23 April 2011: Strauss, Capriccio

Metropolitan Opera in HD Live. The Countess, Renée Fleming. Conductor Andrew Davis.

Renée Fleming has said that Strauss is her favorite composer and that she is first and foremost a Strauss soprano. This last opera of the composer seems like the quintessence of Straussian operatic music and Fleming the quintessential interpreter of it. She seems to have the perfect voice, perfect pitch, perfect placement to sing this kind of music, and the fact that she can make such supremely difficult music flow from her open mouth with such apparent effortlessness makes us think that here, surely, was someone born to perform this kind of thing. Beautiful, though now giving signs of aging, she is also at the perfect time of life to be enacting a character who is seen to be aging but still beautiful and, moreover, desirable enough to draw two eligible suitors to a fantasy chateau where they can vie for her favors — and where the horrors of the world war being waged outside its precincts are of no apparent account; a place where all is genteel, all in exquisite taste, and life is made for love, luxury, and self-satisfaction.

A truly decadent place, then, but one where even decadence has a kind of authentic charm that renders it almost wholesome, especially when under the velvet control of the wise, discreet, and eminently tactful widow Countess Madeleine, supported by her faultless and faceless major-domo, whose principal task, in addition to keeping the general sense of decorum inviolable, is to announce, later in the opera, that supper will be slightly delayed.

This is a composer in perfect control of his medium and his message. The lush, over-the-top expenditure of vocal and musical treasure on seemingly slight, trivial matter somehow raises it from the slight and the trivial to the musically immortal, a perfect meeting of form and matter. And, two hours later, when the chief courtiers, the comical entertainment of ballet and opera, the obviously aging Corneille heroine and the international impresario all have offered their best efforts and wisest observations, and all in vain, and have departed for Paris, he does not close down the opera then and there. Instead of allowing any note of cynicism to raise its inappropriate head, Strauss patiently interjects the ruse of extra time needed to prepare a proper supper, putting his wistful heroine on stage entirely by herself and proceeding to write for her a consummately expressive, twenty-minute-long, semi-mournful, self-exploratory aria that is admittedly self-indulgent and yet fitting, after all, because it is cloaked in the soothing and comforting Germütlichkeit of genuine Viennese civilization, translated to a French chateau but nonetheless authentic Viennese.

Now, it will not do to inspect the sources of this echt comfort too closely, lest we find some insidious connection there with the comforts and ideals of the green-clad, booted warriors so determinedly excluded by the composer from the Countess’s French chateau. It is enough for now to perceive this fabulous, self-consoling comfort brought home to us and epitomized in the person of the Countess, the woman sought above all others, and particularly by the poet and the composer who earlier in the opera have expended such efforts to win her, giving of themselves so fully, so earnestly, and so trivially, and who (we soon realize) are alike destined to disappointment at breakfast the next day.

I began viewing this opera, ensconced in the highest row of a crowded Theatre 15 in the West Springfield multiplex, by not being very sure whether I was going to like it (never having seen or heard it before). I ended up loving it. This was the Renée Fleming of the Strauss Four Last Songs, one of my most treasured recordings, who had been led to the operatic stage in purple glory (the dress was not purple, but the glory was) by a masterful composer for whom all keys were her key, who had been offered the chance to sing a three-hour paean to love, loss, and self-consolation; who had accepted the invitation and stepped forth, dressed in appropriate autumnal garments, ready to earn any accolade that might come her way. It was wonderful, and memorable. She easily won over the Met audience, who were on their feet up to the last occupant of the heavens. Even the undemonstrative Springfield cinema audience, whose average age pushes sixty-nine and who routinely begin gathering lunch remains and donning rain-gear as the credits for the latest Met HD Live performance begin to roll, this time paused and added their hands and voices, if only for a moment or two, to mark the rarity of the occasion.

I wait impatiently for the DVD of this rare occasion to appear in the on-line Met Opera store.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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