Thought provoking. Uncomfortable. Fascinating. And nearly perfect! Those were my thoughts about Grange Park's production of Strauss’s last opera as I wandered into the Hampshire night air after the last performance of the run, and a few days' reflection have merely confirmed the very strong impression the production made. It is, of course, a minority interest opera, mainly because nothing dramatically interesting really happens and because the characters are little more than metaphors, or ciphers, for the standpoints they represent: the writer, the composer, the impresario etc. But assemble a cast like Grange Park have done, put them in the hands of an intelligent director who has a point to make but who never labours it, add the English Chamber Orchestra (who by the seventh performance were playing Strauss's gloriously opulent score as if it really meant something to them) – well, the result for me was a triumph. Among its wacky, and occasionally misfiring productions, Grange Park comes along every now and then with a gem like this – they did so in 2007, with a Falstaff that lives long in the memory, and they have done it again with Capriccio. Bravo to all concerned.
Director Stephen Medcalf is not the first, and will certainly not be the last director to set an opera at the time it was written (1940 – 41), rather than at the time in which the 'story' is set. Nor is he the first to try this with Capriccio – I saw a production by Jonathan Miller at the Berlin Staatsoper in the 1990s that had the cast grouped around crackly radios in a ruined building, the drone of bombers overhead and searchlights raking the sky for a good twenty minutes before the opening sextet actually started. The result was a near riot in the theatre, with angry shouts being exchanged with the house management! And as a concept, it was too disruptive of the piece: the largely German audience were never won over to some of the other (good) ideas that Miller had later on in the work.<
Medcalf avoided all that with simple understatement. His set (cleverly designed by Francis O’Connor) was an enclosed battleship-grey space, contrasting dark brown doors to the back and sides, utilitarian notices on the walls in German gothic script reading Nicht rauchen! and Toilette. In other words, we were in a working space, a rehearsal room, a backstage area, maybe even in a basement, well away from the threat of any stray bomb. Enter the cast one by one in day clothes of the early 1940s – first Countess Madeleine, who takes a score, settles into a chair and listens to the sextet as it unfolds. She greets the fellow members of her troupe – they go through the doors to change into their period costumes. And gradually the Capriccio of Strauss’s imagination comes together against the neutral grey setting of the walls: the cast re-emerge in the colours and costumes of the late eighteenth century, the wigs and tresses show up handsomely, the sheer escapism of what the characters are doing (and that has to be what the opera is actually all about) is pointed up in myriad different ways. As a concept for staging this difficult piece, I bought into it totally.
The argument within Capriccio is, of course, whether the music or the words are the more important in opera (or the impresario-director, as La Roche emerges to argue). So it is useful to have good exponents of both sides of the argument. As the composer Flamand, Andrew Kennedy delivered a true Straussian performance, with long, flowing melodic lines, plenty of warmth in the middle of his voice and an outstandingly musical performance, sensitive to the quick and sudden changes of mood and of emphasis. As his rival Olivier, Roderick Williams almost surpassed Kennedy however: I have never heard his baritone so honeyed, his phrasing so assured, his musical manner so at one with the character. What a combination they made! The debate may never be resolved, but I for one would have been happy to listen to these two singers all evening, so assuredly did they assume their roles.
But the musical treats did not stop there. As if inspired by the musical excellence all round them, both Matthew Best as La Roche and Quirijn de Lang as the Count, Madeleine’s brother, delivered fabulous accounts of their respective roles. Best has a big, stentorian voice (his experience as a Wagner singer clearly in evidence) and he used the voice to characterise La Roche as the driven megalomaniac that Strauss clearly intended. Whether Strauss was being entirely fair to Max Reinhardt, on whom la Roche is modelled, is a moot point (and Reinhardt had after all saved the first ever production of Der Rosenkavalier from mediocrity by a virtuoso display of tact and diplomacy, hard to reconcile with megalomania) but the point is incidental: Best gave us a big and wonderful sing, full of energy, that sustained the piece at several key moments. De Lang has a more compact voice but the tone is noble and the phrasing clear and expressive: he also has a highly attractive stage personality.
The smaller parts were well taken: a broad (but skilful) cameo from the dancer Bryony Perkins, a full-blooded pastiche from the two compario Italian singers Wynne Evans and Sally Johnson and a spirited, but to my ears not entirely musically successful Clairon from Sara Fulgoni, who forced her tone somewhat. But then there is the Countess Madeleine, who dominates the opera from the moment she sets foot on stage until her closing, glorious monologue. Susan Gritton struck me as being ideal for the part in this size of house. Her soprano is clear, warm and radiant and, like Kennedy, she seemed to cope effortlessly with the long cadential phrases that litter the part. Singing without strain, and mostly well within herself, Gritton proved to have that invaluable extra gear as the orchestral textures thickened: she soared, and our senses quickened. Gritton also has an attractively mobile face, reacting to characters and situations onstage with great flexibility, always putting light and shade into the role. This was a polished and assured central performance.
And it was all the more telling, in the end, for what came after the extravagance of the Fall of Carthage scene and the great fugue that Strauss, like Verdi before him, put on display in his last opera. The stage empties, the characters return to their dressing rooms to get out of their period costumes and back into street clothes. A stage trapdoor opens and Monsieur Taupe, the prompter, emerges blinking in the bright light: as he turns, we see the Star of David chalked on the back of his jacket. He has been forgotten; he has a short exchange with the Major Domo and both leave the stage: but we are reminded now where we really are, and what was happening as Capriccio first saw the light of day. Then, perhaps inevitably, the rear wall separates and as the Countess sings her farewell monologue – Strauss’s own farewell to the world of opera – we see a city in ruins. Dresden? Berlin? It hardly matters, because the image never really intrudes on the stage action – it is just a fact that Capriccio was first performed in 1942 and that the destruction of Strauss's Germany was beginning. Against this backdrop, Gritton produced her finest singing of the evening – a gorgeous outpouring of Straussian sound and emotion. Her musical material is by that stage well known to us, of course – we have heard it twice already – but Gritton sounded fresh, appealing and totally believable, and brought the work to a memorable end.
I have already praised the playing of the ECO: I should also have added that their conductor, Stephen Barlow, seemed absolutely in his element in this piece. He let it flow, he let it breathe where necessary, but he always pushed things forward and he negotiated the various traps in the score with ease. With a work that is not that often played, like Capriccio, it is often advisable to let conductor and cast run themselves in before seeing a performance. On this occasion, I came away feeling that the entire ensemble was on top of their game.
So Strauss 'works' in this particular house. What next for Grange Park in the genre? What about an Ariadne auf Naxos – I think it could be absolutly wonderful, and much easier to stage than Capriccio. But for this version of Strauss's autumnal operatic masterpiece, five stars – it really was something very special.
Photos: Alastair Muir