Santa Fe Opera Brings Home A New ‘Capriccio’

Ben Bliss (Flamand), Craig Verm (The Count), Amanda Majeski (The Countess) and members of The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
1. Amanda Majeski (The Countess) in ‘Capriccio’ (c) Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2016
Los Alamos Daily Post
High on the list of the world’s most creative accomplishments by an artist working late in life, Richard Strauss’s Capriccio was first produced in 1942, when Strauss was 78. Not seen in Santa Fe since 1992, a rousing new production of Capriccio was welcomed back this week  to the home of its American premiere, Aug. 1, 1958.

Strauss was not the only composer active at an advanced age. Other musical talents in this category included Giuseppe Verdi (who was 80 when he wrote his last composition), Igor Stravinsky (86), Ralph Vaughan Williams (86), and Aaron Copland (82), to name only a few. As the population ages and more of us live longer, we may see more appreciation for what the American writer Nicholas Delbanco calls their “lastingness.”

Capriccio, besides meaning caprice or whimsy in Italian, is also a musical tempo marker meaning you’re free to roam or do as you wish. When Strauss became one of the outstanding conductors, he had adopted a minimalist mode that appears in video documentaries. His baton was precise on the upbeat with a wrist motion, and his left hand might as well be in his pocket. He didn’t want his operas to be presented with excess emotion from singers or musicians.

Subtitled “a musical conversation piece” and populated by a variety of artistic sensibilities, Capriccio’s tempo grows grander and more lively, evolving from a purposely pedestrian sextet at the beginning to a semi-apotheosis at the end.

Characteristically for a Strauss opera, the more you know, the deeper you can dive.

The libretto, by Clemens Heinrich Krauss, a conductor and impresario closely connected to Strauss, supposes a love-triangle about a composer (Flamand) and a poet (Olivier) vying for the affection of the Countess, who is figuratively and literally trying to decide which comes first, the poet’s words or the composer’s music, and by extension Flamand or Olivier.

The Countess, a tall, slender young widow, with angular features and aristocratic grace and good looks, is played by Amanda Majeski. A busy recent calendar included her signature role as the Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro at the Met and the Chicago Lyric Opera, a role she will perform again in an upcoming production at the Washington National Opera. Other recent major roles include the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier also at the Chicago Lyric Opera and Eva Pogner in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Glyndebourne Festival in England.

The two gowns in her current Santa Fe Opera performance are beyond glamourous and attributable to scenic and costume designer Tobias Hoheisel and inspired by the elegance and artistic fashion of Anglo-American couturier Charles James, who reached his peak as a New York designer just after World War II.

Capriccio’s argument about words and music is naturally more central to opera, which traffics in both, than literature that is only words and sound. But Strauss was also concerned technically about the audio mix so that one sound and its meaning didn’t interfere with the other.

Then too, what role do words and music play as they are harnessed to productions and further overshadowed by crowd-pleasing demands for spectacle and entertainment? This is mostly a humorous subject, as represented by the theater producer La Roche (David Govertsen), whose ideas, taste and talent selections are pure comic relief.

As Capriccio is an allegory about the making of opera, so it also includes patrons like the Countess and (her playboy brother) the Count (Craig Verm) who can be coaxed into doing some acting by a charming woman like Clairon (played by Susan Graham of Roswell New Mexico, making her SFO debut in this role. She is a crowd favorite who has been here in many roles since 1989.)

And what about the poet librettist Olivier (Joshua Hopkins)? Is his creator, Capriccio’s librettist Kraus, not in conflict for putting words in Olivier’s mouth? The director wants something that will attract a crowd. The writer wants meaning. The composer wants an emotional connection. Everyone, including Strauss, sides with his or her own interest, although Strauss shows some self-awareness, that he is loading his own dice.

As these contradictions work their way along, they take place within a production of the opera, which is not merely a set and some good costumes, but rather more like a mise en scène, a mute little world telling the whole story without a sound by its details and design.

The period has been updated from the late 18th century in the original to the mid-20th century in the current production, and the “chateau near Paris” has been relocated to a park in a Parisian suburb. It is now a house that might have been designed by Mies van der Rohe, the leading architect of the later period. But at the heart of this minimalist structure, like an ornate jewel box, sits a late-eighteenth century French drawing room, a vestige of the period in the original opera. The house overlooks a park and elsewhere, we know by inference, there is a dining room and a theater, which the producer uses for rehearsals.

Strauss certainly didn’t arrive at old age without a wonderful collection of used and unused musical sounds, colors and effects, not to mention the full-throated orchestral mastery to express the majesty of an epiphany, as he does in the final aria, when the Countess delivers the completely evolved triumphantly musical version of the love sonnet, that started as a bunch of words.

No thoughtful mention of Strauss can go without some reference to his relationship to Nazi Germany, a relationship that he obviously was not proud of and one that gave him great pain, but one in which he participated nevertheless. Did he do evil himself? We assume not.

Let’s put it another way.

To paraphrase Alex Ross, a contemporary music historian and critic, in The Rest is Noise: On August 3, 1941, the day that Capriccio was finished, 682 Jews were killed in a Romanian town, 1,500 in a Latvian town, and several hundred in a Ukrainian town. On the day of the premiere in Munich, the first convoy of Jews from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 90 percent of them went to the gas chamber.

The Santa Fe Opera has been associated with Strauss from its beginning and very few years have passed without a Strauss opera. The curtain has risen on forty-three Strauss productions in sixty seasons, second only to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. John Crosby, founder and guiding light of the Santa Fe Opera had a special affinity for the German modernist whose Ariadne auf Naxos was produced in the Santa Fe Opera’s first season. The next year came the first Capriccio with Regina Sarfaty starring as Clairon.

Speaking of lastingness, Regina Sarfaty Rickless of Santa Fe is listed in the current program book as an honorary director.