Almost as long as people have been scratching their heads over which came first – the chicken or the egg, musicians have been tearing their hair out over a similar conundrum: are words or music the most important component of an opera? Both are integral to the drama, one cannot exist without the other, but the soul-searching over the centuries has been so intense to try and find the answer to this vexed question that it inspired Richard Strauss to compose his final opera, Capriccio, on this very subject.
While Capriccio contains some of his lushest music, coming in at just under two and a half hours without an interval, it would be a lie to say that’s an easy ride, given the conversational nature of the work. It’s a bold undertaking for any company, even those which regularly present Strauss’ more popular works, to stage this work, so for the Teatro Real to programme it given it’s been eight years since one of his operas last appeared here, was a bold and brave move, but one which happily paid off. And in spades.
It’s testament to, and typical of, Intendant Joan Matabosch’s eclectic programming skills – last year Die Soldaten and Only the Sound Remains were presented, while Lear appears next season – that Spanish audiences are being given the opportunity to experience operas on the fringes of the repertory, performed to the highest international standards.
The Teatro Real had certainly pulled out all the stops for this momentous occasion, entrusting the staging to experienced regisseur Christof Loy, the musical proceedings to seasoned Strauss conductor Asher Fisch and assembling a cast which would be hard to better. Loy’s stagings are invariably chic, faultlessly executed, prone to the occasional quirk and presented in modern dress. In Raimund Orfeo Voigt’s single, elegant set and Klaus Brun’s stylish costumes, Loy tells the story intelligently and coherently. His only real diversion is the inclusion of two extra characters which Strauss didn’t envisage – a younger and older version of the Countess Madeleine.
Rather than distract from the drama, these two characters enrich it, adding extra pathos to the recently-widowed Countess’ predicament of which suitor’s hand she should accept, as she reminisces on her life, and looks ahead to what the future may hold. And it should come as no surprise to audiences familiar with his work that the ending is ambiguous – anyone wanting closure may feel short-changed, but in the context of the overall staging, Loy’s decision is vindicated.
We may not have known who won the Countess’ heart in the end, but André Schuen’s ardent, passionate poet (Olivier) contrasted nicely with Norman Reinhardt’s more buttoned-up musician (Flamand), and both sang with ardour as they vied for the Countess’ affections. As the haughty actress Clairon, and Olivier’s former lover, Theresa Kronthaler brought great presence to the role, using her richly-coloured mezzo-soprano voice to telling effect, wickedly teasing the poet as she makes overtures for the Count, ably sung by Josef Wagner. Christof Fischesser, as the theatre impresario La Roche, delivered a powerhouse performance – his paean to art, music and literature a glorious outpouring of impassioned singing that echoed Hans Sachs’ praise of German art in Die Meistersinger. There were wonderful cameos from Leonor Bonilla and Juan Jose de Leon as the Italian singers, John Graham-Hall as the dotty prompter, Monsieur Taupe, and the octet of servants could not be bettered.
Where the company really struck gold was the casting of the glorious Swedish soprano Malin Byström as the Countess. The entire opera revolves around her, and she is barely out of the spotlight for its duration, so you need a soprano who is not only capable of spinning Strauss’ glorious melodic lines to perfection but has the stamina to carry the dramatic weight of the entire opera on her shoulders. Byström met all these exacting demands head on, delivering a performance that was dramatically alert – she is a wonderful actress – and musically exemplary. Thrilling and seductive by turns, she embodied the role to perfection, cementing her position not only as one of today’s most exciting singing-actresses, but a Straussian soprano with few peers.
In the pit the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid played as if they had Strauss’ music coursing through their veins, which in fact they don’t. Under Asher Fisch’s inspired baton you would never have guessed they last performed a Strauss opera, Elektra, in 2011, as they sounded totally at home with his musical style. A resounding success, then, for the Teatro Real, and how lucky the Madrileños are to have such an ambitious opera company in their city.