Richard Strauss’s last fling at opera was premiered in the dark time in 1942 in Munich, when Germany was in distress and was still causing distress elsewhere. It was also a time of distress for many Germans, not least Strauss, at 78 a world figure but in trouble with the Nazis.
All his life he had tried hard to avoid politics but, being so famous, politics would not avoid him. He feared for the safety of his Jewish loved ones. The Nazis used him and his name when it suited them; eventually they dismissed him and his music as altvaterisch (old fashioned); also he had collaborated with Jewish writers.
As often before, Strauss tried to brush unpleasant things aside, so his 1942 Capriccio looks back to a long gone century for a conversation piece about words and music, which comes first? The plot, if you can call it that, posits a beautiful countess who has two suitors, a poet and a composer. The cast also includes a theatre director, an actress, a dancer, two Italian singers, a prompter and some scene shifters. The idea originally came from the (Jewish) author Stefan Zweig who committed suicide the year of the opera’s premiere. The conductor Clemens Krauss wrote the text of Capriccio in conjunction with Strauss himself; Krauss conducted the first performance and was uniquely rewarded with the dedication of the work (catch Verdi or Puccini doing a similar thing!).
The opera has notable highlights: the prelude played by a string sextet (some premonition here of the masterpiece Metamorphosen), the composer’s sonnet, the Italian singers duet (harking back to Rosenkavalier), a gorgeous intermezzo with horn obbligato, before the soprano’s solo final scene composed in Strauss’s typical D flat lush style. There are also two ensembles of complication, tricky to sing and not setting the world on fire. Some critics have called Capriccio the composer’s finest opera, above the claims of Elektra and Rosenkavalier (discuss?)
This latest addition to the repertory of the Grange, rapidly becoming a rival to Glyndebourne, is more that satisfactory if less than memorable. Stephen Barlow conducts it very well and the large cast is fine with Roderick Williams excelling as the Poet, Stewart Cale as the composer and Matthew Best as the Director. Despite accurate singing, skilled Susan Gritton lacks the cream and the charisma that the part requires. She is the wife, as it happens, of the director Stephen Metcalf who does a first-class and imaginative task in a dowdy set by Francis O’Connor. In the non-singing role of the Dancer Bryony Perkins contributes an enchanting droll cameo, eccentric and zany.
Capriccio is a work for connoisseurs of Strauss and it seemed to please many connoshers in the Grange audience (July 2).