Strauss’ final opera, Capriccio, poses a number of difficulties to modern musicians, directors and audiences. Not only it is a bear to play, to conduct and to sing, but it is also highly intellectual and incredibly text-heavy. Though there are gorgeous motives and gestures, it avoids arias – at least in the traditional sense – to which one could grab ahold of and use for orientation. And then there is the awkward fact that Strauss wrote a seemingly trivial work – a Capriccio - in the midst of the Second World War, leading many to view the opera as a 78-year-old’s attempt at escapism instead of something to hold as a serious piece of art. Strauss himself subtitled the work “A conversation piece”, and indicated that it was meant for a limited number of connoisseurs, not for the general public.

Daniela Fally (Italian Singer)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

Based on impulses from Stefan Zweig and text from the 1786 Salieri opera Prima la musica e poi le parole, Clemens Krauss and Strauss worked closely together to create a work that is fairly meta: an opera about making an opera in which the nature of opera itself is thoroughly examined. This central question, the relative strengths and roles of language and music, was however in no way a diversion, but rather a leitmotiv for Strauss. It drew him to his best and most lasting librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose struggle with the limits of language were memorably encapsulated in his Lord Chandos Letter.

Anna Gabler (The Countess) and Wolfgang Bankl (La Roche)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

Capriccio’s cast of characters encapsulate this struggle, and the main character, the Countess (Anna Gabler) is not so much a dynamic character as the foil against which this argument is played out. In Marco Arturo Marelli’s rather conservative production, her opulent gowns (Dagmar Niefind) stood out much more brightly than her character did. Her two love interests: a poet, Olivier (Adrian Eröd) and a musician (Michael Schade), represented language and music respectively, and discussions circled around their relative importance and weakness, expanding to consider other forms, including theater, represented by La Roche (Wolfgang Bankl), and dance (Natalie Salazar and Samuel Colombet). Italian opera norms were delightfully dealt with when a tenor (Pavel Kolgatin) and a prima donna (Daniela Fally) were paraded around in lofted gondolas, singing arching bel canto phrases.

The production got off to a rather slow start, though the theme of duality came through consistently whether in the two-toned scrims featuring scribbled text and musical notation, arching pillars of Bavarian-looking crystal with rich red or blue backings, and even in the Countess’ half-rose, half-violet dress. Things picked up considerably as the action and arguments got more heated – after the introduction of a vivacious Clairon (Angelika Kirchschlager), love interest of the Count (Morten Frank Larsen) for example – and came to a raucous head when La Roche lost his cool amidst numerous theatrical effects: smoke, tableau pages flying, costumed dancers and everyone singing over each other to terrific musical effect.  

Pavel Kolgatin (Italian Tenor)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

In fact, there are many musically masterful moments in Capriccio which often escape attention. The transparent sextet which opens the overture is some of Strauss’ most lovely writing, and was played beautifully by the Staatsoper Orchester under Michael Boder’s baton. Boder’s work throughout the evening was solid, though not always enough to keep voices in lower registers from being absolutely buried, though this was also due to scoring and casting choices. Vocally this was a Vienna who’s who of opera; 90 percent of the cast was filled with household names, and though one could certainly parse hairs about some of the choices and not one impressed unequivocally, they were all guaranteed hefty applause and positive reception. One of the most wryly funny bits in Capriccio happens near the close when the servants discuss how ridiculous it would be if the help were ever featured in an opera. Hats off to the octet of male voices here, who had by far the crispest diction of the show.

Peter Jelosits (Monsieur Taupe)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Poehn

The final scene is generally one of the most stunning. The Countess sings a monologue, concluding that she cannot choose between poet or musician. Unfortunately, it felt pale and under-energized. Anna Gabler is a very controlled and capable singer, but she sounded vocally tired and lacked variety of color and expression and even vocal height. The rest of the evening felt similar. Everything from the voices to the conducting to the staging to the performance was solid and had very effective moments, but precious little gleamed.

Though really, after an unbroken two and half hours of this a monstrous undertaking, the entire team could rightfully turn to me and paraphrase Strauss: Is there any critique that isn’t trivial?