Pacific Opera Victoria
Capriccio by Richard Strauss

Dates and Venue 25 Feb 2, 4 & 6 Mar @ 8pm mat 27 Feb @3pm | The Royal Theatre, Victoria

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Capriccio is a term in music for a piece which does not have prescribed rules. By one definition the performers are at liberty to choose their own tempos and colouring. Strauss certainly took liberties with form in this opera which is chiefly conversational, uses every-day language, has scarcely any plot and no ending. At the same time, it includes some typical grand opera extravagances: a drawn-out death scene in the best bel canto style (beautifully realized by Michael Colvin and Virginia Hatfield) and a ballet, à la Lully, on the over-the-top themes of "The birth of Athene from the head of Zeus" and "The Fall of Carthage”, danced by Paul Destrooper and Andrea Bayne of Ballet Victoria. Their Gavotte was a thing of beauty, and perhaps a wink at pair&r's ice skating. But the set pieces are pastiche, illustrating various criticisms of the absurdities of opera "can't understand a word - and a good thing too") Along the way Strauss manages to touch on most of the high points of music history from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth as well as the functions of poetry, the origins of dance and dramatic criticism.

For her birthday, the young widowed Countess Madeleine has commissioned a sextet from Flamand, who is in love with her. There will also be a play in which her raffish brother will act opposite Clairon, current star of the Parisian stage, on whom he has a crush. It is written by the poet Olivier, Flamand's rival, and will be directed by LaRoche, an ebullient, Diaghilev-like producer. All these people pass through the drawing room, sometimes altogether for drinks and snacks, sometimes in smaller groups. Rivals in love, Flamand and Olivier each declare the supremacy of his art over the other. Do words give meaning to music; does music deepen the emotion of the word? The Countess must choose between them. La Roche points out that without professionals such as Clairon and himself to perform the works and bring out their best, neither would have life. Lively discussion ensues. When he is attacked by both Flamand and Olivier for presenting old-fashioned rubbish, he accuses them of being mediocre and challenges them to write something as good as the best of the old masterpieces but modern, with characters who speak and behave like real people. The Countess picks up on the challenge and suggests that to solve the argument they write an opera. The topic, set by the Count, will be the day's events. All four artists begin work as a team, argument temporarily forgotten. As evening falls, everyone leaves for Paris. The major-domo informs the Countess that Olivier will meet her in the library the next day at eleven to discuss the ending of the opera. She recollects that she has already arranged to meet Flamand in the same place, at the same time to give him an answer. Alone with her reflection she faces her choices again, but as she says, "If I choose one, I lose the other."

Robert McQueen has drawn acting performances from his cast to equal their uniformly splendid vocal chops. Brian Bannatyne-Scott, who stepped in mid-rehearsal, created a larger-than-life La Roche, bursting with enthusiasm for the stage, his vigorous, velvety bass completely assured. Tenor Kurt Lehmann was personable and poised as Flamand; baritone Joshua Hopkins matched him with an intense Olivier. Mezzo Norine Burgess (Clairon) was utterly believable as a star actress, singing Strauss's difficult lines with thorough professionalism and urbanity. Dashing baritone James Westman, sang the part of the "un-musical"; Count with fluid charm. Patrick Raftery was delightfully absurd as M. Taupe the Prompter, who despite sleeping through the entire rehearsal still thinks no play can go on without him. The understated elegance and beautiful tone of Doug MacNaughton (baritone) as the Major-Domo, stage-manager of the chateau’s smooth running, added to an already stylish production.

Soprano Erin Wall filled her rightful place at the centre of the opera with a strong, intelligent and expressive performance.

The chorus of household staff gave a well-oiled performance, just this side of cheekiness. The orchestra, packed into the pit, filled the house with Straussian richness, never over-powering the singers (except as scripted). Timothy Vernon’s reduction of the original orchestration was masterful and his conducting as meticulous as ever.

The graceful and refined set and costumes by Christina Poddubiuk and Alan Brodie's superb lighting were subtle reinforcements of the characters and themes.

For those who find Strauss a bit too lush, or like their arguments a bit more pointed, or find sitting, break-less, for 135 minutes a strain, there may be a few longeurs. Overall, though, the variety and lavishness of the music and the excellence of the performances should conquer anyone.


© 2010 Elizabeth Paterson