Capriccio

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Saturday night’s performance of the rarely heard Capriccio was the best work the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh has done this year, which is saying much, since “SummerFest” has been a series of successes. The size of the audience seemed to be somewhat affected by the stifling weather, Pittsburgh’s apparent and baffling hesitancy over German opera, or both, but the listeners made up in enthusiasm what they lacked slightly in numbers. It was by no means a small gathering, but the two repetitions of Richard Strauss’ last completed opera should not be missed, as the production is in every detail worthy of capacity crowds.

Strauss was nearing 80 when he completed the work, which was a great success when it premiered at Munich during the dismal, war-ravaged year of 1942. The opera house’s destruction by Allied bombers the following year ended plans for additional performances there, but it was received with acclaim in other German cities for as long as theaters remained intact. After Germany collapsed, America showed no interest in the work. The Julliard School of Music performed the piece in 1954, but no opera company staged it until 1958, when Capriccio received its American premiere at The Santa Fe Opera. Another forty years passed before it was first heard at the Metropolitan Opera, and it has been revived there only once since. Saturday night was the first time the opera was staged in Pittsburgh.

The beautiful and charming opera is set in the widowed Countess Madeleine’s château near Paris, sometime in the 1770s, but is given a semi-contemporary staging in this production – an arrangement that has been more the rule than exception since the work came into being. Flamand, a composer, and the poet Olivier listen to a rehearsal of the former’s recent sextet. Both are in love with Madeleine, and argue over the relative merits and values of music and words. Theater director La Roche, bored to tears by it all and sound asleep in a chair, awakes to explain to both men that without impresarios such as himself, their work is nothing but ink on paper. Olivier has written a new play in honor of the Countess’ upcoming birthday, and the men leave for a rehearsal. The Count enters, taunting his sister Madeleine that she is possibly confusing her admiration of Flamand for her love of music, while she retorts that much the same might be said of his preference for words and his infatuation with the actress, Clairon. The Count enjoys “flings,” but the Countess yearns for love and is torn between Flamand and Olivier. Clairon enters, and she and the Count read over the play’s latest scene, which ends in a love sonnet, then exit to join the others at the rehearsal. Olivier returns to tell the Countess that his sonnet is intended her, while Flamand not only sets it to music but sings it as well, to the poet’s dismay. Olivier is called away to trim scenes from his play, and Flamand confesses his love to Madeleine. She asks him to meet her in the library the next morning, when she will give her decision.

Libations are served while two dancers and two Italian opera singers entertain the guests. La Roche’s announced plans for Madeleine’s birthday entertainment, the allegorical Birth of Pallas Athene followed by the more spectacular Fall of Carthage, are met with mockery, but he defends his faith in theatrics, and challenges Flamand and Olivier to create anything that can capture public favor as well as his ideas can. The Countess asks them to collaborate on an opera, and the Count suggests the plot should be the based on the events of that very afternoon, and that the Countess should decide the opera’s conclusion. The Count, Clairon and other guests leave for Paris with the theater company. As moonlight begins to brighten the darkened salon, Madeleine reappears in formal dinner attire (oddly, in the style of the 18th century), and finds that Olivier has left a message that he will visit her at the exact time of her previously arranged library rendezvous with Flamand. Her decision between the two will end the opera. She sings the final pages of the score, perhaps some of the most beautiful music Strauss ever composed, wondering “Can one win without losing?” The Major-Domo announces that dinner is served. Undecided on both the ending of the opera and her choice of suitors, with a bow to a mirror she asks herself: “Is there one that is not trivial?” It becomes apparent that she has made a decision, but this delightful “opera within an opera” comes to end, leaving listeners to use their imaginations.

SummerFest’s Capriccio is also the world premiere of the orchestrally reduced version of the opera. Originally composed for an 83-piece orchestra, for the smaller venue it’s been cut to 21 pieces, with exclusive permission from the Richard Strauss Estate and Boosey and Hawkes, the original publisher. Credit for the orchestration goes to Braden Toan, with editing by Robert Frankenberry, Evan Neely, and Roger Zahab. Performed in the Art Deco Theater of the Twentieth Century Club, the revision certainly sounded like the fully orchestrated version, and conductor Brent McMunn and the instrumentalists are to be congratulated on their performance of the score. The orchestration flows almost continuously, as Strauss wasn’t one to include “breaks” for the audience to applaud set pieces. Tremendous stamina is required on the part of all concerned, but the music filled the theater with seemingly great ease. Another “first” was the directing debut with the company ofGregory Lehane, and his success suggests that his skills will be wisely used again.

Diana McVey sang and acted the role of the Countess Madeleine with a silvery, high soprano of great strength and beauty. She presented a charming stage picture, and acted the part with subtle nuances and a wealth of poise and dignity. As the darker-voiced Clairon (a character based on Claire de la Tude, a famous actress of the mid-1700s), Victoria Fox displayed a rich mezzo-soprano and great comedic flair.

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Christopher Scott, as Olivier, had ample opportunity to display his powerfully resonant baritone voice, which in places has somewhat of a tenor quality and range, and acted the role as well as he sang. As Flamand, the young tenor Benjamin Robinson quickly overcame a slight tenuousness, and his voice warmed and gained in strength and quality as the opera progressed. The pair played well together, and their appearance lent credibility to Madeleine’s dilemma.

Andrew Cummings, as the Count, made the most of the role from both vocal and dramatic standpoints. He, too, seemed to have a well-conceived idea of the role, and added to it a light touch and distinction.Rafael Helbig-Kosta and Julia Fox as the Italian opera singers, were vocal and comic delights, and Jesse Enderle was a fittingly sonorous and impressive Major-Domo. Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman danced quite gracefully and skillfully in the ballet interlude.

One of the opera’s shining moments is a brief comic scene where only the manservants of the château are in evidence, observing that their world is a stage, and wondering if they will be represented in the proposed opera. Dustin Damonte, Patrick Shelton, Angky Budiardjono, Aaron Kaswen, Kamil Ben Hsain Lachiri, Josh Smithand Gabriel DiGennaro lent wonderful voices to the well-choreographed ensemble, and received resounding applause at the close of the evening.

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But it was Jeremy Galyon, as La Roche, who deservedly received the greatest ovation. This young man possesses a deep, resonant voice of quite remarkable quality, and it is coupled perfectly with smoothly innate acting ability. Every tone, every gesture, every facial expression, every twinkle of an eye – brought the character vividly to life and he dominated the scene every time he stepped into view. The cast as a whole is a very strong one, indeed, but the two remaining performances of the opera should not be missed if only to witness the avalanche of talent this young man projects from the stage.

The opera will be repeated on Friday evening, July 31, at 7:30 p.m., and at the 2:00 p.m. matinee on Sunday, August 2. Patronage of this rare treat is highly encouraged. Visit http://otsummerfest.org/ for ticket information, production details, cast information and much more.

Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for two complimentary press tickets.

The production team for Capriccio

Music, Richard Strauss; “Words”, Clemens Krauss; English Translation,Maria Massey; Director, Gregory Lehane; Conductor, Brent McMunn; Scenic Designer, Christine Lee Won; Costume Designer, Eunjin Lee; Lighting Designer, Bob Steineck; Hair and Makeup Designer, Karen J. Gilmer; Stage Manager, Dustin Cañez; Chorus Master, Michaella Calzaretta; Assistant Director, Emily Cuk; Assistant Stage Managers,Rachel Walrath and Alaina Bartkowiak.

Photos by Patti Brahim.

Performance Date: Saturday, July 25, 2015