Capriccio, Royal Opera

La Roche, for
instance, introduces the rival element of the stage — and seems, by the force
of his panegyric alone, to have won everyone over. (Not, of course that that
brief meeting of minds and souls whole; once discussion of the opera
begins, Êsthetic and personal bickering resume.) The question of staging
inevitably came to mind, here, of course, given the curious decision to present
Capriccio in concert. Even if, as rumour has it, the decision to
perform Strauss’s last opera was made late in the day, as a consequence of
RenÈe Fleming having elected not after all to take on the role of Ariadne, it
is difficult to understand why, instead of a desultory couple of concert
performances, a production from elsewhere might not have been brought in. The
Cologne Opera’s excellent, provocative staging, seen
first at the Edinburgh Festival
, would have been one candidate; so, by all
accounts, would be Robert Carsen’s Paris production. (That is to leave aside
the question, worthy of Capriccio itself, of why a singer wields such
power at all. GÈrard Mortier in Paris had the healthier attitude that if
‘stars’ were willing to perform in and to throw themselves wholeheartedly
into interesting repertoire and stagings, all the better; if not, a house could
and should manage perfectly well without them.)

Anyway, we had what we had — and I missed a full staging far less than I
should ever have expected. Part of that was a matter of a generally strong
musical performance, Ton winning out perhaps, but it seemed also to be
a credit to the acting skills of the singers, who edged the performance
towards, if not the semi-staged, at least the semi-acted. Though most did not
follow Fleming’s lead — she has recently sung her role on stage — in
dispensing with their scores, there was genuine interaction between them and
more than a little moving around the stage in front of the orchestra.
Presumably those credited with ‘stage management’ — Sarah Waling and Fran
Beaumont — had some part in this far from negligible achievement too.
Moreover, Fleming’s Vivienne Westwood gown, granted a lengthy description in
the ‘production credits’, might as well have been intended for a staged

Fleming’s performance was more mixed than her fans would doubtless admit,
or perhaps even notice. There was a good degree of vocal strain, especially at
the top, accompanied at times by a scooping that should have no place in
Strauss. It would be vain, moreover to claim that there were not too many times
when one could not discern the words. That said, it seemed that there was an
attempt to compensate for (relative) vocal deficiencies by paying greater
attention to the words than one might have expected; there were indeed
occasions when diction was excellent. She clearly felt the agonistic tensions
embodied in the role, and expressed them on stage to generally good effect in a
convincingly ‘acted’ performance. There were flaws in her final soliloquy,
but it moved — just as the Mondscheinmusik did despite an
unfortunate slip by the first horn.

It will come as no surprise that Christian Gerhaher excelled as Olivier.
Both he and Andrew Staples offered winning, ardent assumptions of their roles
as suitors for the affections of the Countess — and of opera itself.
Gerhaher’s way with words, and the alchemy he affects in their marriage with
music, remains an object lesson . His cleanness of tone was matched — no mean
feat — by that of Staples, a more than credible rival. Peter Rose offered a
properly larger than life La Roche, though vocally, especially during his paean
to the theatre, it could become a little threadbare. Bo Skovhus may no longer
lay claim to the vocal refulgence of his youth; he can still hold a stage,
though, even in a concert performance, and offered a reading of the Count’s
role that was both intelligent and dramatically compelling. Tanja Ariane
Baumgartner, whom I have had a few occasions to praise in performances outside
this country, made a splendid Covent Garden debut as Clairon, rich of tone and
both alluring and lively of presence. Graham Clark offered a splendid cameo as
Monsieur Taupe, rendering the prompter’s late arrival genuinely touching.
There was, moreover, strong singing, both in solo and in ensemble, from the
band of servants, many of them Jette Parke Young Artists. John Cunningham’s
Major-Domo faltered somewhat, but he had a good line in the brief declamatory.
The audience clearly fell for Mary Plazas and Barry Banks as the Italian
Singers, though I was not entirely convinced that some of those cheering
understood that they were acknowledging Strauss in parodic mode.

Sir Andrew Davis led an estimable performance from the orchestra, the
occasional fluff notwithstanding. There were moments of stiffness, not least in
the Prelude; transitions were not always as fluid as they might have been.
Davis, however, marshalled his forces well, and pointed up the myriad of
references to other music, whether direct quotation or something more allusive.
For all the perfectly poised nature of the ‘discussion’, we always know
that Strauss (and thus music) will win out, as he did here. The performance was
recorded by BBC Radio 3 for future broadcast: inevitable cavils
notwithstanding, it remains highly recommended.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Countess Madeleine : RenÈe Fleming; Olivier: Christian Gerhaher;
Flamand: Andrew Staples; La Roche: Peter Rose; The Count: Bo Skhovus; Clairon:
Tanja Ariane Baumgartner; Major-Domo: John Cunningham; Italian Singers: Mary
Plazas, Barry Banks; Servants: Pablo Bemsch, Michel de Souza, David Butt
Philip, Jihoon Kim, Ashley Riches, Simon Gfeller, Jeremy Budd, Charbel Mattar;
Monsieur Taupe: Graham Clark. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Andrew
Davis (conductor). Royal Opera House, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor), Friday 19
July 2013.

image_description=RenÈe Fleming [Photo: Andrew Eccles/Decca]
product_title=Capriccio, Royal Opera (concert performance)
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: RenÈe Fleming [Photo: Andrew Eccles/Decca]