Philosophical riddle: when La Roche, the theatre director in Richard Strauss’s Capriccio, jokes that music often drowns out words, but you can barely hear him over the orchestra, is the joke still funny? Or is it even funnier? And if it is – is it supposed to be? My guess is no, given the immaculate setting devised for this production by John Cox and set designer Mauro Pagano, revived for the Lyric Opera by Peter McClintock. The curtain goes up on a pristine Parisian drawing room that serves as the only set of the night, despite an intermission first used in the 1950s, and now conventional. (The timing of the intermission, by the way, immediately after the Countess orders chocolate, is a minute perfection whose comic sophistication vastly outstrips all the libretto’s winking and nudging.)

Renée Fleming (The Countess) © Todd Rosenberg
Renée Fleming (The Countess)
© Todd Rosenberg

But then, this was always the risk of satire: you’d better be sure you’re not the butt of your own joke. Certainly Strauss’ text setting doesn’t make it easier. He has singers chew through words often in rhythms unsympathetic to vocal range and vowel extension, flittering up, down and around thick orchestral middles that can so easily take the wind out of a breath’s projected arc. On opening night, nearly everyone started out sounding gauzy and distant, including Auden Iverson as the poet Olivier and William Burden as the composer Flamand, meta-characters vying for the affections (and, ultimately, the judgment) of their patron, Renée Fleming’s Countess Madeleine. I am not entirely sure why Anne Sofie von Otter came all the way out to Chicago just to be swallowed under Sir Andrew Davis’s baton. Her mezzo-soprano needs to be given a great deal more space from the pit, especially given her lilting delivery of many of Clairon’s lines; can it be any recompense for an opera singer to know that her physical performance was as expressive and natural as those of the best silent film actresses?

In the second half, the orchestra and singers seemed to fight each other less, which bodes well for the rest of the run. The one who really benefited from the orchestral tune-up was Peter Rose as La Roche, who made apologies for a deficient throat but sang in the second half with an astonishing diction and carry, marrying beautifully with the grooves in Strauss’ modular operatic style.

Peter Rose (La Roche) and Anne Sofie von Otter (Clairon) © Todd Rosenberg
Peter Rose (La Roche) and Anne Sofie von Otter (Clairon)
© Todd Rosenberg

But it was only Fleming who seemed comfortable in the orchestral balance from start to finish, and it was only with her that the voice had enough room to relax above Strauss’ manic and refined textures. Late in the opera, in the calm that settles after a vaudeville of ballet dancers and Italian singers (the appropriately hammy Juan José de León and Emily Birsan), and as the light falls on the gleaming period set, Fleming’s poise pervades the Countess’ closing rumination over love and the nature of art. It’s a concert piece nestled in Capriccio’s narrative bustle, and to hear Fleming sing it is to be reminded of her talents as a communicator in music within and beyond the opera stage.