Eine Kleine Nichtmusik

Witty and pertinent observations on matters of great significance OR Incoherent jottings on total irrelevancies OR Something else altogether OR All of the above

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Capriccio, Cologne Opera, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 30 August 2007

My final festival review for 2007, unless tomorrow night's Fireworks Concert elicits a post: I shan't be attending, but we have a flat roof which commands a decent view of the Castle Rock, and the concert is broadcast on the radio, so except for ground-hugging cascade-type effects we will get to see most of it. The first couple of years of fireworks concerts we queued up and went along to see it properly in Princes Street Gardens, but then it got too busy and the music became a bit variable. And the cascades are most fun when they set the Castle Rock alight, which they did on our second year.


Capriccio was the world premiere of a new co-production by Cologne Opera and the Edinburgh Festival, and had attracted a lot of attention. We went because we like Richard Strauss, we like opera, and we hadn't seen it before (or even heard the music).

The general theme of the operatic strand of this year's festival has been the relationship between words and music, and that is very much what Capriccio is about. The opera deals with a group of people (a poet, a composer, a director, and some of their patrons) outside Paris in the 18th century, and considers the question of which is more important, music or words (or, indeed, the production). This is all bound up with a love triangle, where both the poet and the composer are in love with their patron the Countess, who ends up admitting to herself that she can't bring herself to choose between them.

So far, so conventional. Capriccio is not a frequently-produced opera, even in Germany. Sometimes it's done in 19th century costume and style, sometime in modern dress to highlight the fact that when Strauss was writing it, under the watchful eye of the Nazis, Paris was under their occupation. Neither approach is wholly satisfactory nowadays. This new production by Christian von Götz combines the approaches, having the action framed (both in time and space) by Hitler's world, while the core of the action takes place in Rococo Paris. It may sound a bit ary, but actually it works. At the beginning we see the Count providing forged documents for (one assumes) Jewish refugees. At the end, the Countess realises that all her friends have disappeared, and she herself is eventually escorted away to imprisonment. It sounds arty, but it works. The production has many other felicities, not least the Dancer. She appears in Act Two and dances for the company. She is clearly the protegée of one of the characters (the Count, I think) who is very keen on her and intends to advance her career. In a traditional production I would guess she is simply a ballerina. In this one, she starts out as a "ballerina" but gradually sheds items of clothing and is clearly actually more of a stripper. The production gets a lot of comic mileage out of her, partly in the reaction of the Count to her dancing, and partly in her interactions with a pair of singers who are part of the same entertainment. For the record, she was played by Luisa Sancho Escanero: one heck of a dancer.

If the production wins the contest here, the words and music are well suported. Gabriele Fontana was exraordinary as the Countess, whose big final solo is the climax of the opera. Strauss was exceptionally good at writing for women, and that scene is one of those "moments of clarity" like the one the Marschallin has in Act One of Der Rosenkavalier when she sings "Heute oder Morgen". The Marschallin is recognising that her young lover will eventually give her up in favour of someone his own age, there, the Countess is accepting her inability to choose between her two lovers (she's a widow and realises that she'll probably only get one more shot at romance, only here are two besotted lovers at once: bummer). The music is extraordinarily beautiful in itself, and when one considers that it was both Strauss's last opera and (by common consent) the last true Romantic opera, it carries a lot of emotional freight, as a valediction to the Countess's past, opera's past, Strauss's past and the pre-war world.

I enjoyed the performance unreservedly; Hilary thought the final scene was too long, which still leaves me gobsmacked, as though she'd wanted to cut bits of Wotan's Farewell in Die Walküre. (Don't worry, reader, she isn't that far gone yet.) Still, the critics were divided to an extraordinary extent. Here, first of all is the Daily Telegraph's critic, who clearly went to the same opera we did. Then the Edinburgh Evening News, and The Independent, both again enthusiastic. Then we move to the less convinced end of the spectrum, with the Financial Times and The Scotsman (whose critic manages entirely to miss the humour of the Dancer's performance). Finally we have The Guardian, the only critic apart from the FT not to be wowed by Gabriele Fontana's performance, and who could find nothing else good to say about the evening. I suspect he was so busy jotting down details of the framing Nazi-era staging (I didn't spot a cyanide capsule anywhere, and neither Hilary nor I considered the COuntess obsessed by her pearls in any way) that he neglected to listen to any of the actual opera.

So our lesson today, children, is to ignore critics. For every one who agrees with your (good or bad) assessment there will be a hack whose unrecognisable impressions suggest a viewing via YouTube (with the sound off)at best. Trust your own instincts. Maybe all your friends think something you hated is wonderful? Screw them. (Nobody will convince me now that watching Shakespeare In Love wasn't a tragic loss of what felt like ten hours of my life, or that Schubert's Ninth Symphony has any redeeming qualities whatsoever.) Trust your own judgement, and it will lead you to wonderful things (usually).

Anyway, yes, Capriccio: a fitting climax to the 2007 festival, and a magical performance all round. (All the people I know who saw it agree.)


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