Capriccio in Concert, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, July 2013

Though only a concert performance with orchestra on stage, the ample room in front allowed the singers to dramatise their feelings, none more so than Danish baritone Bo Skovhus as the Count. He injected huge life, lustiness and levity into the performance of this engaging philistine, a wonderful counterpoint to the artistic sensitivities of his sister Madeleine the Countess, beautifully portrayed by Renée Fleming.

She is the star of this elegant conversation piece, Richard Strauss’s fifteenth and final opera, where preparations are underway for a celebration of her birthday. We are not told which birthday this beautiful widow will be celebrating, but Olivier the poet and Flamand the musician, eloquently sung by Christian Gerhaher and Andrew Staples, vie for her affection, disputing which has the greater merit, words or music.

The question of words versus music inspired Stefan Zweig, who in 1934 in the British Museum came across a short comedy Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music then the words) by Giovanni Battista Casti, used for an operetta by Salieri in 1786. Zweig thought it a fine subject for Strauss, but after the Nazis crushed their partnership, following the premiere of Die Schweigsame Frau, Strauss had to make do with Joseph Gregor as his librettist. Gregor attempted the Casti piece more than once, but it was rejected and Strauss eventually drafted the libretto he wanted himself with assistance from conductor Clemens Krauss, who had already modified Gregor’s libretto to Daphne.

The result is exquisite. Count, countess, composer, poet, plus a major role for theatre director La Roche, strongly portrayed by Peter Rose, are complemented by an actress, attractively sung by mezzo Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, two Italian singers, hilariously played by Barry Banks and Mary Plazas, major-domo, servants, and Monsieur Taupe the prompter, brilliantly performed by Graham Clarke with reading glasses pinned to his nose. What a wonderful cast, all under excellent musical direction by Andrew Davis.

Playing it in concert without a dancer worked extremely well, with no quasi-intellectual cleverness from a stage director, as sometimes happens at Covent Garden these days. Apart from the subtle back and forth between words and music — and the words are very important here — the two extended vocal episodes are a delight. In one, after a noisy contretemps between everyone on stage, La Roche silences them all with his belief in the noble dignity of theatre, and provides an epitaph for his own gravestone. In the other, at the end, the Countess muses on the fabric of love that envelopes her, the warp and weft of words and music that she cannot unpick without loss, and Renée Fleming gave a heavenly account of her feelings.

Of course the real divine presence in this opera is Strauss himself, and as he said after its premiere, “I can do no better”.

A second performance takes place on July 21 — for details click here.

Leave a Comment