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Renee Fleming as the Countess bowing before the audience after the opera was over: we see a wide portion of the whole set from on high

Dear friends and readers,

Before too much time goes by, I want to praise and recommend going to see the Met’s production of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. The Admiral, Izzy & I saw it in HD movie form this past Saturday, and I had this feeling of being transported quietly, of feeling touched in a tranformative distanced way that made me feel life could be so valuable if people would only live it according to its true pleasures — poetry, song, kind and/or courteous manners, good food, self-respecting dress.

The opera (as people who mention it usually quickly remark) was written during World War Two and is written as a kind of antidote to the horrors and terrors and cruelties of that conflagration, not so much to shut it out or pretend it’s not happening, but to carve a place, an interlude of refuge to remember and return to in our minds or memories. I never realized it’s set in 1770s. An overt allusion shapes it: Talleyrand said of the time before the French revolution, “Only those who lived before the revolution knew how sweet life could be.” He meant of course rich people which then and now means the privileged and lucky. In this opera we are asked to forget that such wealth and leisure and lack of insecurity was dependent on keeping a huge proportion of the population in servitude cheaply (and this cruel kind of arrangement is one the Republican reactionary party of the US is trying to return the US to), and I surmise one reason the opera is often not done in 1770s costume but in a generalized early 20th century one (say 1920s) is to make the viewer forget this immediate context and somehow abstract the experience into an ideal realm where no one is hurt from what we see.

I’d say its key is that it was made so intensely pleasurable I just didn’t want it to stop — and I felt the audience about me felt the same. When at the close, the production design and director teased the audience by step-by-step ending it, each time putting out more lights in the room, and then not yet ending it, one could feel the audience hold its breath, and hear laughter as each time we did not yet end. The opera began to “click” as this mood of rich quiet gratifications around the time the ballet pair came in, and we had the comedy of the thwarted absurdities of the classic ballerina. Then we had vexed quarreling between the poet (Olivier sung by Russell Braun) and composer (Flamand sung by Joseph Kaiser) over whose art was more important (and which man therefore more worthy the countess), which brought in the impresario (La Roche sung by Peter Rose) to sing the second best and longest aria of the opera, a justification of theater itself.


We see the principals circled round La Roche

The quarrel was a kind of pastoral version of Net debates I’ve experienced. You could call the opera an 18th century conversation piece (a favorite kind of genre painting of the era).

Fleming’s last aria was the crown of the piece — what was so unusual was the mood was cheerful, an upbeat genial hopeful melancholy (!). The role at the close is a reprise of her countess on Der Rosencavalier made political — the gossamer quality of her dress may be called symbolic.


Fleming in the shimmering silver dress that seemed to float on air: her rich typology made the opera even woman-centered — we have no less than 4 (countess, count’s sister, ballerina, diva)

This cheer was central to the opera too — it was filled with visual jokes. When the hired ballerina and her male danced came into the room to dance for the assembled group, the ballerina was thwarted in comical ways and we watched her from the perspective of the people in the room: Clairon (Sarah Connolly), the sister of the count (Morton Frank Larson) looked especially taken aback at the wild configurations of the ballerina’s legs as they neared Clairon’s body space. After the two Italian singers burlesqued their behavior while singing exquisitely, they sat down to eat cake and drink wine provided by the countess. The diva’s eating mounds of cake was made funny — such a human and natural failing, so sensual and sticky. When these privileged people left (for Paris — apparently they are in a country house), the male servants came in and comically discuss what we’ve just heard debated, with self-reflexive ironies like, What next, they’ll put servants in operas? Then the prompter came on in visibly frazzled dress and state, claiming to be the invisible spirit of it all, the genius loci hidden away under the floor, enabling everyone else to carry on. It made me smile.

On facebook where I put a brief message about the opera, a friend commented

Wasn’t it great! I went by myself (husband is grading papers) and the woman next to me, who was very chatty before the start, fell asleep and was snoring a tiny bit. This didn’t really bother me. I thought the whole thing was the most delightful confection. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by the whole thing.

