Richard Strauss - Capriccio

Opéra National de Paris - Garnier, July 2 2004

Conductor: Ulf Schirmer. Production: Robert Carsen. Die Gräfin: Renée Fleming. Der Graf: Rainer Trost. Olivier: Gerald Finley. La Roche: Franz Hawlata. Clairon: Anne-Sofie Von Otter. Monsieur Taupe: Robert Tear. Italian singers: Annamaria dell'Oste, Barry Banks. Der Haushofmeister: Petri Lindroos.

Thousands couldn’t be wrong

I admit I’ve had a “problem” with Renée Fleming. While friends gushed and flocked to hear her live and buy her CDs, I remained sceptical, not to say unmoved. On the first two occasions I saw her, I left at the intermission. Not in a huff but unimpressed, and when you’re bored at the opera house and haven’t had dinner yet, the vision of a tripe sausage with mustard and thick-cut fries starts to hover where the supertitles should be... It’s true that Paris’s awful production of Manon didn’t help, and the staging of Rosenkavalier, imported from Austria, is even worse. And while Fleming’s voice is medium-sized, the Bastille is huge. I thought things would be better at the smaller Palais Garnier with the marvellous Alcina, but was bored again. It seemed lacklustre to me. Il Pirata, in concert, was different: Fleming’s vocal mannerisms were so marked it was grotesque and to be honest I thought she’d realise and cancel her New York performances. Rusalka, back at the Bastille, was better: there was a semblance of acting and some commitment in the singing, but still nothing to write home about.

Why did I keep going back? Because I really believed thousands couldn’t really be wrong, and because I really hoped, as we all do, that I’d hear a truly fabulous performance and finally “get it.” Well, now I’ve got it. Though she held back until after La Roche’s tirade, though she still sometimes swooped up into her notes from way below, though the top is a little pinched, as Madeleine, Renée Fleming abandoned her mannerisms, acted regally, and put her creamy medium to excellent use in a house – Garnier again – suited to the size of her voice, and in a great production of Capriccio that deliberately played the sublime final scene in conditions calculated to bring the house down: more of that later.

Anne-Sofie von Otter, as Clairon, did not abandon her own vocal mannerisms, but this time they suited the part of the actressy actress and she sang full voice, not mezza voce or less, as has been her wont in recent productions. Dietrich Henschel (Der Graf) and Gerald Finley (Olivier) put in idiomatic performances but, as reviewers noted, Rainer Trost was a relatively weak Flamand, his top notes thin and sour where Strauss would have had them soar. Some reviewers were also hard on Franz Hawlata (La Roche), perhaps because his is a relatively bright, clear bass and a little more depth and warmth might have made his great tirade a touch more moving.

I was interested to hear Barry banks again, having been very impressed by his Astrologer in Rimsky’s Golden Cockerel and read how well-received he was in Ermione in New York. He and Annamaria dell’Oste together receieved an ovation as the (diminutive) Italian singers. I’ve been told Banks’ career will be held back by his height (he is short), but hope not. Robert Tear was a luxury as Monsieur Taupe.

A specifically Parisian production

Now, the production. After a brilliant start (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, still in repertory at the ENO) Robert Carsen has sometimes proved disappointing, but here he was on true, mid-season form (“vintage Carsen,“ a critic friend e-mailed to me after the first night). It was a specifically Parisian production, for a number of reasons.

First, this was Hugues Gall’s farewell to the Opéra, giving an extra layer of meaning to Strauss’s own testament in the part of La Roche.

Second, Carsen chose to set the work at the time of its creation, 1942. As you know, the action takes place near Paris, which at the time was occupied, and though the point certainly wasn’t laboured, Clairon was escorted in by a Gestapo officer whose cap remained on a table as a small, sinister reminder. For Parisians, this would bring to mind collaborationist actors tried after the war, and of course it raised the question of Madeleine and her friends debating words and music while war raged beyond the borders and, naturally, that of Strauss and Krauss doing the same.

And finally, the Palais Garnier, the “old” opera house with which Paris opera-goers have a sentimental relationship (and which, as renvoation progresses, is being restored to its considerable former splendour) played a part in Carsen’s dense, theatre-within-a-theatre-within-a-theatre production. As the audience took their seats, the curtain was already up, the set reproduced the bare Garnier stage, and Flamand and the Haushofmeister were already directing lackeys in the placing of seats and music stands for the sextet. The musicians came in, in 40s suits, unpacked and tuned their instruments; Renée Fleming took a seat on the “balcon,” spotlit in a turquoise gown and and elaborate, period hairdo, among the surprised Paris public and, as the sextet played “backstage”, studied the score. As the opera went on, the rear of this stage-within-a-stage opened to reveal Madeleine’s parlour, recognisable to Parisians as one of the various, elaborately pillared and mirrored dance studios and rehearsal rooms dotted around the house by Garnier, with a typically grand chandelier echoing the one above our heads, under the Chagall ceiling. The action moved between this glittering Second Empire saloon at the rear and the stage within a stage.

Now, theatre and the magic of opera are of course a theme of Capriccio, and anyone who has read Strauss’s correspondence with Hofmannsthal knows he was a showman of the La Roche kind, knowing full well how to manipulate his audience’s emotions. At the end, Carsen played along with this, giving us a a display of theatrical magic calculated – just as Strauss himself calculated in his operas – to bring the house down. After the guests had gone and the servants had done their little dance and cleared the stage, the Haushofmeister made a gesture up into the flies, the famous Garnier curtain came slowly down and Monsieur Taupe emerged from his hole to play the scene in front of the it. Then as the marvellous “moonlight” music played, the curtain rose very, very slowly – and you know how thrilling that in itself can be: it creates a palpable sense of expectation; slowly, then, it revealed a row of old-fashioned footlights, and... the Garnier curtain again, in reproduction, just a little smaller. This, in turn, rose slowly to reveal Madeleine’s parlour, not, as before, on a human scale at the rear, but now the size of Garnier’s considerable stage, with rows of elaborately carved columns to left and right, a carved and gilded and frescoed ceiling, the huge mirror to the rear, and there facing the mirror, Fleming in a vast, glittering ball gown, rivers of diamonds and diamonds in her hair, picked out with a deliberately old-fashioned, hard-edged, round spotlight. A magical vision. She sang her scene thrillingly, and then... as the opera ended, the decor slipped away, the rear mirror was raised, and the whole, vast, real stage was revealed, with stage hands pushing sets and props and an assistant waiting for Fleming with a towel and a bottle of mineral water. Far away at the back, in a real dance studio opening off the back of the stage, a dancer rehearsed. Fleming and her assistant wandered off the set. At the penultimate “chink” from the orchestra, the stage was plunged into darkness. And at the final “chink,” the light faded on the dancer and the curtain fell.

It brought the house down, of course.

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