut.


  1. Lucy. It. Was. Loooooong. It was sloooooooooow. It should have been borrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrring.

    But it wasn't.

    The playing of the orchestra was, as you suggest, gorgeous and while excruciatingly slow not devoid of tension. The acting, movement and the inflection of the singers involved and effective.

    I think you're right to single out Rose and to distinguish his La Roche from his Ochs. He sings the latter almost everywhere but on the one occasion I chanced to run into his Baron it was predictably bufoonish and very poorly sung. Here his portrayal of La Roche was indeed not only dramatically effective but warmly and securely vocalized.

    Connolly was indeed superb but did not match my heroine Kirchischalger in Vienna.

    Renee on the other hand was actually better here. You're search for her German vowels is a lost cause, of course, but her diction was fine and improved in the closing scene where her tone was liquid and glowing to an extent it has rarely been of late and which it would be difficult for anyone else to match.

    You started blogging just a wince too late to write about her Marschallin last year but I'd be curious what you think of it.

    Now to decide whether to comment on that very interesting post of Zerbinetta's that you reference above, concurring in part and dissenting in part. First of course I have to decide whether I concur in the judgement.

    Thanks again for the usual fastidious preparation and great review.

  2. Can we see some images of Sarah Connolly as Clairon? Pretty please?

    I also want that Cambridge Companion to Strauss. (Interestingly, Alex Ross authored one essay in it. Where has he *not* been published.)

  3. @marcillac Welcome back! Glad to hear you also enjoyed the evening; the interaction of the singers really was impressive to me. I admit to an occasional surreptitious stretch, but as you say, it never seemed to drag.

    Kirchschlager is a mezzo goddess whom I have yet to experience in person! I also noticed the augmented vocal radiance in the final scene... why that should be so is mysterious to me, but I really did find it exquisite. No nit-picking of that, at least! :)

    Thanks for the Fidelio link as well, by the way. I listened and enjoyed, and was indeed impressed by Diener, although I fear the radio + my laptop speakers flattened some of the nuances which you and Opera Cake noticed on the night.

    @DTO Your wish is my command. :) Unfortunately this is the only one I've been able to find so far (via The Opera Critic, which I find a useful resource for a modest subscription fee.) The Met database hasn't uploaded pictures yet, but I am watching it like the proverbial hawk! The question of "where has Alex Ross not been published?" may be a bit like "what hasn't Placido Domingo sung?"

  4. Ah, nice. The more obvious flapper style, whereas Fleming apparently has the "Don't touch my hair" clause in her contracts.

  5. i liked Braun in Nixon in China very much:) and am looking forward to seeing this performance.
    do you happen to know the dvd where olivier and flamand are David Kuebler and Simon Keenlyside:)?

  6. do you plan to see Comte ORy?

  7. @DTO Pictures are up!

    @asperias I know of the DVD but have not yet seen it in its entirety. I am indeed planning to see Comte Ory--with that cast, I wouldn't miss it--but not until next week, with the Beloved Flatmate. Wozzeck is also on the agenda.

  8. i hope i will listen to MET Wozzeck online and i am going to see Ory in the cinema. it is a must for me, and we have had already the tickets for ory, since october:-))) not that it wasnt possible to buy them later but i wanted to be sure to get in:)
    i bought the dvd because of simon keenlyside and the two look so sweet. i doubt the countess could choose between them.


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