I agreed:

The story went sort of slow and not much happened. I think a man on the other side of Isobel slept for a bit. It’s not just because I’m so into Austen that I thought of Austen’s Emma. Emma may be said to be Austen’s attempt to write a story about people were nothing much happens, a more rigorous form of realism. Well, the comparisons of usual opera as outlined by La Roche with their impossible unreal gods and goddesses, continual miraculous doings, heroic and tragic deeds, all well beyond the norms of verisimilitude with what we were watching make the same point as Austen’s: here are the real emotions these extravaganzas Write Large and lose sight of partly. The Emma project thus becomes an antidote to the war at the time, a spot of “civilization” (narrowly defined in upper class European terms) before any of the world’s most famous recent revolutions (French, Russian) occurred.

This evocation of a Canaletto in ruins found on one Met site suggests the Met was indeed referring to the revolution with the theme I suggest:

She (my friend) compared it to a Moliere comedy, The Misanthrope, and also the film The Red Shoes about a ballerina torn between love and ballet:

I thought of a Moliere comedy, because Madeleine with her suitors reminded me of Celimene in Misanthrope. And the brother-sister pair, too. But in Moliere the suitors would have been poor artists–here they were good (though vain and not very good husband material), and she really has an opportunity. I also kept thinking about the movie The Red Shoes, in which a woman is caught between two men, one of whom believes ballet is the highest art and the other that music (especially his own music) is the most important art. Apparently the director of Red Shoes wanted to direct a movie of Strauss’s life a few years after Strauss died, so maybe they were influenced by the opera, though in their work something does happen.

I objected but also agreed and generalized out to the theme as often presented in the 18th century:

I probably wouldn’t think of Moliere because I see him as so anti-feminist, savage satire against bluestockings (bad-mouthing word but appropriate here to Moliere’s plays). Strauss’s opera celebrates the countess and is fond of the other three women: Clairon, the ballerina, and the Italian opera singer. But I see your point. In the 18th century the emblem of Hercules between Vice and Virtue (comedy and tragedy in a Reynolds painting of Garrick):


Reynolds, Garrick between Tragedy (Virtue) and Comedy (Vice)

was a frequent underlying archetype; it probably goes back to the Renaissance. I think there is something like this in Sidney’s Arcadia, certainly Spenser’s Faerie Queene — Una v Duessa. I wished I could remember Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia play (also about the arts) more.

She conceded the anti-feminism of Moliere’s perspective:

Of course, you are right; poor Celimene never had a chance.

I don’t know why people who write of this opera persist in calling it a curiosity or feeling uncomfortable about it, since most operas are implicitly deeply conservative in their presentation of numinous and upper class figures, traditional myths, and irrational feelings as what must rule the world. It’s just honester, done with startling clarity and self-awareness and the intelligence that shines through is another part of its comfort. It can make a viewer hopeful that the world could be better since such moments and experiences can and (for a couple of hours on stage) have been.


Maestro now taking final bows with prompter, dancers, male servants seen too

Small pleasures for the 18th century lover were all the references to 18th century theater and art: the best and radical operas are Gluck’s (this is pre-Mozart with his revolutionary Marrriage of Figaro and Masonic Magic Flute), the reference to the group putting on a Voltaire play (Tancred).

Ellen

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The closest our ladies, Bichette and Quinquin (nicknames for one another in libretto) get

Dear Friends and readers,

Yesterday the Admiral (aka Jim), Izzy and I spent 5 wonderful hours listening to and watching the HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosencavalier and I feel compelled to make a few comments on it.

It was a deeply moving experience by the end. The Marshallin’s long aria at the end of the first act was deepened for me by knowing the words for the first time. I found myself remembering how Strauss wrote four of the most beautiful works in music: the four last songs. And the ending where the young couple actually gets this precious thing, a life they might enjoy together, and to experience youthful sex as two loving people, was uplifting — especially as undercut by the sublimity of the Marshallin’s letting go.

For me the truest theme of the opera is the tragedy of letting go (of whoever or whatever love or condtion someone has offered you when they no longer want to either offer it for real or pretend to). It is a tragedy but if you do not let go, you are in for far worse punishment. And that as an actress Renee Fleming (soprano) did to a T. She sang the songs beautifully but it was the meaning she endowed them with at a the same time that made me have to sit there holding tears in lest I really begin to cry. I saw the Admiral (Jim) on one side of me in this state of tears, so too Isabel on the other side — and other people in the audience too. There was clapping in the moviehouse for these and also Kristin Sigmundsson (base baritone) as Baron Ochs, who has a subtle and powerful aria (with a very low note at its close) at the close of the second opera. As I recall he’s saying, why shouldn’t he take what he can get (sex) when he can get it. This is a counterpoint to the Marshallin’s letting go — he has to be tricked out of taking what young people his money will buy him. So too in the third act the song-dialogue of Octavian, our Rose Cavalier, is a mocking parody of the sentiments about time and loss that are expressed in the Marshallin’s first opera.

