double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on Richard Strauss: Capriccio Kiri Te Kanawa and soloists Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Ulf Schirmer (Decca 444 405 2)
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Capriccio is a supremely elegant conceit. An opera within an opera, an opera about opera. A kind of operatic show-and-tell. Not for the first time does Strauss hold his craftsmanship up to the mirror and lose himself in admiration. This is how it's done, he tells us: look, no hands. The Ariadne prologue was a dress rehearsal; Capriccio is the first - and last - night.

It begins and ends gloriously: an inspired prelude (the celebrated string sextet), a sublime final scene (cue horns over arpeggiated violins: is there a more expectant evocation of twilight in all opera?). And whatever one's feelings about what passes between them (and mine are decidedly mixed), the after-glow factor (post-coital, if one's thinking in terms of the Rosenkavalier trio) is high. Depending, of course, on the performance.

This one begins with an invitation one can't refuse from the Vienna Philharmonic strings. The phrasings, fingerings, bowings probably haven't changed since Strauss's day. Ulf Schirmer will doubtless have contemplated the question: do you want me to conduct this, or do you just want to play it?

Thereafter, the words-and-music (words-or-music) debate opens up. It's clever, of course, it's theatrical, it's capricious. One can stand back and admire Strauss's sleight of hand, his intricate vocal and instrumental counterpointing, the fluency of his recitative style. But one waits and waits and waits for the moments (and herein lies the irony) when words and music - as personified by the excellent Olaf Bar and Uwe Heilmann as poet and composer - aren't rivals for the Countess's affections, but happy allies.

"My heart hears an echo of passionate music," sings the Countess in a soaring Strauss cantilena. But not often enough, you want to add. The Countess's Sonnet cannot come soon enough for this listener. It's Strauss's "Prize Song" and he nurtures it gloriously in preparation for that long- awaited final scene. Meanwhile, the stage debate rattles on - gentle digs at the Italian bel canto, an earnest tract on the value of theatre... And all for the love of a dame.

Dame Kiri will not disappoint her loyal fans. She wears the vocal lines almost as well as she does the Versace frocks. But she doesn't fascinate me. The voice is alluring, the personality behind it is not. It's partly to do with colour - word colour - which is far too generalised. Unlike Schwarzkopf (with whom comparisons are inevitable), she needs to be seen as well as heard. But then, I'm not so sure that Capriccio was made for gramophone listening. Ultimately, it's a celebration of what words and music can do for each other in the theatre. Though at the close, with the Countess's choice tantalisingly withheld, "music" does have the last word, as it were. As I say, a supremely elegant conceit. ES

Capriccio is an opera about opera, in which the cast eventually decide to write another opera about their experiences - or could that fictional, projected opera actually be the one we're hearing? No wonder the final scene takes place in front of a mirror. On this level the plot seems very modern, but the central question is an old one: in opera, which takes precedence, words or music? The muse, the beautiful Countess Madeleine, must decide, by choosing either the poet Olivier or the composer Flamand as her lover. The libretto doesn't tell us which one she chooses, but the music hints delicately that the composer is the victor.

Artificial? Of course it is, and one may well wonder at a German composer contriving such a plot, and dressing it in such beguiling music, in 1941- 2. But it is the music that makes Capriccio live. It's one of the ripest of Strauss's late products, the Countess's gorgeous final scena rivalling the soprano-writing in the Four Last Songs. Kiri Te Kanawa gives a very elegant, understanding rendition here, and the solo horn prepares the atmosphere lovingly in the "Moonlight" interlude.

If all had been on this level, this might have made a competitive Capriccio. As comedy, however, it's less than convincing. Victor von Halem, as the preposterous theatre director La Roche, does manage the vocal equivalent of a twinkle in the eye; Brigitte Fassbaender's Clairon strikes the right note of self-importance; but the ensembles never really spark. Ulf Schirmer has plenty of good qualities - feeling for long phrases and a fine attention to detail among them - but his reading feels too carefully considered, rarely surprising. And what's comedy without surprise? SJ