It is a truth universally acknowledged that an opera worth anyone’s attention is in want of a plot. So it’s plot, plot, plot for three of the four operas staged thus far in the Santa Fe Opera’s 60th season. With more to come: Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, scheduled to appear July 30.
The exception? Richard Strauss' Capriccio, his last work for the stage, now playing and pure 24K stuff. He said it himself: "I can do no better." Strauss christened this his "Conversation Piece for Music in One Act," with no more operatic plotting than, say, The Republic, yet another conversation piece. Like Plato's work, Capriccio consists of an extended argument on a single topic—in matters operatic, which should take precedence. Words? Music?
Strauss conceived of "a treatise on dramaturgy, a theatrical fugue" set in an aristocratic late 18th century chateau. If this sounds a bit dry and theoretical, if you want operatic red meat with heads on platters and bloody matricide to boot, Capriccio may not be the opera for you. But if you value a sophisticated evening of lively civil discourse (rare enough nowadays) elegantly accompanied by the most fluid, fluent music for voice and orchestra that Strauss ever composed, seek no further. An opera about a sonnet? Well, why not!
The action begins with a birthday gathering for the young widowed countess, Madeleine, whose two rival suitors compete for her affection. As gifts, composer Flamand provides a string sextet of surpassing beauty, and poet Olivier offers a love sonnet (cribbed from Ronsard). Nota bene—words vs. music, with Madeleine playing referee. Well, the fix is in, isn't it? Capriccio's an opera, not a play; a fusion of words and music with emphasis upon the latter, even though Strauss and his co-librettist, Clemens Krauss, provide ample dramaturgical arguments along the way.
Witty musical allusions abound, peculiarly appropriate to the intended 18th century setting. You'll hear a bit of Gluck and a bit of his stylistic rival, Piccinni. Couperin and Lully and Rameau show up, too. Leaping over the years, Strauss even glances at his own Ariadne auf Naxos and Daphne. And among the literary allusions, count Pascal, Voltaire, Metastasio, all delivered with the lightest of touches.
As is usual with Capriccio these days, director Tim Albery fast-forwards the action from its intended 1775. The current show sets the scene in the 1950s, 10 or so years after the opera's 1942 premier, and splits the action into two acts—likewise a usual practice. Albery chops the setting in two as well. A pair of bleak Bauhaus-y wings frame the chateau's glazed, gilded central pavilion, all very Louis Quinze. It's Tobias Hoheisel's design. You get used to it.
But not to the fact that six non-descript string-players saw away onstage during the sublime opening sextet. Subtle? Uh-uh. Contrary to the score? Yes. Destructive to the fragile mood and temper of the piece? Totally.
Matters improve, Gott sei Dank. Noel Coward hovers amiably over the first half, with bright young things sipping cocktails amid the fervent love-declarations. Ben Bliss makes his SFO debut playing a nerdy Flamand whose pleasant, light lyric tenor is easy on the ear. SFO veteran baritone Joshua Hopkins, the more passionate Olivier, comes across as quite the ardent suitor.
In another debut singing the earthy-flirty Count, Madeleine's brother, the warm and capable baritone Craig Verm makes a vigorous impression, although I need to give him my tailor's address. David Govertsen, as the theater impresario La Roche, blusters mightily, his Trumpery all-about-me monologue hogging the stage as intended. Shelley Jackson and apprentice Galeano Salas exude charm and petulance as the Italian singers.
In a bit of grand luxe casting, Susan Graham plays Clairon—the très chic actress who's captured the Count's wandering eye. Elegant and worldly, she looks like she's ready to jump aboard the next available yacht. And as Strauss' multi-faceted, somewhat enigmatic Countess, Amanda Majeski provides a poised central figure. She's played the vulnerable aristocrat in the past—Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Figaro.
Here Majeski, still warming to the role, sings from the heart in a role that's a semi-composite of the composer's great heroines, the Marschallin and Ariadne. It's a limpid, lucid portrayal, nowhere more distinctive than in the searching final monologue, Strauss' most enraptured.
Even the servants get a droll, swift commentary on their betters. Alan Grossman's excellent Monsieur Taupe, the sleepy, left-behind prompter, prompts the action into a philosophic mode. I cherish the memory of a long-ago Glyndebourne production when the 85-year-old Hugues Cuenod defined the role for good and all. In a neat touch, the Major Domo, Adrian Smith, gets made-up to be a Strauss look-alike. Dancer Beth Miller delights us in her baroque divertissement, choreography by Jodi Melnick.
In a welcome return to the SFO pit, Leo Hussain leads a loving, ever-so-nuanced account of this captivating score. Albery's direction, after that initial stumble, proceeds apace, aptly aided by Hoheisel's country-house costumes. Madeleine's two sumptuous gowns might have emerged from the atelier of Charles James.
But I need to modify that opening steal from Jane Austen. Let's try Pirandello instead: eight characters in search of an opera.
8:30 pm Wednesday July 27. $15-$243.
Santa Fe Opera,
301 Opera Drive