I do have a small quarrel with the production. No director is listed so I assume the director is Nathaniel Merrill who is credited with “production” and Robert O’Hearn too as “set and costume designer.” It relates to the depiction of Octavian by Susan Graham (mezzo soprano, a part that harks back to Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro). She was beautiful as the young man falling in love at first sight in the beginning of Act 2 (handing the rose over) and again at the end, the young man allowed to choose to the young woman. But her part lacked depth and resonance and was bland. Why? This is the third production I’ve seen and all are so embarrassed about the sex so they present the opening scene between the two women in bed so innocently a third grader could watch. And blandly. Similarly when Ochs first lays eyes on Octavian dressed in women’s clothes and we are told in the words he is stunned by her beauty and wants to go to bed with her. Octavian is not allowed to make any sense as a character because of this insistent emasculation (I’ll call it for lack of a less gender-specific word).

The countess’s aria at the end of the first act makes sense (has a motivation) only if in the opening bedroom scene Octavian is weary of her. Her words (for the first time I could read them) are that he’s too clinging, and she’s suspicious. The woman acting this part should make it clear he’s partly pretending. Marie-Therese (the Marshallin’s name) is supposed to be an older woman going to bed with Octavian, an intensely handsome young man, and it’s made kinky because it’s a woman doing the part (so our attention is called to lesbian love-making as well as a lack of penis). We are supposed to be made aware of her as an older woman hankering after young flesh, and thus a parallel to Ochs.


Octavian is merely puzzled

If Graham had acted with real human emotion here, such as a little boredom and how he does this since she’s so rich and powerful and still beautiful for an older woman, the ending song makes sense. Also there should be some insistence on her beauty. I realize Susan Graham is not Rufus Sewell, but the text calls for her to be reacted to as if she had this kind of feminine masculine beauty. She’s supposed to be a stud, and (as they say) drop dead beautiful, equally so when dressed as a woman.

In the third act too, this same blandness plays a role of making the scene at the tavern where Ochs chases Octavian dressed as a woman have much less bite. The biter bit is the idea. I’m not saying the opera is dark; I am saying it’s about sex and is truthful and therefore has a real bite or sting.

The one performance that didn’t work at all was Sophie, done by Christine Schafer. She is supposed to be a classic real instance of the way young women were treated in the ancien regime; sold off to a rich old man. It was typical too to repress this girl in a convent. The story is told darkly in LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it was common place in the Renaissance. Lots of women were sold off this way; I’ve come across it repeatedly

(Not totally a disgression: this paradigm carries on today: in our male hegemonic society’s it’s commmon and far from frown upon, actually a social cachay for an older man to leave his older wife and marry a young woman. Its reverse the older woman with the young man she buys and who is attracted to her as long as she’s not too old, seen in LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is frowned upon, and when the disparity in age is great, made a joke to ridicule the much younger man. This contrasts to what happens in politics where among powerful men like McCain, Gingrich, Dole, marrying a hugely-younger rich woman and dumping your aging sick wife is just fine.)

Now Sophie looked upset at the Baron and even disgusted, but she did not look intensely relieved at Octavian; she did not look at Graham as if Graham was (say) Colin Firth in P&P. The production was shy and thus the monstrous quality of the hard humor of Baron Ochs was lost. But I wondered if it was more than Schafer can or did not imagine sufficiently what how young girl brought up in an amoral and hypocritical environment would act. Here is a typical moment:

The title Strauss wanted to give this work was Baron Ochs, and Ochs is in all the acts; it is he who instigates the action. To his credit Sigmundsson did not do the part totally as a joke. He was willing to undergo the stigma the opera imposed on him, and I thought was applauded (even if not consciously) for his courage.

Fleming’s was paradoxically the most socially acceptable and she was brilliant at it; so too Ochs when on his own and not having to toy with women as women or women as young men. So we we are willing to watch older people being denied sex, either as a joke or serious loss. But not willing to watch the sexual appetite enacted for real in all its variety — and the production is clearly of for multi-orientation. Strauss was clearly centrally concerned with love and death — the Marshallin’s lines are about death. His Capriccio is set in the 18th century Ariadne auf Naxos the later 17th; it is typical of modern composers and film makers to turn back to the 18th century to delve sexual issues as their novels famously did; this was a franker age. Salome (the Bible by way of Oscar Wilde) shows his interest in death, insane jealousy in human existence.

