Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Capriccio’: Richard Strauss’ grad school arts seminar

Richard Strauss' infrequently heard “Conversation Piece for Music” is less an opera and more a debate on the merits of literature vs. music that's then set to music.

Flamand (Ben Bliss) oversees the chamber ensemble as the Countess and the Count look on. (Photo credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

SANTA FE, N.M., Aug. 14, 2016 – The final performance we attended during our excellent journey to the Santa Fe Opera’s 2016 season was Richard Strauss’ last opera, “Capriccio,” which was premiered in Munich in 1942: no mean feat in the midst of the Second World War. It didn’t receive its American premiere until 1958, when—trumpets, please—the Santa Fe Opera staged its first professional U.S. performance when the company was still in its infancy.

After encountering the first 10 minutes or so of the current SFO production, anyone possessed of one or more pre-PC era degrees in the humanities (like this writer) will be struck with an odd sense of déjà vu. The bare bones plot of “Capriccio,” such as it is, involves the age-old academic debate, at least in the humanities, namely, “Which realm in the arts is the greater? Is it poetry or music?” “Capriccio” is academic closet drama, an old-fashioned artistic and philosophical dispute writ large, but with representational characters, not real ones. That poses a bit of a challenge to the singer-actors required to bring those characters to life.

The original production of “Capriccio” was set back in the 18th century. However, SFO’s current production, while retaining that sense and sensibility, advances the timeframe to the 1930s or 1940s and relocating it to the desert expanses of the American southwest—perhaps even Santa Fe itself, given that the drawing-room/music room center stage opened out into the wide expanse of desert hills and mountains beyond the removable back wall of the SFO stage.

Clairon (Susan Graham), the Count (Craig Verm) and the Countess (Amanda Majeske) are not quite sure what's happening. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)
Clairon (Susan Graham), the Count (Craig Verm) and the Countess (Amanda Majeske) are not quite sure what’s happening. (Photo credit: Ken Howard, SFO)

In this setting and in the small rooms surrounding it, Strauss’ characters wrangle endlessly about the arts and complain about their too-complex lives. Strauss’ primary disputants are the expansive, emotional composer Flamand (tenor Ben Bliss) and the cranky, disputatious poet Olivier (baritone Joshua Hopkins). Both are attempting to woo, via their respective arts, the heart—and the approval—of their wealthy and beautiful hostess, the Countess Madeleine (soprano Amanda Majeski).

Tossed into this already argumentative salon is the haughty stage director La Roche (bass-baritone David Govertsen), the countess’ debonair would-be actor brother the count (baritone Craig Verm) and eventually Clairon (SFO favorite and Roswell, N.M.-born mezzo-soprano Susan Graham), the legendary actress the Count would dearly love to make his own.

Other minor characters appear at intervals in the opera, including the officious major-domo (Adrian Smith), a dancer (Beth Miller), a pair of rambunctious “Italian singers” (tenor Galeano Salas and soprano Shelley Jackson) and a self-important and hilariously eccentric stage prompter named Monsieur Taupe (tenor Alan Glassman).

In this closet drama, the singers are called upon not only to excel vocally but also to possess excellent acting chops as well. That’s because the central premise of “Capriccio” pits words against music. Allegory or not, the singer-actors cast in this production need to go the extra mile to turn their essentially cardboard cut-out characters into actual individuals capable of attracting audience interest.

The central arguments in this sung drama are advanced with considerable humor and subtle comic touches by Mr. Bliss and Mr. Hopkins, both of whom come very close to making Strauss’ rather two-dimensional representatives of music and poetry into sympathetic if slightly bizarre real-life characters.

Each singer’s vocal approach—Mr. Bliss’ long, highly musical and Romantic legato lines and Mr. Hopkins’ crisper, edgier, more nervously desperate and less musical poetic wordsmithery—actually serves to transform the abstract concepts they represent into something approaching reality—quite a remarkable feat.

Craig Verm’s count comes across with surprising effectiveness as well, reminding us at times of George Hamilton at his faux-elegant best. Mr. Verm’s count is no towering intellect and knows it. Yet he also knows how to come across to his guests elegantly, politely and professionally. He’s a gentleman well able to roll with a verbal punch while still emerging as quite a fine fellow.

As his opposite number, Susan Graham revels in the key role of Clairon, the Marlene Dietrich-like theatrical legend who’s bold on the outside but perhaps a bit insecure on the inside. Ms. Graham is relaxed, articulate and wholly comfortable in the role, and her bold, rich mezzo-soprano voice completes her picture-perfect portrait of this imperious but oddly approachable thespian.

