STOKENCHURCH, England—A strong cast and a radiant account of the title role show that music and art do matter in Richard Strauss’s final opera.
Tim Albery‘s production of Richard Strauss’s “Capriccio,” a collaboration between Santa Fe Opera and Garsington Opera, debuted in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2016, and now it has reached Garsington with an entirely new cast and conductor. We caught the fourth performance on June 9; Douglas Boyd conducted with Miah Persson as the Countess (her role debut), William Dazeley as the Count, Sam Furness as Flamand, Gavan Ring as Olivier, Andrew Shore as La Roche, and Hanna Hipp as Clairon.
Tobias Hoheisel‘s set consists of a modernist, Mies van der Rohe-style house with the paneling from an 18th-century room at its center, like a collected object. The rear wall is glazed and looks out onto a terrace. At Santa Fe, this gave a view of the hills beyond the opera house, but in Garsington, this is simply evoked with lighting.
Costumes are loosely 1940s, with Miah Persson wearing a pair of extremely striking outfits, which seem somewhat later in date than the rest of the costuming.
Premiering in Munich in 1942, Strauss’s final opera completely avoids any sense of the war and the troubles that lay behind life at the time. It can seem a somewhat sweet confection, with a group of aristocrats arguing about music, words, and art. But for Strauss, this was a subject that really mattered, and for the opera to work, we have to believe that these people really do care intently about art, that it is one of the most important things in their life.
The opera is very wordy, very conversational, and there is always a limiting factor when hearing it in German with surtitles. Like intermezzo, there is a good argument for performing opera in the language of the audience.
But Albery’s very physical production has the virtue of making us believe that these people really do care that what goes on in this room matters. All concerned were highly involved, and there was a strong sense of competitive dialogue.
Strauss filled the opera with jokes, often musical ones. Though we do not always laugh at its performances nowadays, this one is funny, in the right way. At times, the performance veers toward physical comedy, especially in the scene where Olivier and Flamand gang up on La Roche and try to decry his old-fashioned ideas for staging opera. This physical aspect of the performance, combined with Douglas Boyd and the Garsington Opera Orchestra in the pit, creates a robustness to the music that pushes the opera from the conversational to the more conventionally operatic. The big moments tended to flower as dramatic, operatic moments rather than flow as pure conversation. Yet, the result was to convince us that these people really mean what they say.
The Star: Miah Persson
The big plus for the production was Miah Persson’s Countess: elegant, stylish, and completely at ease with the sheer wordiness of the role. The Countess might have one of Strauss’s most ravishing scenes in the closing pages of the opera, but to get there the singer must cope with two hours of complex dialogue. Persson makes it all seem natural and elegantly intense, as she showed a vivid sense of the words and the dialogue going on around her.
Persson is not the flirtiest of Countesses—that palm has to go to Felicity Lott, whom I heard in the role in Brussels and at Glyndebourne. In Persson’s scenes with Sam Furness (Flamand) and Gavan Ring (Olivier), she instead creates more a sense of a muse than a potential mistress. The relations between herself and the two men matter deeply, but you feel that, for this countess, it is art that really draws her in rather than any flirtation leading to a possible relationship.
Both potential lovers are brilliantly characterized and somewhat contrasting. Sam Furness is a rather nerdy yet undoubtedly sexy Flamand. He’s unsure of both the power of his music and his own power, rather intense yet apt to get carried away.
Furness has fine lyric tenor and a wonderfully ringing tone, and in his declaration to the countess produced oodles of gorgeous tone. So it seems churlish to complain that making the volume lower, making it more conversational, would have benefited the piece.
Gavan Ring is similarly vocally intense, a rather older, more mature Olivier. He’s definitely the senior in any operatic partnership between the two, more considered, and less impulsive than Furness’s Flamand. Yet Ring is no less vividly convincing and similarly operatic in his declaration to the countess.
Andrew Shore’s La Roche is a brilliant comic creation, someone who is easy to laugh at. Of course, everyone gangs up on him in the second half, and then he turns the tables with a brilliant defense of his art. It is this speech which is the essence of the opera, and here Shore drew on his experience to make both text and music count.
William Dazeley makes an elegant Count, taking life at a rather easier pace than his sister. Hanna Hipp is Clairon, the actress who draws his attention. Dazeley and Hipp develop a delightful sparring relationship, with Hipp very much channeling one of the strong 1940s Hollywood film stars; while her hairstyle suggests Veronica Lake, her manner suggests Bette Davis.
Nika Goric and Caspar Singh are the delightful Italian singers, with Lowri Shone as the elegant dancer. Benjamin Bevan created the role of the Major-Domo with great aplomb. Silent for most of the opera, Bevan is still wonderfully expressive and, of course, he gets the last word in the opera!
Graham Clark has great fun with the role of Monsieur Taupe, the prompter who appears at the very end.
The young group of singers who form the servants are inevitably ubiquitous during the action and then amuse greatly, with the chorus commenting on the actions of their ‘”betters.”
The opera opens with Strauss’s glorious sextet, here playing in the 18th-century salon, by an ensemble that included four students from the Royal Academy of Music. The performance makes the opera start with real expressive style.
The orchestra gives us some superb solo moments in Strauss’s complex score; though, in an ideal world, the overall tone would perhaps be a little more luxurious. As I have suggested, there were also moments when the orchestra was a little too present, and this tended to push the music away from pure conversation.
Garsington has assembled a wonderfully balanced cast, which enables Miah Persson to shine beautifully. And shine she does, bringing a little bit of magic to the stage. And in the closing scene, she manages to combine radiance of tone with a sense of the implicit rightness and seriousness of the dilemma the Countess faces.
Robert Hugill is a composer, lecturer, journalist, and classical music blogger. He runs the classical music blog Planet Hugill, writes for the Opera Today website, and Opera Today and Opera magazines. He lectures and gives pre-concert talks on opera and classical music in London. As a composer, his disc of songs “Quickening” was issued by Navona Records in 2017. This article is reprinted with permission from Planet Hugill.