I’ve had to go on a little at length in order to express my ideas so it seems that the critique is stronger than my praise. The production was very entertaining and some of the adult ideas that are central to the opera came across. For example, the price the Marshallin has had to pay and her reward. She partly identifies with Sophie, for she too was brought up (we are told) in a convent, and we assume married off quickly to the Field Marshall who she hardly ever sees — and shows no desire to see. There are no children mentioned. She has paid the price of not having a relationship such as she’s bestowed on Octavian and Sophie — well, the possibility of one. Her reward is great wealth, power, luxury, and the production lays this on thick. Fleming was interviewed twice, and the second time before the third act. She was in the dress from the first act, not the one from the third, which while sumptuous looked very uncomfortable. Her gloves were very tight over her skin. The last moment of the opera has her little black boy servant running into the tavern to pick up an exquisite white handkerchief she left behind. Presumably had she not obeyed her parents, she would not now have the compensation of the intense respect, awe, and courtesy with which everyone treats her. Perhaps a modern opera audience might understand this one from their own experience, not be offended by it, and it was there.

They were certainly up to the broad comedy of betrayal. One of the snitching easily-paid-off telltale servants of Ochs (a young man Jim and I saw at Wolf Trap this summer) had a salacious look on his face of mischief as well as a betraying one which I think drew attention to him — his stylized gestures were right too. When I say this I’m showing the singers are on their own really to act the roles.

Of course the production is 40 years old! 40 years ago was before Stonewall. Before a sea-change in attitudes towards sexuality, though one which clearly has not reached the secular ecumenicalness of Kinsey (and that’s 1950). The embarrassment at the material is touched upon in the intermission. Placido Domingo (our host) joked before the opera began and we saw Fleming and Graham laying in bed together before the curtain went up, “don’t they look happy [friendly?] in bed together?” and quickly changed the subject. Fleming touched upon the matter when she said she and Graham had been playing the parts together for decade and at one point they used to “kid” that they were the only two people who either of them “kissed.” Giggles and then change the subject.

It’s not that what’s wanted is an opera in drag or camp or Broadway-uped or anything like that. It should in fact stay set in the 18th century with the traditional lovely rooms and plain tavern.


The four principles in the closing scene at the tavern

The real problem here is one I see again and again in the Met operas I’ve seen. We’ve gone to six since last May and as produced operas they’ve been disappointing (I felt particularly dismayed at The Tales of Hoffman since we walked through a blizzard to see it — the Broadway director had the flimiest of conceptions and simply through the kitchen sink at it together with lots of semi-naked girls on stage).. They are most of the time not plays where the thought and meaning is expressed through music; most of the time they are musical concerts with people in costume. There are opera writers with librettists where an individual work drives the production to be a play: say Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. But most of the time perhaps the origin or nexus of opera in court masques controls what is presented by the writers and it’s put to modern performers and directors to make the thing into a play — for at its best that is what it is.

Joseph Kernan in his now classical (and in a fiftieth reprinting) Opera as Drama is right. Opera should be done as drama — the way for example, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion are done. And it does matter. As you are listening to the beautiful music, you would be more moved if it related directly to your inner life too. For me this production did do that with the Marshallin, but the opera could do far more. I’m for traditional staging and don’t think the opera needs to be restaged or put into another era. Strauss chose the 18th century because (as one sees in film adaptation) the 18th century is seen as a fictional terrain for exploring sexuality (its novels were open about sex and delved sex for the first time, as in Clarissa, La Nouvelle Heloise, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and many other novels).

Opera (and here the Met) needs to address the audience as thinking adults. As usually done (and I’ve now seen 6 of these type productions), only the most overt conservative aspects of opera (the materalism, the luxury, and old story lines, often misogynistic) come out. I know the Met could do better; much less well-heeled opera companies with much less gifted people (the Met pays big) do it. I read an article about the English Sadler’s Wells company the other day which argued they have tried; Glimmerglass has produced operas in this way; Castleton this past summer did in Britten’s Rape of Lucrece, though not so much in Britten’s Beggar’s Opera. Jonathan Miller regularly does such productions of operas.
Ellen

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