Wed 15 Oct, 2014
Tags: 4 STARS, Capriccio, Closing Soon!, Lyric Opera, Richard Strauss
By Richard Strauss
Lyric Opera of Chicago
By Lori Dana
Before the music even begins, we know that Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Capriccio is going to be something out of the ordinary. The house lights dim, but do not go dark; creating a warm glow that captures the intimate scene revealed by the rising curtain. A drawing room in a grand manor house, where a string sextet (playing first in the orchestra pit and then, just offstage) plays the composer Flamand’s latest ode to his lady love and patron, Countess Madeleine. Two other houseguests are keeping company with Flamand (tenor William Burden) in the drawing room. Olivier (Norwegian baritone Audun Iversen, in his Lyric Opera debut), a writer, scribbles in his notebook while another gentleman reclines in a chair while snoring loudly. The composer and writer strike up a conversation and in doing so, discover that they are both courting the widowed Countess. This introduces the central debate on which the plot of Capriccio revolves: music or poetry, which will she choose? And in the bigger picture, which craft is the more sublime creative pursuit? The voice of reality and reason splutters awake as the sleeping man, revealed to be a renowned theater impresario, La Roche (Peter Rose), joins the conversation. Theater is the greatest of the arts in his opinion, served by both music and the written word. LaRoche is bemoaning the sorry state of material and talent for his current production when the Countess and her brother, a sometime thespian, enter the drawing room. The bombastic and self-important Count is played and sung with great gusto by baritone (and Strauss specialist) Bo Skovhus. At the confluence of so much blustering male ego, Reneé Fleming’s Countess is an island of cultured calm and self-confidence. One of the finest interpreters of Strauss on the opera scene today, Ms. Fleming not only demonstrates that her maturing vocal range still has mastery of the material, but the music is further enhanced by her deep connection to the character. Superb acting, flawless singing and a completely natural grace on the stage combine to make her performance the dramatic lynchpin that Capriccio demands.
When Fleming sparkles, everyone else on the stage draws energy from the glow. As the members of the house party try to outdo one another to impress the Countess (in one hilarious scene, La Roche has singers and dancers audition for the Countess’ birthday celebration during dinner, and a ballerina puts some saucy moves on the handsome Count) it is decided that Flamand and Olivier will write an opera…about the house party weekend and the creative debate at its center. Enter the production’s second superb soprano, Swedish star Anne Sophie Von Otter as the actress Clairon, who happens to be starring in Olivier’s current play. She agrees to play the lead in the new opera. Appearing on the Lyric stage for the first time since 1990, this popular European diva is a marvelous dramatic foil and delightful vocal contrast to Fleming’s rich, burnished mezzo.
While the story of Capriccio is a fine balance between serious artistic debate and self-deprecating humor, Strauss’ sumptuous, romantic music never lets us forget that at its heart it is a paean to the glory of opera. Lyric’s exceptionally talented cast, skillfully directed by Peter McClintock and strongly supported in the minor roles by several talented members of the Ryan Opera Center; as well as a luscious performance by Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra, make Capriccio more than just a delightful confection. It is a richly layered and thoughtful study on the nature of creativity and a very funny look at the opera.
(“Capriccio,” presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, runs through October 28th at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. 312-827-5600)