Capriccio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

The last gasp of Romanticism
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The backdrop of this production of Strauss's Capriccio placed us, in the first half, at the bottom of a palace stairwell. After the interval the stairwell had been hit by a bomb, presumably one of many that were falling on Munich in 1942, when the opera was premiered.

Yet most of the opera was performed in 18th-century dress. Indeed, the costumes were elaborate to the point of absurdity: huge wigs, brocade coats and high heels. There was a hint of caricature, stressed with the entry of the two Italian singers, the man (Ray M Wade Jr) wearing tall plumes straight from an old opera seria engraving. Yet the performance began in modern dress, with two Gestapo men on the point of arresting the Count. This style was soon abandoned, though the Nazis continued to materialise as ghostly presences.

Strauss meant this work to be about opera itself; in particular, the relationship between words and music. Two men are both in love with the Countess, using their skills as composer and poet to press their advantage. From the start, we were prevented from taking this message unadulterated. There was always a subtext; even the opening curtain portrayed an image of German troops on the Champs-Elysées. After all, the action is set near Paris, which in 1942 was occupied by the German army.

With this subtext – the opera as escape from war into fantasy – the producer, Christian von Götz, reflected recent developments in German culture, for this was a joint production by the Edinburgh Festival and Cologne Opera. Once, it was not possible to speak of the Nazi experience in Germany. Now, Germans need to locate it in their history – after all, Strauss had a partly compromised relationship with the regime.

The meeting of modern reality and baroque ornament was elusive, cryptic. The performance – dramatic and musical – was, on the other hand, more straightforward. Above all, Cologne's Gürzenich Orchestra played like angels, the conductor, Markus Stenz, linking each episode in a powerful flow, the sound spontaneous yet perfectly blended, with a glowing string sextet at the start, and later a songful horn solo.

The artists were distinguished by prodigious competence rather than originality or inspiration. Gabriele Fontana, as the Countess, possesses a commanding soprano, warm and focused in high passages, flexible and versatile in dialogue. Yet she failed to move in her long closing soliloquy – surely the composer's most touching music.

The composer Flamand, portrayed by Hauke Möller, sang his setting of the sonnet with impulsive lyricism, but could also rise to heroic heights. The poet Olivier (Johannes Beck) was a mobile baritone, while Ashley Holland as the Count, also a baritone, seemed a distinguished artist, perhaps a future Wagnerian singer.

Second in importance to the Countess herself, however, is the role of La Roche, the opera director, here sung by Michael Eder, a bass who easily commanded the stage. In spite of his immense control, he never quite captured the pathos of his long hymn to the traditions of the lyric stage. Dalia Schaechter sang the part of Clairon, the shrewish comedienne, with much sympathy and without parody.

Finally, the production's two themes were left carefully unresolved. The Countess wept over her inability to choose between her two lovers; abruptly, the Majordomo appeared with two suitcases and, grasping her belongings, she walked off into the hands of the Gestapo. As Munich was bombed by the Allies, the old Germany was being destroyed for good, and Romanticism, both in music and in politics, reached its conclusion. It had always been about loss and sadness; Strauss' heart-wrenching music became, at last, an epitaph for itself. Nothing like Capriccio would ever be written again.