However, it’s David Govertsen’s extravagant stage director La Roche who ends up stealing half the scenes in this production. La Roche is Strauss’ most amusing character, a man whose extravagance and self-importance clearly takes precedence (at least in his eyes) over the legion of actors, composers, musicians and writers who actually create what he directs.

La Roche (David Govertsen) presents his outrageous concept for performing a stage work composed by Flamand and writter by Olivier (Joshua Hopkins) who dances his displeasure and disdain. (Photo credit: Ken Howard)
La Roche (David Govertsen) presents his outrageous concept for performing a stage work composed by Flamand and written by Olivier (Joshua Hopkins), who dances his displeasure and disdain. (Photo credit: Ken Howard)

Mr. Govertsen’s La Roche invariably takes credit for any fame creative artists may achieve due to the utter brilliance of his production concepts—a brilliance he then brilliantly undercuts while describing his preposterous production ideas for a stage piece co-authored by composer Flamand and poet Olivier. Subsequently he offends everyone in the room, particularly his co-collaborators who, understandably, join the others in ridiculing La Roche.

The entire episode is a highly amusing “behind the scenes” look at the nonsense that goes on backstage during many theatrical and operatic productions, while poking fun at the Zeffirelli-like nature of the egotistical, hypersensitive La Roche.

As an actor, Mr. Govertsen is letter perfect as this monomaniacal, two-bit backstage tyrant. Better yet, he underscores his character with an almost buffo bass-baritone voice that achieves satirical perfection again and again.

Amanda Majeski as the Countess. (Photo credit: Ken Howard for SFO)
Amanda Majeski as the countess (Photo credit: Ken Howard for SFO)

As Countess Madeleine, the central love interest and chosen muse of both Flamand and Olivier, soprano Amanda Majeski projects her character with a warm yet paradoxically icy perfection. The countess must ultimately choose the man she wishes to wed—Flamand or Olivier. But she seems wholly incapable of making up her mind. That is, until Strauss gives her a final, epic scene and enough information to solve the dilemma. If she can.

Making things tough on nearly any soprano who attempts this role, Strauss’ final philosophical summation scene, in my opinion at least, goes on at least five minutes longer than it should, maybe more. It’s hard to make such an overblown scene compelling, though it was clearly the composer’s intention that it should be.

Alone on stage and still unable to choose between the poet or the composer, the countess recounts all the arguments and possibilities in a huge aria-soliloquy. Ms. Majeski couldn’t quite scale the required dramatic heights in this scene, at least on the evening we saw this production. Vocally, her approach seemed rather brittle, giving a nervous, hard vibrato edge to Strauss’ broad, declamatory phrases.

Musically, the most interesting part of “Capriccio” actually comes earlier in the evening, when all the major characters and a couple of the minor ones combine into an extraordinarily complex, lengthy and often hilarious octet of almost stupefying difficulty. The cast brought this one off without a hitch (at least to this critic’s ears) in a genuinely amazing operatic tour de force. Ah, if only one could have been a fly on the wall during the rehearsals of this scene!

To sum things up, the Santa Fe Opera gave a generally delightful reading to this rather esoteric but still very Straussian opera. The singing, with occasional exceptions, was uniformly good; the roomy, evocative stage setting by Tobias Hoheisel was perfect for the occasion; and the SFO Orchestra under the baton of Leo Hussain generally sounded quite good.

Having finally heard this opera, we would imagine that “Capriccio” is likely to remain only an occasional treat for most opera lovers. But we’re glad we had an opportunity to encounter in its entirety the final operatic effort of one of Germany’s greatest composers.

Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)

Tickets and information: Season (5 opera) packages may still be available. Single ticket prices for each opera this season range from $32-$225. All operas this month begin at 8 p.m., and the 2016 season concludes on Friday. For more complete information including directions, individual performance dates and tickets, visit the Santa Fe Opera site here, or call the box office Monday through Saturday (in season) between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time at 505-986-5900 (local) or 800-280-4654.

Additional notes: If you haven’t attended the opera here before, watch the skies, bring an umbrella when appropriate and, for the ladies in particular, include an extra wrap. Santa Fe and environs may be in the desert, but it can cool off considerably in the evening. As it’s “monsoon season” in the American southwest, the weather can also get surprisingly stormy in late afternoons and early evenings.

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