Vienna is a nostalgic town, and in few places is the past clung onto more tightly than at the State Opera, where a Tosca created for Renata Tebaldi has been pressed creakingly into service for over 55 years now. To younger or indeed uninitiated opera-goers uninterested in cavernous, crepuscular sets and over-the-top costumes with acres of pointless fabric, it can be a baffling and often yawn-inducing experience to encounter, even in some of the house’s recent stagings, production values that appear stuck in the 1860s.

Renée Fleming (Gräfin), Markus Eiche (Olivier), Michael Schade (Flamand), Bo Skovhus (Graf) © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Renée Fleming (Gräfin), Markus Eiche (Olivier), Michael Schade (Flamand), Bo Skovhus (Graf)
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

An opera about the very basis of opera as an art form, Richard Strauss’ Capriccio tackles these questions which desperately need asking today if opera is to be as engrossing as it was to audiences in the 1860s, rather than some historicist oddity. Despite its popular reputation as a somewhat talky and superficial “conversation piece” about the primacy of words or music in opera, Capriccio contains a philosophically ambitious discussion about, well, pretty much the whole shebang – ranging from the necessity of dramatic impetus and radical stagings to the irreverently stated question of whether tenors exist only to titillate audiences with high Cs.

For answers to these questions one can however only comb the light-hearted text of Capriccio in vain. Whenever a topic of “conversation” gets too serious, Strauss and his librettist Clemens Krauss puncture it with wicked metatheatrical irony, and nowhere more pointedly than when the Countess, vexed with the decision to be made between music and drama, feebly asks of her reflection in the salon mirror “is there an ending which isn’t trivial?” Those are her final words, to which Strauss promptly delivers a thuddingly banal ending when the Major-Domo interrupts her, announcing that “dinner is served”.

All these self-reflexive goings-on are fertile if also precarious territory for the director tasked with staging the piece, but Marco Arturo Marelli plays it safe – in fact, too safe. The only notable comment on the work comes with the culmination of the almighty scrap between poet, composer and theatre director, when all cry “we stand now before the abyss!”, which Marelli comically recasts as the orchestra pit. All this is set against the backdrop of a wonderfully camp and kitschy salon whose mirror decor references the Bohemian crystal glass mentioned in the libretto. Red curtains and screens with words and music occasionally liven up the mise-en-scène and the revolving stage mirrors the way the characters circle entertainingly around the opera’s conundrums. Amidst the ever-rotating set, Marelli has however found little original to do with the characters and their actions are almost entirely forgettable.

There were a few occasions where the orchestra seemed bluntly detached, perhaps due to the variations in the quality of the evening’s singing, but I particularly liked how Staatsoper debutant Christoph Eschenbach spun out Strauss’ languid orchestral phrases, which can seem only loosely connected to the vocal lines and yet make for suspenseful polyphonic effect. Eschenbach also elicited great colour from the orchestra for the various stylistic diversions that range from a gavotte to the classical Italian operatic aria. That said, the attention to detail caused the evening to run to about 20 minutes longer than the usual two hours and a quarter.

For an opera about words and music, Renée Fleming impressed with neither. She has enjoyed a long career as an acclaimed lyric soprano and Straussian to boot, but here her squeezed, wiry and unpleasant tone met negligible phrasing and poor diction of otherwise able German. Bo Skovhus, her stage brother, fared better, and particularly in the comically off-beat recitation of the love sonnet repetitively used to demonstrate the inherent superiority of words (or music). As the Countess’ suitors, Markus Eiche as the poet Olivier and Michael Schade as the musician Flamand gave solid performances with spotless enunciation, though had I been the indecisive Countess, I would have gone for Eiche. For their short appearance, the gondola-borne Italian singers (Íride Martínez and Benjamin Bruns) presented a likeable spoof of Italian operatic style, though Benjamin Bruns’ tenor parody was shaky. A bit more resonance in her low notes would have been good, but Angelika Kirchschlager’s spirited actress Clairon (the Count’s love interest) was the night’s best vocal performance nevertheless. Kurt Rydl held everything on stage together except for his own vibrato, though at this stage in his career, La Roche (a theatre director) is a good part for him. The vocal shortcomings didn’t matter too much and he showed a quick-witted way with the text as well as considerable comedic talent.

The audience reactions to this opera, which famously labels the genre as absurd, were mixed and ranged from subdued giggles to falling soundly asleep. At any rate, they weren’t as enthusiastic as would have been welcome for a performance that was broadcast on Austrian national TV.

***11