Miah Persson (Countess), Sam Furness (Flamand) in background © Johan Persson
Miah Persson (Countess), Sam Furness (Flamand) in background
© Johan Persson

If any of the gathering of Stanford students invited to Garsington came from their university’s celebrated Computer Science Department, they will have recognised Richard StraussCapriccio as a recursive meta-opera – an opera about people creating an opera about themselves creating… That implies two things: firstly, that Capriccio is an idiosyncratic beast, and secondly, it’s decidedly a piece for opera lovers, packed with gags about the genre’s old chestnuts – the orchestra playing too loud for the singers, the impossibility of deciphering the words (which doesn’t matter because they’re not very good anyway), the tuneful death of the soprano, the difficulty of creating a non-trite ending, and so on.

The central question that Strauss explores is that of which should take precedence: words or music. This gets wrapped into the gentlest of love triangles, with Flamand the composer and Olivier the poet vying for the affections of the Countess, who is ultimately unable to decide between them (fittingly so for such an eternal question). The debate is conducted with live examples: the opera opens with Flamand’s famous sextet; we first hear Olivier’s sonnet recited without music; we then hear the same sonnet set to Flamand's music, which is of course thoroughly superior to both (much to Olivier’s discomfiture). There are digs at the old guard wanting to stick to the classics and bel canto (naughtily, Strauss provides some very bad bel canto to set against his superior “proper” music).

Gavan Ring (Olivier), Sam Furness (Flamand) © Johan Persson
Gavan Ring (Olivier), Sam Furness (Flamand)
© Johan Persson

It’s erudite, pleasant banter conducted with great gentility: there are no explosions of passion and the most you can say is that the arguments get a bit heated at times. So director Tim Albery and Garsington’s music director Douglas Boyd treat the piece as a charming divertissement. Tobias Hoheisel’s designs are reasonably timeless: a baroque sitting room flanked by minimalist modern furniture, vaguely 1940s costumes (Capriccio was first performed in 1942) including a stunning red dress for the Countess. Albery manages the stage movement well, so there’s always plenty happening to keep our interest without distracting from whoever is taking the lead, Boyd conjures some lovely Straussian sounds from the orchestra and keeps them nicely under control, only turning up the volume at the point where theatre director La Roche is complaining that the music always drowns out the words, one of many self-referential gags where the on-stage debate is being mirrored by the music or stage effects being used.

William Dazeley (Count), Miah Persson (Countess) © Johan Persson
William Dazeley (Count), Miah Persson (Countess)
© Johan Persson

Capriccio is an ensemble piece, with the Countess being  the one role that stands out from the pack. Miah Persson was always elegant and watchable, with good Straussian lilt and expression and excellent diction: if her voice hardened somewhat towards the end of the evening, that can be put down to her only just recovering from illness and we can hope that will improve through the run. Sam Furness was a clear-voiced, earnest and engaging Flamand, Gavan Ring and Andrew Shore gave us the opposite ends of the baritone weight of voice as Olivier and La Roche: Ring sounding of clean steel, Shore considerably heftier (La Roche is labelled a bass role). William Dazeley veered suitably between urbane irony and the nearest we get to serious passion as he falls in lust with Hanna Hipp’s strongly sung Clairon.

Acting performances are good all round, and when all the arguments have been aired about who is the most important person in the theatre, the show is stolen by Graham Clark as the mole-like Monsieur Taupe, the person who is *really* the most important: the prompter, without whom nothing would begin. Another show-stealing comic relief episode – when the servants get together to mock the idea of an opera which includes servants – is delivered with panache.

The Capriccio Sextet © Johan Persson
The Capriccio Sextet
© Johan Persson

You can’t watch Capriccio, however, without musing about its creation. The opera's genesis was an idea debated in happier times, a decade earlier, between Strauss and the great writer Stefan Zweig. By the time of the première in October 1942, Zweig was dead, having committed suicide eight months earlier in exile in Brazil, despairing of the future of Europe and its culture. Strauss had found an accommodation with the Nazi regime while steadily coming to realise that it stood against everything about high culture that had mattered to him. Was Capriccio an affirmation of the importance of cultural values in the face of the abyss? Or was it fiddling while Europe burnt, callously and wilfully disregarding the horrors? Or, is it, as named, a mere caprice, timeless light entertainment for a summer’s evening?

Strauss being Strauss, the last word goes to an exquisite few bars from the horns to close the opera. Perhaps, like the Countess, it’s best if we don’t decide...