Strauss - Capriccio

Palais de la Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday November 13 2016.

Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Production: David Marton. Sets and costumes: Christian Friedländer. Costumes: Pola Kardum. Lighting: Henning Streck. Die Gräfin: Sally Matthews. Der Graf, ihr Bruder: Dietrich Henschel. Flamand, ein Musiker: Edgaras Montvidas. Olivier, ein Dichter: Lauri Vasar. La Roche, der Theaterdirektor: Kristinn Sigmundsson. Die Schauspielerin Clairon : Charlotte Hellekant. Monsieur Taupe: François Piolino. Eine italienische Sängerin: Elena Galitskaya. Ein italienischer Tenor: Dmitry Ivanchey. Der Haushofmeister: Christian Oldenburg. Diener: Zeno Popescu, Nabil Suliman, Vincent Lesage, Bertrand Duby, Kris Belligh, Pierre Derhet, Maxime Melnik, Artur Rozek. Eine junge Tänzerin: Florence Bas, Margot-Annah Charlier, Germaine François. 

Strauss
From "Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome" in Sweden to "Bezaubernd ist sie heute wieder!" in Belgium in one weekend... Fortified with a choucroûte royale à l’alsacienne at the Taverne du Passage, off we trudged across the damp waste ground, past the ruined warehouses and a tattooing fair, to La Monnaie’s temporary big top for that least spectacular, least circus-like of operas, Capriccio.

The house orchestra was only occasionally stretched by Strauss’s de luxe virtuoso demands and, like Sweden’s Royal Opera for Salome, La Monnaie put together an excellent cast, so musically we had a very good afternoon – with one “disclaimer”: I still think that, to improve the acoustics of their ill-starred tent, they have installed subtle amplification. At times you can’t tell who’s singing, as the disembodied sound doesn’t come from anywhere in particular; at others, you can, which may imply that the excellent balance between different singers was achieved artificially by amplifying each one differently. In any case, I see a little pink bud over each singer’s right ear, but I suppose I could be imagining things…

Edgaras Montvidas and Lauri Vasar were welcome discoveries, both "all perfect in their parts" (as the ladies say to a castrato in Signor Velluti and the Female Choristers, a saucy old print), dramatically and vocally, Montvidas especially. Kristinn Sigmundsson was on remarkable form, considering the years he’s already given us pleasure, and in excellent voice. Charlotte Hellekant played a more restrained, less “actressy” Clairon than some, with firm, upright presence. Dietrich Henschel was Dietrich Henschel: elegant as always and more natural an actor than ever, even close up on the video screens that flanked the stage.

I don’t know if Sally Matthews was directed to overdo the countess’s primness or just overdid it herself, and her singing style (I’ve seen her before and think this is her own) remains relatively cool and disengaged – or “detached”, as a friend who’s also seen and heard her put it – but her voice itself is fabulous: not a hint of particular effort, strong and straight, rich in timbre, Goldilocks vibrato… It must have been at least as maddening for her as it was for us that no fewer than four jets came in to land at Zavenetem during her final scene, enabling us to gauge quite accurately the frequency of arrivals on a Sunday evening.

Shabby theatre...
David Marton’s production was set in a shabby theatre – one privately owned by the countess, perhaps - presented in cross-section so we could see under the stage on the left, boxes facing us, and rows of seats rising to the right. From where I was sitting, towards the end of a row also on the right, I couldn’t, therefore, see the whole of this on-stage auditorium. I don’t know if that’s why there were live videos on either side, of if they were meant to allow us to admire the admirably detailed acting and expressions. It made sense enough for the characters to be discussing the relative merits of poetry, music, dance and directing while wandering about that theatrical setting, with a sofa and some chairs on stage, but less to transform the stage, in the second half (La Monnaie inserted a break) into the countess’s saloon with a forest of potted plants carried on by the servants – who sang very musically, by the way.

I liked the hints at the countess entertaining a Lady-Chatterly-style relationship with her handsome, brooding, fair-haired butler, all brass-buttoned up in black, implying that at the end her choice would be between three suitors, not just two. I quite hoped she’d fall into his arms, making a novel early decision, at the curtain, but she didn’t. On the contrary, she seemed to give him the brush-off.

Some people liked the introduction of three dancers: one a child in a tutu, one a grown woman, one old and grey, representing, I suppose, the three ages of Madeleine whom she confronted, instead of her mirror, while the jets roared over in the finale. There was some potential in this, harking back to the Marschällin’s nocturnal soliloquy and raising briefly in my mind the notion that she might be realising it was time, as time passed, to stop being silly, give up her manservant and settle down seriously with someone of her own class.

But overall I found these three a bit confusing, and was more confused still when at one point the butler seemed to be venting his anger semi-sadistically on the child ballerina, practising under the stage, or at another when dancers and Italian singers were marched off, wearing raincoats, in file. The costumes were contemporary with the work: wartime, so perhaps this, and Monsieur Taupe, pottering round quite often and measuring people up with calipers or compasses, were a vague reference to Nazi eugenics and the camps, as my neighbor surmised. In Paris, Carson slipped in one Gestapo uniform (an officer accompanying Clairon) and a little swastika; there was none of that here.

At least one critic wrote that these ideas were sparks of genius. At least one other was a bit baffled, like me. I’d have been quite happy with just the theatre setting – no need to bring in all those potted palms to make a room on stage where no real room would be – and the hint at a daring affair with the handsome butler. But in any case, leaving aside the jetliners landing, thanks especially to the singers, this was a strong Capriccio that would make a nice addition to the DVD library, if filmed.

A different italienischer Tenor: Maestro Wenarto.

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