Capriccio, Royal Opera House, London – review

In retrospect, it is a shame the Royal Opera has not taken the opportunity of staging for Renée Fleming some of the more unusual operas in her repertoire. This is the third time that concert performances have been put on to showcase her in works just off the beaten track – Dvořák’s Rusalka, Massenet’s Thaïs and now Strauss’s Capriccio.

All three would have been better as fully staged productions. Nevertheless, this pair of concert performances of Capriccio delivered more than just a celebrity evening thanks to imaginative casting and some elegantly cool playing from the orchestra of the Royal Opera under Andrew Davis, enjoying one of its rare outings to share the limelight on stage with the singers.

By 1942, when Capriccio was first performed, Strauss was intent on burying his head in the past. The opera is set in a world of rococo elegance and revisits his favourite theme of how an opera is created, as in Ariadne auf Naxos (musical quotations from the earlier opera underline the point). Much of it has an autobiographical basis, delving into Strauss’s difficult relationships with his librettists, and can seem terribly navel-gazing – all those long, wordy analyses of text and music – so a performance with characters as lively as this one comes as a real boon.

The role of La Roche, the theatre director, carries much of the burden and Peter Rose was brilliantly alive in it, with flashes of dry wit, pomposity and warmth, at least until his voice temporarily lost its staying power in the monologue. Bo Skovhus was an extraordinarily extrovert Count. Representing music and words, Andrew Staples sang with youthful ardour as Flamand, the composer, and Christian Gerhaher with impeccable authority as Olivier, the poet. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Clairon, and Mary Plazas and Barry Banks as the Italian singers, added further panache.

Through all this Fleming’s Countess floated with aristocratic dispassion. It is ironic that she managed to put across so few of the words in this of all operas, despite her good German, and these days the voice has its shallow and edgy moments. But, swathed in a glittering Vivienne Westwood gown, she still looks ravishing and the soft, poised, top notes in the closing minutes hung in the air like so many silvery moonbeams.

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