Capriccio, Grange Park Opera, June 2010

When Richard Strauss’s collaborator and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal died, Strauss turned to Stefan Zweig, who provided him with the text for his next opera Die Schweigsame Frau. He also provided him with the idea for Capriccio, drafting an early version based on Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music and then the words), an opera by Salieri with a libretto by Giambattista Casti.

Strauss’s collaboration with Zweig was cut short by the Nazis, who came to power a year before Die Schweigsame Frau reached the stage, and Strauss was badly discomforted by losing Zweig. He reluctantly turned to a Viennese professor of literature named Josef Gregor, who was unequal to the task of writing great librettos, and after three somewhat ineffective texts, using earlier ideas from Hofmannstahl, and contributions from Zweig, he tried his hand at Prima la musica. He failed, and the opera was eventually produced in 1942 to a text by Strauss himself along with the conductor Clemens Krauss. This production by Stephen Medcalf brilliantly captures the dichotomy between a story set in a French villa prior to the 1789 revolution, and the war that the Nazis fought and lost. At the start we see a rehearsal room in early 1940s Germany, with Rauchen Verboten painted on stage right, and Bühne Links on stage left. The decor is grim, and the actors and singers enter in street clothes, providing a dumb show while the orchestra plays the overture, a string sextet supposedly composed by Flamand, the composer in this witty conversation piece.

Olivier, La Roche, Flamand

The story turns on the competition between Flamand and the poet Olivier for the hand of the Countess. She is a woman who wants to select one man, while her brother the Count has a roving eye, and is attracted to the actress Clairon. Olivier’s poem is set to music by Flamand and then spoken by the count, who suddenly says it all in English, an unusual feature in this production, which is otherwise in the original language. There are some nice touches, such as when the theatre director La Roche talks of his grand new production “The Birth of Pallas Athene”. As he enthusiastically describes Zeus devouring Athene’s mother, the Italian singers, ostentatiously kitted out in dramatic costumes and make-up, devour food, swallowing it with gusto.

The Italian singers eat with gusto

Strauss’s music was played by the English Chamber Orchestra, very well conducted by Stephen Barlow, and the singing was delightful, with suitable energy from Roderick Williams as Olivier and Andrew Kennedy as Flamand, a sparkling performance by Quirijn de Lang as the Count, a gentle portrayal of La Roche by Matthew Best, and a forceful representation of Clairon by Sara Fulgoni. But what really made the evening was the superb singing of Susan Gritton as the Countess. Her soliloquy towards the end was mesmerising. I was bowled over.

Susan Gritton in her final solo

The performers’ interactions were very finely directed, and the appearance of Stuart Kale as the prompter was beautifully done, though I found the Star of David on his back to be unnecessary. The designs by Francis O’Connor provided ample indication of Germany in the Second World War, showing the ruins of Dresden as the Countess delivers her final monologue on love and the choice between the two lovers. As she says, in choosing the one you will lose the other. But as Flamand courteously says to Olivier towards the end, ‘First the words, then the music. The words take precedence’, while Olivier courteously responds ‘No, the music — but born out of the words’. This was oddly translated in the surtitles as ‘the music brings out the words’. But of course Strauss in his later life needed the words in order to compose his sublime music, and in this work he combines the two most brilliantly. As he himself said after the first performance, “I can do no better”.

This was my first time at Grange Park, and I cannot think of a better opera for a first visit. The setting is delightful, perfect for taking a picnic, and the opera house is engagingly small. I shall go again!

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